Imagine Earth Preview (PC)

The colonisation of a new planet should be an exciting and challenging task. One that tests your ability to manage resources, keep a populace happy and still ensuring that your fresh green globe doesn’t turn into a human litter tray. Imagine Earth is aimed at making these overwhelming tasks far more accessible than the likes of Civilization or Age of Empires. While it succeeds in simplifying the interface and resource aspects of the genre, it doesn’t give the player quite the same level of ownership as those gaming titans.

Currently in Early Access on Steam, Imagine Earth strikes me as a game that's going to polarise opinion from those that find its lack of depth boring and those who'll enjoy the blend of an accessible interface and long play sessions.

This is your new, beautiful planet. Don't screw it up

At the moment only three levels/planets are available to play and the game does a good job of introducing you to its systems and the interface. It’s clear that a lot of time has been spent making the first impression of Imagine Earth excellent and the colourful visuals certainly do the trick. The campaign sees you taking on the task of colonising planets on behalf of an interstellar corporation, balancing their demands against sustainable development. Translate: don’t boil the damn planet, son.

Accessibility is Imagine Earth’s primary focus as gameplay elements are boiled down to the most basic constituents you can, uh, imagine. You’ll have four jobs to do when building your new civilisation. To provide housing to increase your population, food to keep them alive, factories to produce money and energy to power all those creations.

Divided up into segments the planets I played were never big enough to design intricate or particularly ordered cities so it’s a case of shoving whatever you can, wherever you can to get the job done. Though different building can affect others negatively, like housing next to power stations, oftentimes there’s no choice, and demolishing and rebuilding things to make them pleasing to the eye can easily sabotage the planet and your civilisation entirely if you’re not careful.

There’s a bit of variety with what you can build that comes as you unlock more of the research tree. These need unlocking with Coins before you can buy them, part of the in-game currency that you’re rewarded with for achieving certain goals. As I progressed alternatives to coal power stations were unlocked and similar industrial upgrades occur across nearly all structures. It adds a good sense of progression and comes with various trade-offs. Do you preserve the fishing population with reduced food income in order to keep that food source going for longer, or just slash and burn it for a short-term game?

This leads on to the game’s core mechanic which puts the health of the environment above and beyond nearly every other aspect. It’s where Imagine Earth gets its unique take on the planet Sim but it’s also where some major problems are.

Divided into segments it can be difficult to build something visually pleasing

Divided into two elements that need constant attention you have to deal with your civilisations pollution. Obviously coal-based and oil-platforms produce the most and need constant decontamination to avoid damage and stop the spread of pollution affecting other parts of the map. It’s good that a level of responsibility comes with energy-generation and later in the game recycling plants can keep pollution levels down without you manually clicking on structures. But until then, or if you don’t have enough coins to unlock that research, or space to build them you’ll be spending time every 15 minutes scrubbing every power station and factory to ensure that disaster doesn’t strike. It’s not very fun and while I appreciate the idea of automating such a process might negate its point, it’s simply a very dull and tiresome mechanic.

The other element is the temperature of the planet, which for some reason, rises as you build more power stations or factories. You can unlock upgrades and research that help to keep this number down but in order to avoid any direct negative result of your presence requires a lot of time and planning.

I actually liked this mechanic and took great pleasure in slowly replacing my oil rigs with wind power - not least because I didn’t have to click on them every five minutes to decontaminate! What irritated me was the seemingly one way path this mechanic went. The planet always warmed up as my colonisation progressed, which means the polar caps melted, which meant less land to develop and any coastal structures would get destroyed. As Imagine Earth’s early levels are so small, just a few buildings being damaged like this leads to a cascade of disasters that are near-impossible to recover.

Climate change isn’t one way and I don’t like how directly correlated Imagine Earth portrays a complex system that may or may not have anything to do with current human industry. It would have been good to have an element of global cooling to offset the scale, with perhaps encroaching ice glaciers as an antithesis to rising sea levels.

The strategy to circumvent flooding was easy to discover after a few ‘Planet Over’ screens but executing it means changing the way you’d like to build your planet and sticking with a set plan of replacing more ‘warming’ tech immediately as you research it. That’s fine and it teaches that short-term gain almost always comes at a longer term cost, but it makes the experience feel a lot more drawn out than I think it should.

Too much industry and dirty power stations... yeah, I screwed up

Each civilisation I built therefore, felt moulded to a particular type. There was no sense of ownership or individually to my creation - it had to conform to what the systems in place demanded. Maybe this will change as they develop bigger planets and that looks to be the developers aim as the campaign progresses. A larger world could alleviate nearly all of my concerns so I have to refrain from being too critical.

Imagine Earth looks like an interesting prospect and the emphasis on the planets ecology is a welcome step, I like the idea of a super-accessible version of Civilisation but having at least a bit of depth to the game's systems would make playing it seem worthwhile. As it is, no planet I colonised and build upon felt like mine, just a very similar version to what everyone else must have built. With these concerns in mind I'd wait for a bit more substance to arrive before committing to a purchase.

Top Game Moment: Finally replacing those dirty oil rigs with wind power.

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By LS35A (SI Member) on Jun 13, 2014
CiV has pretty much killed other games for me. Sooner or later when playing anything else I think, 'gee, I could be playing Civ now. I still have 18 Civ's yet I haven't played as'.