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Imagine Earth - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Emphasis on sustainability
  • Emphasis on cooperation and peaceful conflict resolution
  • Satire of corporate capitalism
  • Variety of play-styles and solutions
  • Licenses limit available infrastructure
  • Generally informative U.I.
  • Production quality

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Constant moving of goalposts
  • Each mission concludes with a gauntlet of grind
  • Limited automation tools
  • Is there a count of active Warehouse drones in the U.I.?
  • Some resources are not clearly labeled on globe

Overall Impression : B- / C+
Ecologically-conscious condemnation of corporate capitalism
that turns into an absolute grind.

Imagine Earth - cover

Developer:
Serious Bros.

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam, GoG, or IndieGoGo),
XBox One, Series X|S (via XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $25 USD

Original release date:
25 May 2021 (Steam),
9 July 2021 (XBox)

Genre:
Sci-Fi strategy / simulation

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
20+ hours

ESRB Rating: N/A.
MegaBearsFan Parental Rating: appropriate for all audiences.

Official site:
www.imagineearth.info/

I've been seeing more and more games putting an emphasis on mechanics oriented around environmentalism and sustainability. Games in genres that typically encourage unchecked exploitation of resources are now becoming more and more about the sustainable use of resources. It makes sense. Climate change is becoming more and more of a visible problem that affects our lives in tangible ways. Milliennial game developers are also searching for ways to cope with the fact that our generation and the next will be stuck paying the consequences of the short-sightedness of our parents' and grandparents' generations. Many members of those earlier generations are still, unfortunately in positions of political and corporate power, and make up a large voting block, and are continuing to make selfish, short-sighted decisions that will only make matters worse for the younger generations. It makes sense that younger game developers would be baking those anxieties into the games that they make.

Ecologically-focused colony-building

Imagine Earth is the type of city-builder / strategy sim that has typically been about conspicuous consumption, but it now wants the player to consume more responsibly. Not only does this game expect the player to industrialize the surface of entire planets at the behest of a corporation, it also asks the player to do that with an eye towards limiting greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and other pollution. Developing a sustainable economy doesn't only mean cutting back on emissions from power plants, industrial activity, and so forth. It also requires restoring or expanding natural habitats by planting forests, growing corals, and so forth.

Imagine Earth prioritizes limiting greenhouse emissions and pollution.

Either the player has to plan the growth of your colonies in a sustainable fashion and prevent emissions and pollution from ever getting out of hand to begin with, or you have to spend the back half of each mission doing damage control.

Unfortunately, just like in real-life, any individual person or corporation or government's environmental efforts aren't necessarily sufficient to curtail the effects of climate change. There are often other corporations or settlements on these planets which don't have the same noble ecological goals, and who will happily ruin things for everybody else. They are there to make a quick buck by exploiting as much of the resources as possible, with no plans for sustained long term habitation -- the other people living on the planet be damned. But the corporation we work for in Imagine Earth does plan on prepping these planets for long-term colonization, so we have to pick up those other corporations' messes. Sometimes through violence, coercion, or sabotage, but usually through a hostile takeover of majority stake.

Not all corporations are concerned with long-term colonization that requires a stable environment.

Corporate takeover

In addition to tracking emissions and global temperature, Imagine Earth also runs a little stock market in the background. You can buy out a controlling stake in the opposing company's stocks, if you can earn enough money, and then start dismantling their operations from within. And if that fails, you can hack into their communication towers, assume control of their installations, and outright sabotage them.

Unfortunately, this sort of subterfuge and intrigue only comes along once in a while. The rest of the game is a lot more ... mundane. Place a new district, mine some ore, chop a forest, sell excess resources and materials to transient traders, and so forth.

You can take control of another corporation's colony buy buying a controlling majority of its shares.

There is a fairly wide variety of options and play-styles available to the player. There's multiple food options, ranging from farming fields, to fishing, to cultivating indigenous crops -- along with variations on each of those. Same for energy options, which range from high-emitting coal and oil plants, to cleaner wind and solar, and expensive fusion power.

There's also a variety of challenges to deal with and overcome. Imagine Earth would get very boring very quickly if every mission were just a simple matter of optimizing a production chain over and over again. Instead, each mission of the campaign is pretty much a tutorial for a different set of gameplay mechanics and ideas that build up as the campaign goes on. From simple production chain mechanics, to dealing with natural disasters, to battling rival corporations for control of the planet, and even fighting off alien invasions. There's thankfully a lot more here than just "build colony, rinse, repeat."

The full variety of options, however, won't all be available to the player at once, thanks to one of Imagine Earth's core concepts: its infrastructure licensing mechanic. The game has a technology web that unlocks new buildings and upgrades for those buildings. Pretty typical for a game of this type. But in order to actually construct a building, you must also go through the extra step of first acquiring a license for that piece of infrastructure. A handful of licenses are given at the start of each campaign mission to get you going, and additional licenses are acquired gradually as your colony grows its population and wealth. You can also buy licenses from certain vendors, but it's expensive.

There is a wide variety of challenges to deal with, and a wide variety of options to deal with them.

Lastly, trade partners may offer the opportunity to buy a single-use "kit" that allows you to build one copy of a building that your partner owns the license for, but which you don't -- essentially renting their license from them. This can be useful in a pinch or emergency situation. If you suddenly find yourself needing a Medical District to treat a disease outbreak, or a Frontier Tower to protect your assets from an aggressor, you can potentially buy a single-use permit without needing to invest in a full license just so you can build one copy of a needed building.

More broadly, the license system takes the wide variety offered by the game, and limits the choices back down to what you've invested and committed to. Your starting conditions on a new colony will largely determine which licenses you adopt at the start of the mission, and you'll kind of have to run with that and make due. This system prevents the player from placing down a couple of cheap coal plants to get your initial colony running, then pivot to clean and abundant nuclear or wind power later in order to reduce your emissions. Well, you can take that second license, but it will come at the very high opportunity cost of not being able to take a license for some other important infrastructure.

The license mechanic also plays into the corporate dystopia themes. You can't just build simple things like mines or lumbermills or hospitals because greedy corporations have ownership of those ideas.

Licenses force the player to commit to a specific play-style for each colony.

The workday grind

Unfortunately, one of the downsides of the license mechanic is that some of the infrastructure for automating your colony is locked behind licenses, which means they often won't be available for use because there's more practical necessities to worry about. Buildings like the Maintenance Station or Remediation Center are super-convenient, but they are rarely (if ever) necessary, and so often sit un-licensed in the build menu.

There's not a whole lot in the way of automation functionality. Worker drones from warehouses are pretty good about automatically mining and harvesting valuable resources, so I only needed to micro-manage those early in any given settlement, when I only had a single warehouse or two, or had more resources to harvest than I had drones. Other than that though, micro-management did start to become a chore for me.

There's no way to automatically upgrade all buildings of a given type, or all structures within a particular city's range. So if I just unlocked a nice new technology that is going to make all my farms more efficient, I can't just instantly apply that upgrade to all existing farms. I can click a button on the build U.I. to apply that upgrade to all new farms going forward, but if I want to upgrade all my existing farms, I have to click on each farm, one at a time, and upgrade them. Similarly, when it comes time to upgrade city centers and districts to higher levels, I must click through each and every city center and district tile to manually apply the upgrade.

Since almost every mission has a final goal of maximizing the population or reducing greenhouse emissions, having to manually upgrade every building one at a time, and clean up polluted tiles one at a time, becomes a tedious chore.

The goalposts are constantly moving.

Getting through the campaign does turn into a serious grind. The campaign missions start out relatively short and straight-forward, taking about an hour to complete. After a few missions, however, the seemingly-simple objectives get confounded by moving the goalposts back repeatedly, stretching the missions out to 2 or 3 times that long, with most of the back half being dominated by grinding to raise population, reduce emissions, clean up pollution, or collect arbitrary amounts of resources.

If would be fine if these were bonus objectives, but no, they are required for progression. There are bonus objectives on top of the moved-back goalposts, and they add even more grind for players who, for some reason, want to grind even more. The main menu does show that each mission has 5 total objectives, but it doesn't specify which of those 5 are bonus objectives, nor does it reveal the actual objectives until they are unlocked in gameplay. So even though I know there are 5 objectives going into a mission, I don't know how long or involved each of those objectives will be, or how many of them are required to complete the mission.

This created a problem for me with regards to actually finishing the game. I started playing it, got a few missions in, and then abandoned it for several months. I wanted to finish playing, but I was always afraid of starting a new mission in the evening because I knew I wouldn't have time to finish it. Sure, I could save and pick up that mission again later, but I worried about losing track of what I was supposed to be doing. So I just kept putting off that next mission for months before finally coming back and completing it.

I wonder if the tedious grind is part of the point. Pivoting our economy into an ecologically-conscious and sustainable economy isn't going to be done overnight, and it isn't going to be fun or easy. It will be a tedious grind that will require making compromises and sacrifices in our daily lives.

In the end, I have some reservations about the mission design and pacing, but I think I would recommend Imagine Earth for anyone looking for a mid-level sci-fi simulation strategy title. And if you're coming off of something like Outer Worlds and want more biting criticism of corporate capitalism, then Imagine Earth might be right up your alley.

I also want to give credit to the developers for the high production quality that went into this small indie project. The visuals are crisp and attractive. It's fully voice-acted, and has a nice little soundtrack. The U.I. is rich in detailed information. I even want to give a special shout-out to the main menu screen, which shows the current state of your most recently-played save file. It's a nice, personal touch.

Completing the campaign requires environmentally-conscious play.

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