Review: Terra Invicta – MIB MVP

I am, unquestionably, a slobbering fanboy of the XCOM series, from its original iteration to the recent Firaxis remakes. That combination of grand strategy, deep tactics, and emergent storytelling always hits my brain like a hot shot. Even if I suck during a firefight, there’s that undeniable pull of “one more turn” riding shotgun alongside “No, not that dude!” when a cherished team member gets whacked by a filthy space invader. When getting into the “Long War” mods for XCOM, it only gets more intense. So when our intrepid Reviews Editor casually mentioned that Pavonis Interactive, the people who made the “Long War” mods, were putting out a new game in the same vein, I jumped on it. Perhaps a bit hastily. I would strongly say Terra Invicta basically tricked me, and did so in the best possible way.

If, like me, you were expecting a novel twist on the classic XCOM formula, you’re going to be disappointed. However, the disappointment will be short lived when realize that you’re getting a very different, but not unfamiliar, perspective. If you picture the grand strategy of Crusader Kings with Alpha Centauri-style factions and a ridiculously broad tech tree, you’ll have the general premise of Terra Invicta. Players are working to defend the Earth in more-or-less secrecy, there is an alien menace in the Solar System, and you’ve got all manner of logistical issues to sort out. Where Terra Invicta takes its hard turn is the scope. You’re running the council of shadow brokers and Illuminati-types, not the troops (at least at a squad sized tactical level). You’re overseeing operatives who’ll can undertake missions from investigating alien crash sites to engineering coups in various nations. All the while, you’re preparing to defend the Solar System from the encroaching alien threat, along with your rivals and potential quislings on Earth. The most combat you’re going to see is towards the later phases, when you’ve built up mighty task groups of different ship classes armed with a dizzying array of plausible sci-fi weapons.

You’re fighting this one for the species.

Visually, Terra Invicta looks so very pretty. All eight major planets in the Solar System, along with dwarf planets, asteroids, various Kuiper Belt objects, and more are lovingly rendered, though Earth gets a good deal more detail given its the center of the action for most of the game. When you start putting space stations and spacecraft into the sky, the designs neatly straddle the line between practical and fantastic. If you’ve enjoyed the ship designs featured in The Expanse, you’re going to immediately feel right at home here. The user interface can occasionally feel cluttered, particularly when you’re looking at the details of nations while juggling your council members or trying to deploy armies or fleets. But for all that, you’re rarely left asking “what button do I push?” Tooltips for various resources and other UI elements are easily available just by hovering over them with the mouse pointer. As for the various individuals you can pick up to add to your council, each of them looks like a distinct individual. You can’t customize them the same way you could in XCOM, but that doesn’t feel like a shortcoming.

The audio elements of Terra Invicta are probably its weakest point, and even that’s not terrible. A lot of the strength is put in voice work, as you hear the heads of various faction leaders speaking on topics when a research project is completed. That element alone helps cement the Alpha Centauri vibe, reminding the player that there are all sorts of things happening in the world and they’re only one part of a much bigger story being told. Each faction leader is unique as a character and you can’t help but picture them as they’re speaking, particularly when you’ve got text adding further details. The music is serviceable, not bad, but not in the vein of Bear McCreary or Ramin Djawadi for large sweeping orchestral pieces. In some respects, this is a good thing, since the moments where you’re needing swelling themes and bombast are few and far between. And while the developers have certainly worked to keep the sci-fi elements hard and crunchy, there are sound effects for battles in space, which are nicely done. Purists may decry this choice, but it’s an alien invasion game. Let us have the pew-pew and rumbling explosions, even if it is in vacuum. It’s supposed to be fun.

Sometimes, even the Sun decides to be your enemy.

When Pavonis Interactive says Terra Invicta is a grand strategy game, they’re not kidding. Nor are they making dry, studied understatements to display their design sangfroid. You’re almost literally playing 4D chess here, and it has that devilish combination of “easy to pick up, difficult to master” that all really great strategy games have. Once you’ve selected your preferred faction out of the seven available, the game starts you with two random council members and almost 200 nations for you to exert your influence upon. You assign your council members activities based on their particular archetypes and skill sets, then sit back, advance time at either a slow or accelerated pace, and wait for the results. Time pauses when you need to make assignments, but you can pause it at any time if you feel the need to stop and think carefully. Actions by council members are phased in roughly two week periods in the early days of the game. As your council members complete missions, they earn XP which can be used to either improve their stats or obtain new perks which refine aspects of their character. Additionally, you can obtain a number of fictional and real world organizations which provide certain improvements to your faction. Certain organizations have specific requirements and steep prices in terms of resources to purchase, but the benefits of obtaining them generally makes them a good investment. You’re limited to a total of eight council members, and two of them you’re going to have to woo away from one of the other six factions. Each council member has a Loyalty value, though most council members only show an apparent value until you have another council member investigate them to make sure they’re staying loyal. Those with low Loyalty are most at risk for being turned to another faction.

The early game is very much a case of staking out territory, and larger nations like the US, Russia, China, and India are going to be hard to crack right at the beginning. This creates a definite tension, compounded by the fact you can only control so much territory at any given time, and exceeding your control cap makes it difficult for you to grow the influence you need to execute certain actions. It becomes almost a game of go with the board being the entire world. Do you accept footholds in nations other factions have established with the intent of muscling them out later? Or do you work to secure a certain region like the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa, then build up from there, defending them against all comers? As your council members improve and certain technologies are researched, your ability to control more territory increases as well, but it’s sometimes frustrating when the last control point in a nation gets snaked by another faction. Naturally, you’ll have the opportunity to talk and trade with other factions, and it may be to your benefit to cement alliances however temporary.  Later on, you’ll have the option to initiate boarding actions against opposing habitats both orbital and exoplanetary, as well as orbital bombardment if you decide to conduct a “scorched earth” campaign across the Solar System.  Ultimately, you’re either going to rule the Solar System, or you’re going to be the last body in an unmarked mass grave.

Unfortunately, you can’t load treacherous council members into missile tubes to help out your efforts.

Your faction has a particular ethos which can help influence your choices when it comes to researching new technologies, but does not limit you from any of them. Developing the technology to build space hotels doesn’t seem like the sort of thing The Resistance faction might do, but the profiteers of The Initiative might think it’s just dandy. Likewise, when it comes to organizations, a council member working for the intellectuals of The Academy could very well be advancing their interests with JPL in their pocket, but it might be a little weird if they had the Quds Force or the Camorra crime syndicate at their disposal. That said, when it comes to research, having orgs often benefits you by giving you bonuses to certain general research fields. You’re likely going to find that, in the early game, the computer factions are going to have a jump on global research projects, which means they’re going to be picking the next research project. But it’s possible to take the lead and select global projects yourself if you cross the finish line on a previous tech first.  The funny thing is that even research can be an area of strategic effort. Do you choose to basically do nothing and ride the coattails of other factions, or do you try to get the inside track on a certain area of research and become a leader in the field?

At a certain point, you’re going to get into building spacecraft. The ship design system is pretty easy to navigate, though the choices for components are not always quite so cut and dried. Initial designs aren’t going to be very large, fast, durable, or lethal. But as the game progresses and new options come in, you’ll have room to work out designs which fit your preferred doctrine. Space battles are not going to be short affairs, mainly because your ships are moving relatively slowly, you’re having to work with or overcome gravity and inertia, and (as Douglas Adams noted) space is big, even around low Earth orbit. For those who’ve had some prior experience with Newtonian mechanics in games, or are just really big fans of The Expanse or David Weber’s “Honorverse” novels, space combat is going to be glorious even at accelerated rates of time, with fine control of each ship’s trajectory, attitude, and pitch being able to be adjusted, allowing for intricate maneuvers and potentially converging angles of attack on individual targets. Or, if that doesn’t appeal to you, let the computer autoresolve the battle and hope that it doesn’t decide your ships’ captains had a little too much space grog before the shooting started.

“Nice looking fleet you’ve got there, ET. Be a shame if it got all shot up.”

Flat out, Terra Invicta is the logical evolution of those “Long War” mods for XCOM, yet manages to establish its own identity and be comfortable in it. And given those modder origins, the promise of mod support absolutely gets one thinking about even more elaborate and engaging possibilities. But even if you only play the vanilla game, you’ve got enough to absolutely make your head spin as well as creating ludonarrative threads about a long and shadowy conflict against an unknown alien threat which easily rival those of the games Pavonis Interactive took their inspiration from. It’s entirely likely to sit down, start up a game, and then look at the clock in bleary eyed confusion as to where the last several hours went. Almost like you were abducted by aliens, or possibly a brief visit from men in black suits and no sense of humor.

Axel reviewed Terra Invicta on PC with a review code.

“I thought about pulling a Picard Maneuver, but then decided, ‘Screw it, it’s too far.'”
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