Created by Pavonis Interactive, who made The Long War mods for XCOM, Terra Invicta is an insanely complex strategy game about what happens when aliens arrive at our pale blue dot of a planet. You play one of six shadowy organisations, each with its own unique approach to the new arrivals. Some want to exterminate the xenos, some want to offer up Earth on a silver platter; one faction’s goal is to load everyone up on a space ferry and get the hell out of dodge.
One thing that makes Terra Invicta such an extremely unusual strategy game, is that its gameplay 10 hours in looks nothing like the state of affairs after thirty hours. It starts out as a geopolitical simulator, with each faction scrabbling to establish a foothold and seize the reins of power. But it’s transmogrified part way through to become a space strategy game, complete with base and ship building, and Newtonian space combat. There’s a whole simulated solar system out there to explore, with hundreds of planets, moons, and big rocks to colonise. But first, you have to get off the ground.
Unfortunately, the first few hours of Terra Invicta represent a speed bump so mountainous that many players may never get over. It’s an unforgiving game, and slow paced to the extent that you may not realise you’ve screwed up a playthrough in some vital way until six hours later.
In the early (perhaps an ill-fitting word, as you’ll be there for at least a dozen hours) stages of Terra Invicta, the primary gameplay loop concerns assigning your operatives different tasks, like running public campaigns, or stirring up unrest in an enemy region. It feels a bit like an extremely complex board game, with each action of your goons decided by a dice roll, and your chance for success growing with the amount of resources you commit.
Once you’ve got some experience, this can lead to tense clandestine battles over control points, with every faction trying to shore up a power base that’ll give them the resources and funding required to face the extraterrestrials. I’ve had thrilling battles in the shadows, where I’ve attempted to sow chaos in a rival faction, then assassinate a key councillor to prevent them protecting a location I needed, only to fail when one of my own operatives went rogue.
The extent of your options is enormous, even in the very first moments of Terra Invicta. You can wage nuclear war, forge vast alliances, and more. But the tutorial doesn’t give you much more than a nod in the right direction, and the game is brutally unforgiving even (or maybe especially in its earliest stages. Fail to wrestle control of any countries of consequence, and you might be stuck scrabbling about in the dirt while other countries reach for the stars.
It’s an understatement to say that Terra Invicta is a daunting game. The density of information that smacks a new player in the face is unparalleled, and it doesn’t help that the games’ dizzying array of systems are not always clearly communicated. It’s not useful to know that completing a goal will ‘lower unrest by -0.0015’ (wait, so does that mean raising unrest?) but it would be useful if hovering my mouse over a tiny little icon representing some obscure resource would tell me what it is.
A large part of the problem is that a good half of Terra Invicta’s menus and resources don’t have any use, or won’t be gathered, until you’re many hours into the game and setting up bases on other worlds. Similarly, even the earliest technologies you can research provide new components for a shipbuilding system you won’t have any cause to grapple with for hours on end. As a new player, it’s easy to feel frustrated, and get stuck in a rut where it feels like nothing you’re doing has much consequence. The good news is that Pavonis’ early access road map for Terra Invicta looks like it’ll address many of these issues.
Drag yourself up that steep, steep learning curve, and Terra Invicta becomes a toy box that’s like nothing else on the market. Your choices, both on earth and in space, are endless, and the base and shipbuilding provides lots and lots to tinker with. As well as its sheer depth, I’m enthralled by the game’s worldbuilding and atmosphere, from its mysterious and sinister aliens, to its fleshed out factions, to its hard scifi approach to humanity’s expansion into space. It won’t be for you if you don’t enjoy wordy games, but the writing is top notch.
The scope of what Terra Invicta is trying to achieve is truly amazing, and despite a few wrinkles in need of ironing out, it’s quite astonishing that for the most part it pulls it off. If the new player experience can be improved and a few bolts tightened in the way the game presents itself, Terra Invicta will be an easy game to recommend for all strategy-lovers. Right now, it’s still well worth diving in, if you’ve the patience to handle its idiosyncrasies.
On course for the stars
Terra Invicta is an amazingly ambitious game, that in early access provides a complete but complex experience. Once it’s smoothed out some of the rough edges, it should truly shine.