Pandora: First Contact, released in 2013 by Slitherine and developed by Proxy Studios is a futuristic take on mankind’s colonization of a new and alien world. As usual, the story begins as humanity has managed to completely ruin the Earth, so we have left home and brought our wasteful habits to the stars.
When it comes to future-planet-colonization games, it is difficult to evaluate them without the inevitable comparisons to Alpha Centauri (2/’99), Master of Orion (9/’93), and Civilization: Beyond Earth (10/’14). But it is only fair to look at Pandora on its own merits and we have deliberately avoided any direct comparisons in this review. Pandora: First Contact, along with the recent Eclipse of Nashira expansion/DLC is a tremendous effort from a relatively small studio. The game does many things well, but can be a little rough around the edges. Let’s get into the details.
eXplore: At the beginning of the game, exploration takes place in typical hex-based 4X form. Units move around the map and reveal terrain as they go along, with all of the normal movement costs and terrain penalties that one expects. As usual, there are strategic resources and goody huts to be uncovered in the form of ancient alien ruins, as well as the occasional observation post that will reveal larger chunks of terrain at one time.
But exploration on the planet of Pandora is a hazardous exercise. There are semi-hostile alien lifeforms all over the place. They won’t attack your troops on sight, at least not at the beginning of the game. However, they are more than a match for your initial troops and are guaranteed to vastly outnumber the player’s starting forces. So, expect to spend the early turns of the game in a delicate dance with the indigenous wildlife, moving into areas where they do not appear to be and making graceful retreats as necessary. Players would be well-advised to try to find the breeding points and nests from which the animals spawn, as it will be necessary to “deal with” them later.
Wildlife isn’t the only danger on Pandora. Scouts will also encounter large swaths of fungus forests which cause damage to units passing through them. Naturally, landing on a fungus hex and ending a turn there is also not a great idea for your unit’s health pool. Fungus can be eliminated, or even turned to your advantage, later in the game, but in the early going, it is a significant obstacle to your eXploration of your new home.
In the mid game, eXploration goes high tech. For one, there are flying units that eventually become available for production that have a large movement radius and are not inhibited by terrain movement penalties. Cities gain the ability, through a researched technology and associated building project, to deploy satellites over the planet’s surface. These satellites are used to “ping” a small area of hexes of the player’s choice removing the fog of war from the chosen hex and those adjacent to it for a turn. This is incredibly useful when planning for an attack on one of your annoying neighbors or trying to see what might be lurking on the other side of some difficult terrain.
Of course, there are some limitations to satellite spying. Each city can only build one satellite, so it is often useful to build one in every city in your empire. Also, there is a cooldown of several turns before an individual satellite can be used again. This prevents spamming but can slow you down. It should also be noted that your scan will be visible to the AI as well, and you will be able to tell when an AI player has used its satellites to spy on your territory.
Researching advanced technology is very important in Pandora, as we have come to expect from traditional 4X games. The technology tree in Pandora is randomized at the beginning of each game in an attempt to provide some variety. The randomized tree is the same for all players in a particular game so as not to give any player an unfair advantage over the others. Certain technologies appear to be guaranteed to show up in the research screen no matter what, though their placement in relation to other technologies can vary widely.
Unfortunately, the way the randomized technology trees are implemented in Pandora leads to some problems. For one thing, some technologies are simply more important than others due to how the game works. If the technologies that are really effective in fighting off the alien wildlife are much later in the tree than normal, for example, it can really slow down the player’s progress. Of course, the AI will have the same limitation since it has the same research tree as the player. The problem is that what this parity really creates is more of an annoyance for all players than a challenge to be overcome. Rather, an annoyance for the player since the AI literally cannot be annoyed.
Another problem implicit in randomized tech trees of this kind is that, very often, the research topics have little to do with one another despite one being a prerequisite for the next. I cannot fathom why learning how to farm more efficiently would lead me to more powerful missiles for my tanks, but instances like this are commonplace in Pandora. Of course, this is not the first game to commit this particular “sin” and many players will not be bothered by it. But this sort of nonsensical sorting can really break the immersion for the game, and for a good number of players out there, immersion is one of the key draws to 4X games..
eXpand: In Pandora, eXpanding the empire treads familiar territory. Colonizer units travel to the location of your choice and then build a city. Cities have colored borders depending on the faction, and those borders expand as the population of that city grows. When the borders swell to take in the various terrain features and strategic resources, the city and the empire can take advantage of those features. It is a system well known to the 4X community, as established by the Civilization series, and it works well in Pandora.
While expanding the territory of the empire is important in any 4X game, it is absolutely critical in Pandora. The game mechanics, and the way the AI approaches the game, definitely reward wide empires over tall societies. Just like in Master of Orion 2, population rules all. Income, in terms of money, science output, and minerals for production are all at least partially dependent on population. A morale mechanic puts some practical limitations on realistic city size, so building new colonies is forced upon the player.
The AI, in the version I spent the most time with (1.6.3), has a tendency to squeeze cities in every possible nook and cranny that it can find, even when that tiny space is directly between two of your cities. Fortunately, the 1.6.4 patch has improved the AI’s city placement thinking and I found myself less frustrated by overly aggressive/stupid city placement on the part of my electronic opponents.
Even so, the AI eXpands as rapidly as it possibly can. If you hope to keep up later in the game, you are basically forced to do the same. This turns the early and mid-game into an expansion race that is laser-focused and any “choices” or “challenges” that the randomized technology tree allegedly poses to the player are swept aside in the search for the ability to found as many cities as possible as fast as possible. This kind of race for space can be exciting and fun, but after a few games it will probably start to feel tedious for most players. No matter what your starting faction, position, resources, random research prospects, or victory condition of choice are, all must be sacrificed for eXpansion to even hope to stand a chance later in the game.
eXploit: Pandora features a variety of terrain and strategic resources just waiting for someone to come along and eXploit them. The usual assortment of production, science, and morale boosting resources are present in the game dressed in the appropriate clothes of a science fiction setting. Mechanized worker-units can create farms, pollution dumps, and other facilities on the strategic map. Tile outputs can be displayed with the touch of a button and are clear and easy to understand. Although these are, again, familiar mechanics to anyone who has played a Civilization game in the past decade they are done well in Pandora.
Following the path of Master of Orion 2, one of the resources available for exploitation is your own population. Each city screen displays a small layout of miners, farmers, scientists, and workers. You can easily drag and drop members of the populace into and out of different career paths to fine tune your society’s efforts towards greatness. The game’s UI is very helpful in that any changes made to the city’s workforce on the overall output and income of the empire are immediately displayed which makes it easy to tell if you have made a poor decision and need to send some scientists back to the farm. Naturally, this leads to a fair bit of micromanagement, especially as your empire expands and the number of cities under your banner grows. People working in the wrong jobs can really set you back and hamper your growth, so you have to keep a close eye on how many of your people are doing which job.
Diplomacy in Pandora is not one of the strongest points of the game. Generally, diplomacy works in what appears to be the usual Civ-style fashion, including tributes, denouncing other societies, forming treaties for trade or research, and the occasional alliance. In the 1.6.3 version of the game, the AI seemed to go through some serious mood swings, and a single AI empire could go from being friendly to fairly hostile in short order. An AI that you have had no contact with for many turns may be hostile for no apparent reason, even when it was relatively good terms with you before. The latest patch (1.6.4) has adjusted the AI’s diplomatic behavior to be somewhat less randomly aggressive, but players would still be well advised to keep a close eye on the diplomatic screen as the turns roll by. The player is not presented with much in the way of information concerning any bonuses and/or maluses to diplomatic relationships with other empires. Thus, the relationships end up feeling somewhat random or, at the very least, inexplicable.
eXterminate: While Pandora generally takes the standard approach to hex-based 4X combat, it does throw in some interesting new twists that set it apart from the problems that one-unit-per-tile (1UPT) created for Civilization V and the Warlock series. First, you can stack as many units into one hex (or city) as you would like. Units can also be moved in stacks, which is a nice way to avoid some of the tedium of maneuvering large armies in games with a 1UPT system. This also has the effect of making troop movements a bit easier for the AI as well. Combat still occurs on a one-on-one basis, however, with the best attacker and best defender going up against each other, and so on.
Another interesting mechanic in Pandora is the addition of flanking. If you can manage to partially surround an enemy unit or stack on at least three sides, your units receive a bonus to attacking and defending that can stack up to 50%. Of course, the AI can do the same to your forces so positioning and intelligence are key to success in battle. Terrain effects also come into play in Pandora so make sure to take that into account when planning your flank attacks or guarding against them.
Area of effect attacks are prominent in Pandora combat. The game features artillery units that can fire from range and deal damage to every unit in a stack. Cities can construct orbital bombardment platforms that operate along similar lines to the intelligence gathering variety described above. If you can see it, you can bomb it. These bombardments can be devastating to an enemy stack. Again, cooldowns apply, so be sure to build one of these orbital death slingers in every city to maximize effectiveness.
Units become more customizable as you march through the research tree, but there is little reason not to use the absolute best armor, weapons, and other options that you have available at the time. That said, there is a nice variety in the unit types and the various weapons really do have unique uses. The flamethrowers that are so effective against the insect-like wildlife will prove to be ineffective against the enemy AI’s tanks – bigger guns will be required.
Unfortunately, the road to hex-based combat perfection does not run quite as smoothly as one would expect from the description of these military-related goodies. The biggest issue is that some of the mechanics tend to work against each other in some discouraging ways. The orbital bombardment system is probably the best example. The AI will not hesitate to use orbital bombing liberally and, since the AI likes to build as many cities as it possibly can, it will have plenty of ammunition to rain down on you from above. While it is refreshing to see the AI make effective use of the tools that the game provides, it quickly trains you not to stack up your units so as to minimize the damage to your forces as they travel across the map. Basically, the wonderful quality of life improvement that unit stacking provides is basically negated by the fun and interesting orbital bombardment mechanic.
eXperience: Pandora: First Contact is a game with a surprising amount of aesthetic polish considering that it comes from a relatively small studio. The graphics are nice and colorful and the units and alien wildlife are animated well. The music does an excellent job setting the tone for the game in a futuristic, electronica, semi-ambient sort of way. The narrator has a pleasant british female accent. She can be bit monotone, but it is entirely possible that she is meant to be the voice of a computer of some sort.
The game runs well, and only I experienced one crash to desktop that I was unable to repeat. AI turn times pass fairly quickly – even in the late game. A minor annoyance is what seems to be an abnormally long load time when first booting up the game, but once that hurdle has been cleared loading is quick and snappy.
The UI is functional and does not get in the player’s way. While the UI graphics are not fancy by any stretch of the imagination, they fit thematically with the mechanized, utilitarian future that PFC portrays. The fonts are clear and easy to read, and there are plenty of options to tweak the audio and visual presentations to your computer’s needs or your own preferences.
The Eclipse of Nashira expansion adds an eclipse mechanic that is similar to winter in Endless Legend, but not quite as frequent. The eclipse is accompanied by the appearance of fairly powerful alien units not normally seen in the game, though by the time they typically appear your military should be more than capable of handling the threat. These alien incursions include the return of the Messari, presumably the alien race that conveniently left behind all the goody huts and observatories to be pillaged by inconsiderate humans. The Messari will open portals on the planet, typically in inconvenient locations, and attack lightly defended cities and generally make a total nuisance of themselves. This mechanic is similar to the Dremer attacks that fans of the Warlock series know all too well.
Nashira also added spy units and espionage but they are expensive to produce and rarely seem to be a factor in the game. In my time with Pandora, I can only recall one or two occasions that an AI player ever sent a spy my way, and they were easily dispatched.
Overall, the AI seems to play the game well and even experienced 4X players will be able to find a challenge in Pandora. Since shortly after release, the AI has been in the hands of “Ail,” (an eXplorminate community member) who has released patches to shore up the AI and is hard at work on further updates.
While Pandora: First Contact makes a great first impression, some players will find that the waters are more troubled below the surface. There are certain aspects of the design choices in the game and the balance of various factors that can easily cause frustration and tedium in what is otherwise a well crafted experience.
Even though the various factions seem interesting and have clearly defined pros and cons, the game often feels very similar regardless of the faction chosen at the outset. This is largely due to the fact that in order to be successful, the player must stick to certain narrowly focused goals no matter which faction he/she is playing. In order to keep up with the AI, the player is forced to focus in on expansion and military production no matter what. Since resource output and income is based largely on population and worker count, rapid expansion is a necessary priority every single game. The vast majority of empire growth will come at the point of a gun (or flamethrower), even against the local fauna, so military production is paramount. Add to these factors that the bipolar AI can and will pounce on the player the moment it perceives it has an advantage, and even the tree-hugging hippies are required to have a massive military-industrial complex.
Perhaps the biggest issue is that the various victory conditions are not well balanced against each other. Certainly, all the usual 4X victory conditions are present – diplomatic, science, trade/monetary, population, and so forth. Essentially, every victory condition turns into a military one as conquest to some extent is virtually required. Players accustomed to playing and winning peaceful games based on diplomacy or science focused empires will likely be disappointed by PFC. To win, you must be aggressive and you must be quick. The problem is that there is so little variety from game to game and what was once exciting and exhilarating can start to feel like a grind.
What is worse, the game tends to reward tedious play. Fiddling around with exactly how many people are working as scientists versus farmers on each individual colony is boring busy-work. In the mid-1990s, when it was done in Master of Orion 2, people didn’t like it, and it has not become any more enjoyable in the intervening 20 years. As the number of cities in your empire grows, the more time you are required to spend moving tiny figures from category to category. To get the most out of your populace, you will have no choice but to do it. Furthermore, the game’s focus on expansion and wide empires means that the need for this sort of micromanagement increases over the course of a game.
The unit stacking mechanic sounds like a huge quality of life improvement over the 1UPT system found in so many hex-based 4X games. But Pandora will encourage you (strongly) not to make use of it because of the way that area of effect damage works against unit stacks. It is frustrating to feel that a game is punishing you for making use of a mechanic that it provides and is supposed to make the game less tedious. Again, you are essentially rewarded for moving units around individually and engaging in more micromanagement than should be necessary.
Patch 1.6.4 Notes: We have slightly delayed publishing this review so that I could spend some time with the patch 1.6.4, which released in the interim. As usual, Ail’s latest Pandora patched is jam-packed with improvements to the AI and related fixes. There are far too many changes to discuss them all, but notable improvements include improved AI city placement, better use of terrain for combat bonuses by the AI, and improvements to city sieging and defense. Fortunately, the AI also seems to have taken a chill pill; the diplomacy certainly feels less random and seem to be less maniacally aggressive to an extent. The game is still hard as nails and is best played in an aggressive militaristic manner, but the balance has improved in that regard.
TL;DR: Pandora: First Contact is a solid 4X game with a few rough edges. The AI is ruthless and getting better all the time. Fans of aggressive play, regardless of victory condition, will enjoy this free-for-all, king-of-the-hill depiction of human colonization of an alien world. Replayability may be somewhat limited due to the heavy focus on military and limited variety in faction selection. The game does not shy away from micromanagement and rewards meticulous play.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You prefer fast, aggressive play
- You think military options are the only/best option
- You find the theme and setting interesting and are looking for an alternative to Civilization: Beyond Earth
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- Excessive micromanagement turns you off
- You like to have the option to play a peaceful game every now and then
- Intricate diplomacy is a big part of your ideal 4X experience
Micah played 45 hours of Pandora: First Contact with the Eclipse of Nashira expansion/DLC on desktop AMD FX-8320 CPU PC with Nvidia GTX 660 2GB GPU and 16GB RAM.