Saturday, June 24, 2017

Pandora: First Contact

"Stratocaster strapped to your back
It's a semi-automatic like dad's.
He taught you how to pause and reset
And that's about as far as you got.

It's a hit! - but are you actually sure?"

Amanda Palmer - Guitar Hero

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri was to turn-based computer strategy games what Planescape:Torment was to cRPGs at around the same time: a classic, not widely popular so as to redefine the genre but routinely cropping up in its niche market's "best of all time" lists even to this day. Unsurprisingly, this niche market coalesced largely out of fans of the various science fiction books which Alpha Centauri cited as inspiration, like for instance Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom's Pandora novels. Multifaceted, philosophical, allowing for the player to express more personality than even RPGs, SMAC came across as an interactive rewrite by the player of the sort of daring, visionary science fiction we all proudly displayed on our bookshelves.

Though some of Alpha Centauri's technical limitations and repetitive gameplay features have been surpassed over the decades, the mystique of terraforming a hostile (and very) alien world has persisted, prompting repeated demands by fans for a spiritual successor. While I quite correctly guessed that Firaxis' own Beyond Earth would not fit that bill, its flop got me to look around for other attempts, possibly from smaller developers more willing to play to niche audiences rather than the hoi polloi. Turns out that just a year prior, a tiny studio by the name of Proxy had released Pandora: First Contact, waving to fans of both Alpha Centauri and Herbert's transhumanist acid trip.

So what the hell, I took the bait, and relocated my den for a time:
Note the flock of pterodactyls at the bottom of the image. Important plot point!

But more on that later. As a strategy game, Pandora's full of good (or at least intriguing) points. Resource system: what you see is what you get; the two minerals you acquire on the map are two extra minerals in your city's production queue. True to classic 4X-ing, there's little to no penalty for overexpansion beyond production / upkeep costs for units and buildings. A common pool of harvested food / minerals is combined with localized consumption, so you can purposefully and very satisfyingly massage your empire into cash / mining / military sectors. Cities' sphere of influence can grow far beyond that of the Civilization games, acquring more and more hexes. Formers can act like SMAC's supply crawlers, gathering resources from unclaimed hexes.

Alpha Centauri fans will immediately recognize the modular unit customization window, where you select a basic chassis for its movement speed then slap on the armor / weapon / ability you prefer. This, along with city management, unit orders, upgrades, research, are all handled through a surprisingly smooth, intuitive interface minimizing flipping through windows. Capturing native life forms is a bit of an adventure, requiring you to build a pool of specialized units, and even sacrifice some redshirts to tame yourself some of the local megafauna, at least twice as powerful as the best early-game units.

So what's wrong with it? Well, to start, even Pandora's good points fail to mesh or are more limited than they seem. Endlessly expansive cities negate the use of supply crawlers. The unit design system's largely a chore of implementing the latest completely linear tech upgrade. The AI, while possessing some notable strengths like countering your infantry with vehicles or calling a peace when the natives are about to get restless, is largely an idiot, alternating war declarations with treaty request spam. From one turn to another it'll demand tribute then offer you tribute, denounce you one moment then praise you the next, break pacts the turn after forming them. It's like playing against Trump! And, like Trump, it overcompensates for its ineptitude by getting bankrolled by invisible outside interests and refusing to pay its taxes. Though it's become somewhat of a truism that the AI in strategy games always cheats, Pandora's mounts insurmountable numeric bonuses even at medium difficulty.

Along with a supercharged stream of early-game neutral enemies (monsters) and a tech tree whose demands at least on my game settings scale very poorly against player growth, this yields a pretty dull, predictable setup. If you survive the early swarms of bats and walking fly-traps, you'll then clear off your neighbours and nonetheless end up losing the tech race to faraway enemies out of your control. The end.

For a fan of Alpha Centauri however, a few more lacks readily disqualify Pandora from it's claim as a spiritual successor. Terraforming is pathetically anemic: no boreholes, no elevations, no rain shadows, no water bases or water improvements, no long-term way to weaponize the local wildlife. The wildlife itself, along with the Alien Crossfire -inspired alien invaders never really go anywhere either, again failing to compensate for nonexistent AI planning with brute stats. The giant pterosaurs are only one sign that "Pandora" refers to James Cameron's, painfully shallow, simplistic CGI excuse for a movie and not to Herbert's novels. While tootling some decent music and attempting to build up a backstory, there's no memorable world-building to speak of here. The faction leader personalities are overtly copied one-for-one from Alpha Centauri but lack any personality whatsoever, despite some hamfisted attempts at characterizing them through flavor text. Random stabs at comedy are more jarring than relieving ("the sky is crying", really now?) The aliens are all disappointing little green men or kaiju, refusing to adopt anything as creative (and nightmare-fueling) as Herbert's nerve runners. Planet, the defining Herbert-inspired demiurge overshadowing your entire personal story in Alpha Centauri, is also utterly absent, with no big idea to replace it.

Despite some solid notions of strategy, their shallow implementation and lack of aesthetic charm fail to legitimize this game as anything other than a future quaint oldie to scrounge out of the bargain bin for a few hours of "meh" and a month-later uninstall. Painless, but also joyless to play - and even if I saved you, there's a million more in line.

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