Yes, a video game that even Al Gore can enjoy.
The game is set at some point in the distant future after multi-national corporations, running rampant in the free market, have exploited Earth to its fullest extent. It would be nice to say that humanity reaches out to the stars in an effort to move beyond capitalistic greed or in pursuit of new scientific knowledge, but the Serious Brothers choose to play it straight: the corporations want more money and that means they need new planets to exploit.
That’s where you come in.
Playing the role of a colony manager, you are tasked with the mission of establishing a thriving settlement on a variety of new worlds and expertly balancing the needs of the corporation with the needs of your citizens and worlds. And boy, can that be challenging!
Imagine Earth centers around four key resources: money, power, food and goods. Each play an integral role in the successful management of a colony, but all come at a price – pollution. Power can be generated in abundance by a coal power plant, but that can wreak havoc on both air and nearby arable land. Industrial farms will feed your colonists, but run-off will poison the ground nearby. Factories provide luxuries/necessities for your colonists and boost population growth, but also generate enough smog to make the Beijing skyline seem crystal clear in comparison.
Herein lies the most exciting and challenging aspect of gameplay in Imagine Earth. As your colony initially begins to grow, pollution does not present an immediate challenge. Forests rejuvenate the planet and help compensate for all that nastiness without too much interference. However, as your city expands, so does your need for food and industry. That means building more factories, more power plants, and more sources of food. Pollution rapidly increases and before long you are faced with a whole host of catastrophes that come along with it, including flooding and unpredictable severe weather.
Now some serious strategy comes into play. Do you risk over-expanding in the hopes you’ll hit your targets before your world collapses? Should you build that new district, or wait until you’ve planted some additional forests to compensate?
Even the research/development system in Imagine Earth presents the player with these strategic decisions. Most technologies that can be developed have two further “specializations”: one focused on boosting your output (i.e. genetic engineering allows for a higher crop yield, at the expense of increased ground pollution), while the other specialization allows you to limit the effects of pollution on your planet. Thus, Imagine Earth is truly a game of balance.
All of this might sound like the game must be incredibly complex and cumbersome. On the contrary, while strategic, complex decisions are a necessity, the game’s UI and beautifully rich graphics are so intuitive and simplistically laid out (with tooltips that easily explain just about everything), that Imagine Earth is a game that is easy to pick-up, but extremely difficult to master.
All in all, Imagine Earth is not a true 4X game and doesn’t try to be, but it does embody many of the qualities that make our favorite genre stand out. From the delicate eXploitation of the early stages to the tricky technological choices of the late game, or the challenge of hostile colonies, 4X fans (especially those who love empire/colony management) might find Imagine Earth a demanding, enjoyable experience that they can’t put down.
In summary, developers Serious Brothers’ take a tongue-in-cheek approach to environmental issues in their debut title, Imagine Earth. Although not a 4X in the truest sense, genre aficionados will still get a kick out of the truly challenging, strategically-focused gameplay and the richly-designed, intuitive interface.
Imagine Earth has been in Early Access on Steam since May 2014 and retails for $24.99. Don’t expect a polished product (as with any Early Access title), but do expect a whole lot of fun.