TacTues: The Best Kind of Trouble in Paradise

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There’s always one a year for me. A quiet release on the strategy market that manages to capture my withered heart, causing the necrotic lump to jitter with delight. It was Endless Space last year. The year before, Frozen Synapse. In 2013, though? Well, it’s looking like Pandora: First Contact. Here’s a spiel and some collected thoughts on my time with the beta thus far.

I’ve been trying to think of how to sell Proxy Studios’ sci-fi strategy, and flashy comparisons feel a touch disingenuous. It has elements reaching back to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, but Pandora is faster and its emphases deploy differently. Pandora feels like Civilization V in a way, but the proffered setting and general mood pushes it away beyond the calls of “enhanced mod.” It sits at a safe, equidistant position between the two, but makes me recall things like Outpost 2: Divided Destiny and Gametek’s beautiful underdog Dark Colony.

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So, if you’re not already familiar with Pandora: First Contact, it’s a science-fiction turn-based strategy set upon, indeed, Pandora — humanity’s first habitable world found out beyond the Oort cloud, one now enduring an ongoing colonial race between several factions. Those with a love for Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri will immediately recognize something there, and the choice of factions in Pandora do resemble the various civil and military propensities that separated groups in the 1999 opus. Fresh-faced players arrive on this strange planet and begin forging territorial boundaries, industrial hubs and the means to wage war. Unlike Alpha Centauri, Pandora: First Contact is primarily a game — at least at this point — of conquest, subjugation and annexation atop a solid and relatively dynamic economic and development model.

Opening with a Colonizer — a large tracked hauler that establishes a city once you’ve found a suitable location — and a single squad of Colonial Infantry, grabbing a foothold in the countryside begins with exploration, selecting an initial research option and curating a production queue. We know this kick-off. Pandora is a comfortable fit for the Civilization fans, especially in the early game. Hexes have various material attributes; minerals and food are the two initially important stats to assess each hex on, but there are unique land formations that offer bonuses or feature negative effects. As expected, mountains offer sight and attack bonuses, but locations featuring Xenite Flowers offer bonuses to productivity. Forests decrease pollution caused by over-development. Isogen Fields tout mineral bonuses countered by toxicity. Research plays into much of the territory development, with breakthroughs in cultivation allowing crops to be planted on less-than-adequate landscapes.

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There’s an unavoidable chance to get one’s David Attenborough on, too. Contact with other lifeforms will come in the form of strange alien creatures; ones stalking the land, flapping through the sky and lurking beneath the lapping waters of Pandora. While initially not a particularly huge threat, on higher difficulties the strange xeno-creatures can cause serious havoc to early colonies. Alien life can also grow to gargantuan proportions, which keeps things interesting.

From there, it’s a case of building an economy, expanding territory through a variety of means, designing and producing new units on the back of technological advancements. There are three distinct technological ages for players to research their way through, which obviously bear more exciting and expensive fruit. Going from recon ATVs to heavily-armored walkers, nukes and orbital infantry drop-pods is as you’d expect. Alpha Centauri fans might be a touch disappointed at the present lack of diversity in growth and inter-factional relationships, but I still think Pandora is a breath of fresh air because we simply don’t get this kind of detail deployed in such a fashion.

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The UI in Pandora is slick and uncomplicated, replete with nice iconography. While this doesn’t fall into Paradox territory regarding mechanical complexity and the endless cascading of information, there is enough information at a glance regarding the colonies and the war effort to keep things at a decent clip. Control-wise, it’s as good as you’re likely to find and expect in the genre. A lot of left-clicking to select, a bit of shift-clicking to form and direct stacks, with the trusty right-click to hurl your machines and men across the velts of this hostile and exotic world.

Here I am, unlocking new tech to use in the custom unit creation workshop. I’m building my initial alien-busting troopers, the Colonial Firebrand detachments with their carapace-roasting flamethrowers and their upgraded armor. I’m sending them into steaming alien jungles to secure the perimeter against chittering xeno-creatures and the pulsating biological nightmare nest that spawned them. They are my tracked missile batteries crunching up into the surrounding mountains to form pickets against enemy aggressors. These are my shock troops in their drop-pods. Excuse the grotesque nature of my giddiness, but we need more planetary-based sci-fi TBS games.

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Here’s what I truly love about Pandora, though. The atmosphere. I don’t know what it is about the French, but they have absolutely killed the competition in the strategy department with their ambiance. I know, I know, it’s a nebulous and almost fruitlessly subjective thing to convey, but a combination of color, music and the slivers of flavor text accompanying research and development breakthroughs does absolute wonders for a style of game often devoid of a rich audio-visual strata. Maybe I’m just easier to please with science fiction. Maybe I’m making too finer or loftier point of it because, as much as Civilization V is a fine-looking game, I’m one of the few who doesn’t find it a particularly captivating experience. Here, we’re marching squads of custom sniper marines through alien jungles, buffed by guerrilla warfare research combat attributes. Flocks of alien Sciters soaring overhead. The tasteful animations of the units themselves.

But one thing especially captures the imagination in Pandora, and I believe it’s one of the game’s most subtle yet impressive additions: the pollution. Unchecked industrial development leads to a scarified and increasingly toxic environment. Negative attributes, including morale, bloom as smog and the byproduct of feeding an ever-increasing maw of colonists and the war effort hangs in the air and seeps from the dirt. While every strategy game of this ilk has the visual joy of expansionism, Pandora’s wink-wink comes in the form of a damaged earth and a damaged sky, which makes the comfortable cliché of our present real-world predicament seem all that more obvious. A pristine world, once fought over, is packaged with a slew of sacrifices. Prepare for a long environmental clean-up after nuclear war, especially.

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The only parts where Pandora is somewhat lacking is in the diplomacy field. As it stands, the AI is easy to pacify even at its most warmongering. Ceasefires are too easily accepted, making blitzing on neighbors somewhat of a smash-and-grab with tea and apologies to follow. Early days, and with the promise of more diplomatic elements to come – such as inciting insurrections and a raft of other skulduggerous actions — I hope Proxy Studios makes good on its plans.

We must keep in mind that this is still in beta and changes are coming thick and fast, but for the moment, Pandora is doing all the right things.

I’m a huge sucker for a sprawling sci-fi strategy romp. We’re coming into an age where there’s a space-based 4x strategy game for all occasions and seasons. The aforementioned Endless Space, the new Stardrive. We’ve got the tantalizing Predestination and M.O.R.E., as well as an enigmatic Imperium Galactica game on the horizon. Pandora is the only one focused on colonizing a single planet and dealing with friend, foe, flora and fauna. Fresh, my friends. Fresh indeed. And, at least until Battle Worlds: Kronos comes along or there’s a resurgence of interest in the Massive Assault franchise, Proxy Studios can enjoy being the only folks on the block touting low-level operational-to-grand sci-fi strategy. Pandora: First Contact is certainly on my list.

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Tactical Tuesday is Games Are Evil’s bi-monthly deep dive into the compelling and complex world of strategy games, hosted by our own Alex Connolly. Follow Alex on Twitter here.

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