I pulled a muscle in my neck last week. Shortly afterwards I came to the realisation that you don’t truly appreciate how many things you use your neck for until you’re suffering searing, agonising pain every time you move it, even if it’s just the tiniest fraction of a millimetre. It got so bad that I had to take a day off work, and with an afternoon of enforced sitting very, very still in front of a computer doped up on painkillers lying ahead of me I decided to try to alleviate both my pain and my crippling boredom by buying one of the many, many games I have on my Steam wishlist1. As luck would have it Pandora: First Contact’s number came up, which I think conclusively proves that the universe is out to get me.
Pandora is an attempt to update Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri for the modern age that nevertheless feels like a cheap knockoff of both SMAC itself and Civilization V. From Civilization V it draws the resource gathering and the hex-based world; from Alpha Centauri it outright steals pretty much everything else, from setting to factions to the unit system, and yet doesn’t manage to execute them with even a fraction of the intelligence Alpha Centauri possessed. This is partly down to Alpha Centauri being a very intelligent game – even Firaxis’s own effort, Beyond Earth, doesn’t look like it’ll come anywhere close to matching it – but mostly I feel it is down to Pandora repeating many of the mistakes Shadowgate made last week: it tries too hard to be a faithful remake and ends up slavishly replicating game features wholesale without any real thought as to whether it’s a good idea to do so, or any real understanding of what made the original game so good in the first place.
Let’s take factions as a starting point. Pandora rips its factions wholesale out of Alpha Centauri – you’ve got the faux-University, the not-Spartans, the doppelGaians – and while it’s true that coming up with original faction themes that aren’t “Good at tech” or “Good at fighting” might be quite difficult if you’re not Master of Orion, Pandora doesn’t seem to have put any thought into trying to find some different archetypes. It’s just cloned them like-for-like, sans the Peacekeepers because there’s no Planetary Council in this game, because that’s what Alpha Centauri did and we’re trying to do a remake of Alpha Centauri here, guys. Except where Alpha Centauri did everything a 4X game made in 1997 could possibly do to lend its factions a sense of identity and its faction leaders a sense of character, littering the game with spoken quotations from each faction leader that summed up their faction’s ideology and including a single wonderfully evocative leader portrait that said more about them than a thousand words ever could, Pandora chooses to do precisely sod all. The faction portraits are a bunch of interchangeably bland CGI lookalikes (all but one of whom are white, which I think is ridiculous given SMAC’s ethnically and culturally diverse cast), one faction’s cities look exactly like another’s, and while there’s the odd leader quote they have none of the wit or intelligence of Alpha Centauri’s, not to mention not being written rather than spoken in any case.
That leaves just a faction’s stat bonuses as the sole factor distinguishing it from the other factions, and despite myself I find it quite difficult to get excited about a +25% bonus to science. The absence of social engineering or any governmental system whatsoever mean that your options for playing to your faction’s theme are further limited and result in factions whose flavour is distinctly lacking. I’d have to point to this as the number one reason why playing Pandora is so dull and unengaging – you might as well be controlling a colony of robots for all the game cares. It’s astonishing how it takes one of Alpha Centauri’s greatest strengths, tries to clone it, and flips it around into a crippling structural weakness because it doesn’t sequence the genome correctly. Or at all.
Number two on my hit list is the tech tree. You might look at a publicity screenshot of Pandora, such as this one, and think “Wow, that looks like a deep and complex tech tree with a lot of interesting choices!”, but you would be tragically mistaken. I’m not going to put the boot in to Pandora for failing to match the rich plausibility of Alpha Centauri’s technologies since that vision of future history has yet to be equalled, but even so I still think Pandora is basically selling a false bill of goods here. The way it works is that the tree is split into three eras – Colonial, Mechanised and Transcendence – that look like they’re supposed to give the tech tree a bit of extra character, like the Classical/Medieval/Renaissance/etc eras of Civilization. What they’re actually doing is giving Pandora an excuse to clone its own tech tree three times over, since the tech tree for the Colonial era is almost exactly identical to the tech tree for the Mechanised era, except the units and buildings you get out of the Mechanised era are twice as powerful. Civilization itself is no stranger to this approach – Universities are just more powerful Libraries, and so on – but the thing about Pandora is that everything in the Mechanised era is an upgrade of something from the Colonial era, meaning that after you’re about a third of the way into the game you’ve discovered nearly all of the genuinely new capabilities you’re going to get and all that’s left is incrementally improving your current buildings and units. Not only is this a transparent attempt to pad out the tech tree and provide the illusion of depth where none exists, but it results in a repeat of the faction issue: because new options are never opening up Pandora is reduced to a pure numbers game, where the only point in researching tech is to get an infantry unit that’s four base power instead of two base power or a mine that gives 50% to production instead of 25%.
I give this word a little too much of a throrough workout in my reviews, but this is just dull. There’s little incentive to play around with different factions because they all look and feel the same in any case, there’s little incentive to try different paths through the tech tree because of its recursive nature, and that’s the two main reasons I play 4X games utterly sabotaged. Combine this with a hellish combat system that combines the worst features from Civilization II and Civilization IV (I don’t care what anyone says, one unit per tile was a big step forward for the series even if the AI couldn’t cope with the concept), a total lack of Wonder-equivalents, and exciting victory conditions like “Research 75% of the technologies” or “Own 75% of the planetary population” and you have the most boring 4X game I’ve played since… well, since Legendary Heroes earlier this year.
That being said, that’s partly my pique at this being such a half-assed update of one of my favourite games ever talking. Pandora’s implementation of most other features is workmanlike rather than actively bad and it even has one or two ideas that are actually quite good, or at least halfway interesting. I liked the resource system where surplus resources go into empire-wide storage that can be accessed by any city rather than being jealously hoarded by individual colonies, since it functioned as a logical brake on population growth and colony expansion – you can only found new cities if the rest of your empire is producing enough extra food and minerals to support them, which makes a damn sight more sense that Civilization V’s arbitrary happiness mechanic. I also liked having the ability to build what were essentially suburbs as tile improvements to alleviate unhappiness from overpopulation. The targeted one-shot Operations abilities that you either build from cities or are periodically regenerated by buildings fall into the “Interesting” category rather than being outright good, since they lurch between being ineffectually worthless (Orbital Bombardment) and horribly broken (Field Training), but Pandora is hardly worse off for their inclusion. The variety of native aliens are a good concept very much underutilised, while the less said about the alien invasion halfway through the game the better, really.
With all of that taken into account Pandora’s biggest sin, I think, is that it doesn’t even have the decency to be entertainingly bad. I had a whole load of awful jokes ready to go about how it compounded my misery by being a metaphorical pain in the neck to go with the physical one, but on the whole it really isn’t that terrible and the Legendary Heroes comparison might be a little unfair. It’s just remarkably bland and forgettable – even now I’m struggling to remember anything from the six hour game I completed just a few days ago – and doesn’t make even the tiniest iota of effort to worm its way into the player’s cerebral cortex the way Alpha Centauri did2. I took this somewhat personally, both because I really like Alpha Centauri and because £23 is far too much money to waste on a game that I could transcribe into the Oxford English Dictionary as the very definition of “mediocre”. Mediocre is better than bad, but it still doesn’t get you any credit around here. Avoid this one if you can.