Pandora: First Contact Review
8.2our score

As this is my first real foray into the world of reviewing 4X-turn-based strategy games, I invited my fellow editor, Evil Tactician (hereby referred to as Evil), to assist me in covering the essentials as well as provide an opinion from the perspective of a seasoned turn-based strategy gamer.

The Setup

After decades of industrial expansion and political jousting, humans have finally lost interest in Earth. Civil Service AIs have superseded conventional governments as people head to the stars, towards a new planet and a fresh start. Perhaps the years of war have made us jaded, disinterested in maintaining the tainted history of Earth. Even with a filtered atmosphere and rapidly evolving artificial alternatives to replace vanishing species, the prospect of mass migration sounds more appealing than staying home.

So here we find ourselves on the promised paradise that is Pandora, a land filled with resources to exploit and aliens to study. You represent one of the six largest factions that played a role in moving humanity into deep space. I took the reins of the Terra Salvum, a group that began as a grass-roots movement focused on de-industrialization, and set out to establish a stronghold from which I could launch my organization into the ranks of the other superpowers.

Into the Fray

Each faction has their own strengths and weaknesses; as the Terra Salvum, I had the benefit of gaining extra minerals from forests with a starting modifier of -50% alien aggression – a boon that I discovered at the expense of Evil who played as the Togra University. But long before either of us had to deal with the AI, be it the aliens or the other computer-controlled factions, I had to decide what to do with the land I claimed.

The Terrain

Like your standard turn-based 4X, the map is divided into hexes, each of varying terrain from arctic wastelands to tropical forests. Special tiles litter the landscape that can either give extra base resources or a powerful +50% modifier to a city’s total credits (currency), production, or research output. Finding these tiles will boost the growth of your empire, sometimes with tremendous results, and will allow you pull ahead of the others. For this reason, exploration is essential as you’ll want to claim as many of these permanent bonuses for yourself.

Though I found the +50% modifier a staggering advantage since it applies immediately once your city’s borders encompass the tile, they are frequent on the map and most players will spawn within a couple hexes from at least one of these special tiles. Their late game potential is enormous, and as such become hotspots of contention.

Exploration is essential as you’ll want to claim as many permanent bonuses for yourself.

After I built my first aircraft, I took to exploring the island just south of my own. I found an observatory – the special tile that grants +50% research. My strategy was to build cities with large populations to take advantage of my other faction strength, +25% habitat, a stat that determines how many people can live in one area before incurring overpopulation penalties. Since we were dealing with percentage modifiers, I knew the bonuses I gained would compound over time. The more people I had devoted to producing research in a city attached to an observatory, the greater the overall bonus research output.

Finding the Other Factions

I snapped at the opportunity. But before I could mobilize my colonizer and its military escort, a war declaration appeared across my screen – the Divine Ascension wanted blood. Until then, I had not even encountered any units from this faction, let alone done anything to provoke them. It was at this point that my neighbours, the Solar Dynasty, decided to remind me I was still at war with them, too. I had forgotten our unfortunate confrontation in the early years of settling – one of my trooper units wandered too close to the Dynasty’s capital and unintentionally blocked the settlement of their second city.

I looked away for one second and this guy plants a city in a spot where its borders literally prevent me from moving my unit.

I looked away for one second and this guy plants a city in a spot where its borders literally prevent me from moving my unit.

From their perspective, I guess they assumed I was mounting an assault on them, or at the very least impeding their expansion. This is what happens when we shoot first and ask questions later.

I joke about it now, but at the time it occurred, I was frustrated by the lack of warning. The game does not tell you why certain factions feel the way they do towards you; the Diplomacy screen only shows your status with others on a scale between “Friendly” and “Furious.” You’re left to guess the reasons for aggression as you scramble to fortify your cities.

The lack of information given to players regarding inter-faction relations is a hit and miss, and in my case, a love/hate affair.

As the turns rolled on, my frustration slowly morphed into a strange sense of satisfaction. I began inventing reasons for why I was being attacked on two fronts, imagining the propaganda that must have been spread to convince people to raise their arms against someone who, until the wars started, had no substantial standing army. I became convinced that corporate greed drove these factions to attack me, no doubt believing that the peace-loving, alien-sympathizers would be an easy target.

What they didn’t know was that I sat on a reserve of hundreds of minerals and thousands of credits. I bought an entire wing of fighters and showed them that this tree-hugger has teeth.

The lack of information given to players regarding inter-faction relations will be a point of interest for players. It’s a hit and miss, and in my case, a love/hate affair. The same can be said for the native species that appear almost fickle in their decision to attack you or not. As I heard from Evil – he was left dealing with alien raids while I handled threats from humans – alien aggression is notified by a small icon and can come from seemingly nowhere.

Aliens!

We asked Rok Breulj from Proxy Studios to respond to the concern Evil had about the warning notification being too late as attacks occurred the turn directly after “alien aggression imminent” was announced. He assures us that this is actually a bug, and the warning is meant to give players enough time to rally their forces. Adding to this, improvements to the report system are noted, and we may see a tip in the future explaining what seems to agitate the natives (usually this involves attacking them directly, or building too much, too close to them).

Not showing which aliens are aggressive is intentional to create tension. Moving around an Aspidoch [a ginormous fish] makes it exciting, cause you never know if he’ll devour you or not.
Rok Breulj Proxy Studios
This is said ginormous fish, the Aspidoch. Please observe its relative size compared to my fighters.

This is said ginormous fish, the Aspidoch. Please observe its relative size compared to my fighters.

Make no mistake, the aliens early in the game are tough, and if you upset them they can erase an undefended city in one turn. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, my faction starts with a -50% modifier to alien aggression. This is huge. It’s an understated bonus, and it definitely becomes obsolete the later you are in the game (more on this later), but for those looking to build up an economy slowly, keeping peace with aliens means you don’t have to invest in early military units and can thus focus on building city improvements.

Alien aggression is a bit more sophisticated than just instant attack or not at all. They attack in waves and consider aspects such as how far away their bases are. But if the report comes and you venture close enough you can be sure they’ll bite at you.
Rok Breulj Proxy Studios

As my war with the Solar Dynasty and Divine Ascension dragged on, I opted to hold off on expansion (I was only sitting on two cities at the time) and reforest the areas around my capital while defending it from invasions. At first, my intention was to bring the pollution output of my cities to well below zero, keeping the morale of my people high and the alien aggression low. What I realised later was that forests make a great natural barrier as land units take twice as long to travel through them. My fighters could rain death on invaders while they slogged their way to my cities.

Eventually, the war at home stopped. I cleaned up the mess, and the forests prospered as if nothing ever happened.

Eventually, the war at home stopped. I cleaned up the mess, and the forests prospered as if nothing ever happened.

Managing Your Resources and Your Cities

Since your resources are globally pooled, once you have expanded with multiple cities, you can start specializing your people to do specific jobs depending on where they’re stationed. One city can exclusively produce food while another churns out minerals. My capital, Volterra, was set to agriculture while its sister, Raizel, focused on generating money and research. It was a bit odd micromanaging people at first, but once you find that balance of resources, you’ll reap the benefits of optimization.

People can be allocated to specialities from this screen. The "no" symbol represents tiles that belong to another city.

People can be allocated to specialities from this screen. The “no” symbol represents tiles that belong to another city.

Managing your individual cities is both easy and satisfying. Apart from getting to pick what area your people focus on – farmers for food, miners for minerals, workers for production and money, and scientists for research – you can also choose where your borders expand to on city growth. This opens up wonderful tactical opportunities as you can race to connect tiles and deny resources to your neighbouring rivals.

Speaking of denying resources, once things had settled down near Volterra, I turned my attention back to acquiring that observatory on the other island. When my colonizer reached land and planted a city on the coast, I found out, to my greatest frustration, that the Divine Ascension had grabbed the nearby land and observatory from under my nose.

There are wonderful tactical opportunities as you can race to connect tiles and deny resources to your neighbouring rivals.

Now I understood why they went to war with me. They somehow found out my plans for establishing a third base on their island and used the fighting at my capital to distract me while they rallied forces to claim land for themselves. Cunning bastards.

Shikharji must have passed ownership between the Divine Ascension and the Imperium half a dozen times over the course of thirty-or-so years.

Shikharji must have passed ownership between the Divine Ascension and the Imperium half a dozen times over the course of thirty-or-so years.

The Pursuit of Science

I decided moping was entirely unproductive and set about concentrating my efforts on researching more technology and outfitting my units with the latest military gear. While Evil dealt with his own wars – at this point he went on a crusade, wiping out my old aggressors, the Solar Dynasty, as they made the mistake of attempting to invade him – I spent most of my time in the research tree, planning on what to rush for maximum advantage over my rivals.

This is actually one of my favourite parts of the game. The research tree is broken into eras, and within each era are tiers of technology. What makes it interesting beyond the technologies themselves – you can get pretty cool things later such as Black Hole Generators – is that it’s randomized. There are rules that dictate where certain technologies can appear: tech is bound to eras, and pre-requisites ensure you don’t get 3rd level upgrades before 2nd.

You can’t predict 100% what the next items in the research tree are. This is awesome.

They call it a controlled singularity. It's a non-radioactive alternative to nuclear bombs. Sounds good. Right?

They call it a controlled singularity. It’s a non-radioactive alternative to nuclear bombs. Sounds good. Right?

In the lobby before the game starts, you can also choose how many tiers of research you can see ahead of what you’ve already discovered. Given that you can’t predict 100% what the next items in the research tree are, setting the system to display only one or two tiers ahead makes discovering those critical upgrades more a game of luck – just like what tends to happen in real research. It’s fantastic.

Refitting Your Army

Once you have your new technology, you can head to the Workshop to customize your units. Every unit starts as a base skeleton on which you can add weapons, armour, and special devices. The overall strength of your unit is displayed as a number underneath its name and, while a good indicator of its potential, can be deceptive at times. There are modifiers that increase a unit’s effectiveness against vehicles, for example, that could make a unit win versus someone else who may have a greater strength value.

One of my earlier fighter models. The Tandem Gale was responsible for successfully defending my cities against a two-front attack.

One of my earlier fighter models. The Tandem Gale was responsible for successfully defending my cities against a two-front attack.

Blood for the Blood God!

The combat itself has some quirks to it. While you can stack units on top of each other, these units operate independently. When attacked, only one of the stacked units will take damage. Similarly, when attacking, only one unit attacks at a time. I assume this was to encourage people to research better military technology and upgrade units instead of mass-producing cheap forces and calling that an army. It is a little strange though since you expect to coordinate everything on one cell all at once.

More annoying, however, is being unable to choose which unit on a stack takes incoming fire. When an enemy attacks, a random unit is damaged, reducing its strength if not outright killing it. I find the tactical options greatly diminished due to this, as I can’t do things like hide my snipers behind a line of assault troopers.

Stacked units combine their power values to give an overall total. Hovering over them tells you the breakdown - a far more useful representation of strength.

Stacked units combine their power values to give an overall total. Hovering over them tells you the breakdown – a far more useful representation of strength.

Controls and the UI

The game does a good job of showing you where your bonuses are coming from, as well as alert you about your chance of victory before you commit your units to a firefight. What it lacks, however, are bits of information in the UI and tooltips that can cost a player precious turns and resources. The range of a unit, for instance, is not displayed anywhere, leaving the player to guess upon first engagement.

Information shown here is relative to your faction's strength.

Information shown here is relative to your faction’s strength.

Navigation and readability on some of the windows, particularly the Diplomacy tab and the individual dialogue pages of the other factions, is difficult due to the plethora of writing that is shown at once. Finding the information you need sometimes takes a while; the white on black is great for atmosphere, but less so for digesting blocks of text. Many months ago, I remember the game used coloured dots to rank a faction’s relative strengths in categories such as military and economy. I wish they would have kept that as the symbols were easier to parse at a glance.

Finding the information you need sometimes takes a while since many tabs are filled with large blocks of text.

In terms of usability, most of your standard actions are bound to hotkeys that can be learned by hovering over their icons. Well, that is, except for one I missed more than anything else – the option to see how far a unit can move before applying the action! I can’t count the number of times I have accidentally placed my unit in a terrible position because I misjudged the number of hexes it could travel.

Other controls that don’t have icons associated with them are missing instructions. If I didn’t have prior basic knowledge of turn-based 4X UIs, I would not have known you need to hold down ctrl to select multiple units, or hold shift to queue items in the research tree. The game has a “Compendium” that serves as an encyclopedia of sorts, keeping track of all the information you acquire as you progress. Perhaps in here we could also see keyboard commands, or other instructions on how to control the UI.

It’s Just Good Business – The Art of Diplomacy

Nevertheless, I pressed onward in my goal of supplanting my rivals as the true powerhouse on Pandora. After thirty years of watching the Divine Ascension and the Imperium fight over this small strip of land for the observatory built there, the Togra University publically declared the previously hidden alliance between them and us. Evil rescinded all his non-aggression pacts and went straight for Shikharji. I was hoping the Divine Ascension would maintain authority over the tiny city, if only so I wouldn’t have to declare war on the Imperium.

Of course, nothing ever happens the way you plan it. The Imperium snuck in soldiers while the rest of us were occupied, taking the window of opportunity made by Evil’s ground forces to claim Shikharji. I was briefly saddened, but as I prepared to wait another decade for the Divine Ascension to move back in, Evil, true to his name, declares war on the Imperium, too.

Finding the option you want in the dialogue window sometimes requires a lot of scrolling.

Finding the option you want in the dialogue window sometimes requires a lot of scrolling.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. A war on two fronts was already taking far too many resources from my reserves. A war on three fronts was just ridiculous.

With great reluctance, I claimed Shikharji and razed it before anyone else could take it. I expected full retaliation for this. Shikharji was originally a city of the Divine Ascension. The Imperium was the last holders of the city. This isn’t even mentioning the fact that I was still at war with the former, and in a proxy war with the latter.

But instead of a military response, I received offers to sign peace treaties. Needless to say, I was a little perplexed.

Maybe the AI knew I was ahead in technology and didn’t want to continue what was a costly war on their parts. Maybe the system considers all factions as independent, irrespective of alliances. Whatever the case, if it’s one criticism I can level at this game’s mechanics, it’s the diplomacy system.

While the story is superb, the factions well-written, and the dialogue intriguing, there isn’t much you can do in terms of interacting with the other factions.

You can choose to form various pacts – trading, research, and non-aggression amongst them – share maps, declare war, and make public statements about the other which will increase or decrease your standing with them. The list of options is available upon first contact and remains the same unless you’re at war with the offending faction.

Aside from these choices, your only other interaction with others is at gunpoint. With the depth present in other aspects of the game, I was left feeling like the Diplomacy system was hastily added as an expectation rather than a fully-functional module. To call back on my earlier example where Evil announced his alliance to me, the lack of consequences from that action momentarily broke the immersion that the rest of the game so beautifully built.

Late Game

Seven years later, Evil and I found ourselves knee-deep in the Transcendence Era, the last era in the research tree. From here on, things started to escalate far faster than either of us could really keep track.

After the war with the Divine Ascension and the Solar Dynasty ended, both of us had considerable standing armies. I chose to move my units back to my core cities of Volterra, Raizel, and Athelia, following this with a non-aggression pact with the Imperium. At last, there would be peace.

I settled into my chair and went through the end game technologies, queuing up advancements that would boost my city resource outputs by double. When I looked back at the map, the Imperium was gone. The monster that was the Togra army was out for blood.

I didn’t say anything, of course. As long as the great war machine was directed elsewhere, I could focus on building up my defenses. It was at this point that I, out of fear, gave up my vow to preserve the natives and told Evil where he could find the remaining alien hives to eradicate.

Evil dropped the first nuke on a city of the Divine Ascension. The response was rather colourful. I should have taken this as a warning.

Evil dropped the first nuke on a city of the Divine Ascension. The response was rather colourful. I should have taken this as a warning.

This is where the game breaks down for me. The technologies in the latest era are powerful and rewarding to unlock. However, there were times when I felt some upgrades were too powerful – early nukes, for example, can flatten a city with zero consequence to yourself. If the enemy is behind, there is nothing they can do to prevent this. There’s also a module that allows a unit to attack without retaliation. Any strategy gamer can tell you that avoiding a turn of damage in a turn-based game opens up a whole new world of fancy tactical plays.

Aliens stop becoming a source of tension after you reach the half-way point in the research tree.

Earlier I also mentioned how the Terra Salvum’s faction bonus of -50% alien aggression becomes obsolete the further you are in a game. This happens because aliens, unlike human factions, don’t have upgrades. I found that once you have military equipment from the second research era, aliens become a non-issue. What was at first a very intriguing mechanic ended up vanishing entirely. From Breulj’s comments, Pandora’s natives are meant to add to the atmosphere by providing a source of unpredictable tension. There’s no tension when you know you can one-shot the biggest monsters.

I thought, wouldn’t it be hilarious if the aliens evolved alongside us? Now that would be something to behold.

And Then There Was One

One by one I watched cities fall. The Togra empire was snowballing, gobbling up areas that had the greatest resource output and razing the rest. The Noxium Corporation, the last of the six factions to be named, had been expanding in silence on their own continent. Their forces were formidable, and they had well over a dozen cities to their name. All of it was gone in a couple of years.

Evil was aiming for total domination, of that he made clear. And just before he burned the last of the AIs’ cities, a news report popped up declaring the Togra as being close to military victory.

No shit.

What happened after could only be described as pure insanity.

I put together photos from the last years of the Terra Salvum. Start from the beginning, and you can see just how ridiculous life on Pandora can get.

  • This technology will be the death of whole empires. 2131.
  • When theory turned into reality, that's when I realised life was over as we knew it. 2132.
  • Togra steps closer to becoming tyrant of the world. 2132.
  • Where Evil had soldiers, I had money. But with only three cities, there wasn't much I could do with my credits. 2133.
  • The Last AI falls. 2133.
  • Togra prepares to siege Volterra. 2133.
  • War begins. 2134.
  • I claim scientific victory, but at this point, nothing matters. I'm already too late. 2134.
  • Volterra and Raizel go dark. EMPs shut down all communications. 2134.
  • This is what a black hole does to the largest city on the planet. Half the population gone in less than a minute. 2135.
  • The remains of a once proud empire. 2135.
  • The last fighters choose death before dishonour. 2136.


 
Looks like we haven’t learned anything after all.
 

Conclusion

Pandora: First Contact takes your standard turn-based 4X and adds aliens you take seriously (albeit only in the first half of a game), a research system that guarantees you won’t have exactly the same upgrades as your neighbours, and a story intriguing enough for me to write this history paper. Micromanagement of your cities and people is surprisingly entertaining, though the variety of tile improvements is a bit lacking. And while the ability to customize units is fun, combat can be frustrating, and long, late-game sieges made me consider glassing my own cities to speed up what was an inevitable defeat.

My largest complaint was the shallow diplomacy system. There were no real consequences to your inter-faction choices. Alliances held no weight, and you either established a pact with others or were at war with them. Where the game makes up for it, however, is in its wonderfully written dialogue. Each faction had their own distinct style and character. You could tell exactly what these people were about just by their reactions to you.

At $30, this game is a solid entry from Proxy Studios. I’ll be sure to look for it when it rolls out on Steam.

This has been Lachrymosity, signing off.

Pros:

  • Great atmosphere
  • Strong story foundation
  • Ability to optimize cities to your exact specifications
  • Customizable units
  • A randomized research tree
Cons:

  • Fiddly UI
  • Shallow diplomacy system
  • Lack of information about why certain things happen
  • Inability to fine-tune control of stacked units
  • Simplistic victory types

System Requirements

Minimum:
Operating System: Windows XP SP2 / Vista, Mac OS X 10.7, or Linux
Processor: Intel Core 2 or equivalent
Memory: 2 GB RAM
Hard Disk: 1 GB space free
Graphics: OpenGL 2.0 compatible with 256 VRAM (NVIDIA GeForce 6600 series / ATI Radeon 9500 series)
Display: 1024×720
Peripherals: Keyboard and mouse

Recommended:
Operating System: Windows 7, Mac OS X 10.8, or Linux
Processor: Intel Core i3 or equivalent
Memory: 4 GB RAM
Hard Disk: 2 GB space free
Graphics: OpenGL 2.0 compatible with 512 VRAM (NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260 series / ATI Radeon HD 4870 series)
Display: 1920×1080
Peripherals: Keyboard and mouse

the author

Executive Editor of ManaPool. A student of game design, Amber is currently writing from the frozen north that is Canada. She has a penchant for tactical team-based games and a particular taste for theorycrafting. Want to discuss community and player experience? Talk to her!

  • http://www.manapool.co.uk/ Evil Tactician

    We had a lot of fun playing this – the game is a little rough around the edges in a few places but I see great potential with upcoming patches. Amber pretty much sums up how I feel about the game and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it.