There’s a special kind of fear that aliens can tap into. They are often unknown, unreasonable, and unrelenting. Many 4X strategy games are strongly tied to real events, people, and cultures in human history, but some of the best games in the genre are set in space against powerful and hostile alien races. Pandora: First Contact is one such game, and it takes heavy cues from games like Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. While it is meant to be a respectful tribute, Pandora is laden with awful design choices and a confusing mishmash of old and new mechanics. The pieces that stand up are pulled directly from other, better games, and the original ideas aren’t developed well enough to carry the experience.
Pandora: First Contact opens with a smattering of people desperate to find a new Earth after decades of environmental destruction. The most prosperous societies have each launched their own expeditions, loosely representative of several modern-day nations and ideologies. These groups form the different factions and have their own vaguely defined play styles ranging from brutal, polluting industry to hyper-religious zealotry. Unfortunately, while they are thematically distinct, none of the factions stand out. Besides how the diplomatic options are phrased, and a few starting bonuses, they are all more or less the same. In my games, playing as the super-scientific faction wasn’t terribly different from playing as the environmentalists. All of the units are the same, and the victory conditions are far too limited for any of your decisions to have much of an effect. There really is only one correct play style: extreme aggression.
Civilization has often been lauded for allowing you to seek scientific, cultural, military, or even diplomatic victory, and each of these routes is supported by an entire system of mechanics that help support that path. These systems connect with one another and can be attached or separated, giving you an enormous amount of freedom in how you play. Those choices are meaningful because they are symbolic; they represent different and distinct ideologies. Pandora, too, has “different” victory conditions, but none of them are well developed. There is a scientific victory that amounts to having 75 percent of all possible research items complete. To achieve military victory, you have to take control of over 75 percent of the planet’s populace. Unfortunately, the mechanisms by which you accomplish these conditions are nearly identical, and there’s virtually no way to stop a player who’s nearing victory. The element of choice and the ability to consistently have any efficacy or agency in the game is totally subverted by this design.
The planet of Pandora is crawling with aliens when you first touch down, and it takes only a few turns for those forces to turn aggressive; unlike the barbarians from Civilization, these creatures are absolutely everywhere and are much, much stronger than any of your starting units. For example, a unit of marines has a starting combat strength of 2, while aliens range from 1 to 18, with 2 and 8 being the most common. How well you handle these early foes determines how much land and resources you have to work with in the mid to late game.
While it is meant to be a respectful tribute, Pandora is laden with awful design choices and a confusing mishmash of old and new mechanics.
Sadly, ignoring them isn’t an option. Even if you never attack the aliens or show any sign of aggression, at a certain point they begin attacking you. Expanding and fortifying your armies, and then raiding alien hives for their massive cash reserves is the only way to play. Any land you don’t grab for yourself is land a future opponent will use against you, and any aliens you don’t kill feed the resources and experience of your rivals. This design choice forces the game into a two-stage system. The first stage is rapid expansion and extreme brutality against the indigenous aliens, and the second stage is focused more on developing the land you’ve claimed and steadily pushing back against enemies. While the first stage might be frustratingly limited, the second is fundamentally broken.
In better-designed 4X games, much of the mid- to late-game conflict stems from resource scarcity. You need a specific plot of land that an opponent has; this causes conflict, which then buttresses the final stages of a match. In Pandora, land is certainly important, but expansion is agonizingly slow. Even on the fastest setting, with the exception of a handful of rare tiles, there’s absolutely no scarcity. Aside from mountains, just about every tile can be converted into every other kind, and they don’t carry the bottlenecking effect that’s common in other games. Without scarcity, there’s very little to fight over, and the monotony of expansion across hundreds of same-y tiles wears down to tedium very quickly.
In place of a varied and interesting landscape, Pandora has a fairly robust unit upgrade and operations system. As you progress technologically, you have access to a wider variety of weapons and equipment for your various units. For example, initially your legions of marines only have access to their basic machine guns, but once you develop the flamethrower, you can bring marines back to a city to refit them with the latest gadgets. This is typically done for a significant cost, though, and can become overwhelmingly expensive when upgrading masses of units. Additionally, at each new stage of technological development, you also gain access to advanced versions of every unit. The colonial marine, your bread and butter, later becomes the assault trooper. After you’ve unlocked the next stage, it’s often more practical to simply send your old units to their death at the hands of a foe and just start production on the next batch of souped-up soldiers
To cut down on some of the banality of this cycle of production-upgrade-sacrifice, you can set your cities to crank out new units with the upgraded tech. This costs extra production time, but typically that’s much easier to manage than trying to purchase all of the upgrades outright. Unfortunately, there’s no system or mechanic allowing for the retrofitting of old units with new gear via production capacity, nor is there any way to take an old unit and make it into one of the newer variety. This is probably intended to be balanced by the experience system, which can dramatically enhance the combat effectiveness of older troops, but that loses relevance in the mid to late game because of operations.
Without scarcity, there’s very little to fight over.
Operations can range from nuclear strikes and satellite scans to field training missions. They are produced much like standard units but are immediately consumed upon use. These field training missions are ridiculously cheap, particularly in the late game, and I often had one city of mine constantly producing them. After I finished a new batch of troops, I’d march them all to my most forward base, dump 10 field training missions on them to max out their level, and then let them heal up for two or three turns before marching out my legions of tanks, airplanes, and marines to conquer whatever stood in their way. It’s much faster and less risky than trying to naturally level up fresh recruits, and it always ensured that my warriors would be at the top of their game.
At the end of the day, unit management is bogged down by a plethora of underutilized mechanics. Instead of adding to the gameplay, they simply encourage you to abuse other systems to circumvent the poorly designed interface. That seems to be par for the course for Pandora. There are a lot of neat ideas here, but none of them pan out. The game’s creators clearly adore 4X strategy games in general, and Alpha Centauri specifically, is clear here, but Pandora: First Contact is not a proper tribute. I want to love Pandora, I really do, but nostalgia can’t fix a game that doesn’t work even at the most basic level.