Thoughts: Pandora – First Contact

pan_bequerel

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.

pan_blance

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.

pan city

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.

pan_aliens

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.

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  1. This isn’t quite the glowing accolade it might seem, since if they’re on the wishlist it means I wasn’t sufficiently convinced to buy them in the first place.
  2. Yes, this is a terrible mindworm joke.
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18 thoughts on “Thoughts: Pandora – First Contact

  1. Nice review, speaks to the heart of fellow strategy gamer.

    I still don’t like Master of Orion much but I think it got a right idea for Sci-Fi: make your characters simple gimmicks. All those complex races from Endless Space or, as you point out, Pandora require great effort to become alive. Civilization 5 had historical characters and they still needed state of the art graphics and music to make them look unique and memorable.

    The more decent-but-boring 4X games I see, the more I like Civilization. The AI may be cheating but at least it feels interactive and emotional. Those other calculative 4X’s would work better as Paradox-style grand strategy games: no flavour required when the world is so big and everyone is defined by their place in the world.

    • Hentzau says:

      The thing about Master of Orion’s races is that they each had a single gimmick, but because they were also knowing sci-fi stereotypes that was absolutely okay. And those stereotypes were really emphasised by the visual differences between the races, too.

      The other approach is Sword of the Stars, whose six races each play very very differently thanks to their method of propulsion and approach to tactical combat – but then if you removed said tactical combat from the game they’d end up being practically the same.

      Interesting point about the Paradox games; each nation is running off the same AI and has access to the same units, but the deterministic nature of Paradox games means that after a few decades the player ends up projecting character onto them anyway thanks to what they’ve achieved in game. I think that if you couldn’t always see what the AIs were doing that element of Paradox titles would be much weaker.

      • That’s why I believe Endless Legend will be boring. They have created complex races with different philosophies and you really have to get into their lore to see the difference. Just as in Endless Space. As you’ve noted, in the balanced scenario on random map in a 4X with emphasis on internal development all AI races look like a black box spawning armies.

        Also note that in EU4 different monarchs have different personality and you can see it on the diplomacy screen. This post is the first mentioning of this fact in the internet. Nobody cares. France is still France defined by it’s territory and obvious strategies. Russia is still a country you don’t want to invade. It’s hard to make AI feel personal. GalCiv and MoO practically screams “I’m warrior!” or “I’m smart!” or “I’m peaceful!” at you and that’s when you notice.

  2. Darren says:

    Sorry to hear about your neck. A year or two ago I had something similar happen with my back; there’s no pain like muscle pain wrapped around your spinal cord.

    This game sounds dreadful, too. Strategy games have had a hard time doing personality for a long time now. I don’t understand how nobody learned any of the lessons of Master of Orion II regarding how to make factions seem like more than a bundle of numbers. Civ does pretty well with its leaders–some of Civ V’s AIs stand out quite a bit–but even it falls short when it comes down to the city level.

    • Hentzau says:

      Civ has always been a little hamstrung by its historical setting, in that there’s not that many ways you can make building a granary seem particularly interesting. It does well with what it’s got – the civilizations in V are all far more distinct than they have been in previous titles in terms of bonuses, buildings and units, and of course Firaxis have always been very big on giving their leaders as much character as possible. I’m not sure where else they’d go with it. Is it as interesting as SMAC or Master of Orion? God no, but I make allowances for Civ that I don’t with other games.

      • Darren says:

        True, Civ has probably reached maximum personality at this point thanks to the unique bonuses (this really stands out with Ramses, who has become my new Civ nemesis).

  3. Gap Gen says:

    The faux-University have a really convolted, annoying way of saying “we got maps here”.

    I respect Dan Gril as a writer, but he was basically filling in text boxes and had never played SMAC, so the chance that it would capture SMAC’s respect for human culture as part of the DNA of the game was pretty slim. And like you say, it seems like Beyond Earth won’t get that either, although I suppose everyone has reasons why they liked SMAC. Also, it’s probably the case that it’s just super hard to make a balanced, well-designed strategy game, and this team didn’t have the resources or the testing hours that SMAC did.

    • Gap Gen says:

      Also looking at the screenshots I assume you can name your own units. Unless they actually have units in the game called that.

    • Hentzau says:

      Beyond Earth is going to have to work very hard to avoid the “mod of Civilization” feeling that their Colonization remake had, and the videos I’ve watched so far don’t exactly fill me with great confidence. Also the designers said Civ Rev was their favourite Civilization title, and fuck *that*.

      (Still going to buy it though, because Firaxis have built up a lot of credit with me over the years and if anyone can pull it off they can.)

      (Also I had no idea Dan Griddledoctupus did the writing. It was the one thing about the game’s character that stood out even a little, although it tried way too hard and came across as a set of one-dimensional caricatures that I didn’t pay any attention to.)

      • Darren says:

        Were they talking about the DS version or the 360/PS3 version? The DS version actually has some interesting ideas, especially the tech tree.

        • Hentzau says:

          I spent a happy holiday playing the DS Civ Rev back in 2008. It was a nice take on Civ-lite that struck me as a streamlined version of the very first Civ. But *favourite* version? Really?

          (I would have similarly rolled my eyes if they’d said Civ III. There’s Civ, and then there’s Civ. It wasn’t clear which version of Rev they were talking about, but I assumed the core concept of each was very similar – strip it back, make it faster, and that’s not the version of Civ I want to play.)

      • Looking forward on your reaction to Beyond Earth.

        You will decide if Firaxis gets another 30$ or not! Feel the responsibility!

  4. Josh says:

    I must object. Universities are not simply upgraded libraries. The library gives science for population, while the university gives a percentage uplift and specialist slots, as well as the jungle bonus. Very different!

    • Hentzau says:

      You know, I thought “Josh will complain about this gross simplication” when I was writing that sentence, but decided to leave it in as a test to see whether or not you were still reading the blog. :P

  5. Josh says:

    I got here a bit late because I hadn’t realised the August hiatus was over, but yes, I’m still here!

    Now, university and research lab ARE basically the same building in different eras…

  6. Josh says:

    Oh, god, and I’ve done replying wrong, how embarrassing.

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