Playing a game like Endless Space in 95 degree heat is a bit weird. Here I am, trying to expand my chosen species through the chill of the galactic void, while a PC tower attempts to slowly melt a substantial portion of my leg. It’s rather difficult to summon up the necessary strategic brainpower to lead an empire to triumph when you have hot plastic burning your extremities. That’s my excuse for barely having bested the ‘easy’ difficulty setting, anyway.
Endless Space is a ‘4X’ title; a genre name coined by someone who hadn’t noticed that the words Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate all began with the letter E. For the 4X-ers out there, this one is flavoured along the lines of Masters of Orion 2 and Galactic Civilizations 2. For the basic strategy fans, it’s sort of like Civilization in space. And for those who’ve just discovered videogames, it’s a game in which you spread colonies across a user-defined galaxy while rival species attempt to do the same.
I’ve extensively praised the game’s user interface in my preview, so I’ll spare you too much more of that. In summary, it’s one of the most elegant interfaces I’ve ever seen in a strategy title. It does nothing that’s especially revolutionary, but it just seems to get everything so right. Everything you need to do in the game can be accessed by five main tabs at the top of the screen, menu ‘layers’ get no deeper than three and a right click will always back you out. In an ideal world, all strategy titles would have an interface this smooth.
Much of the enjoyment in these games comes from finding a race/species that suits your particular play-style. Endless Space offers eight different factions (plus a ‘custom’ slot you can put together yourself), the majority of which are distinct enough to offer a unique flavour. There’s the robo-Terraformers, the Evil Empire™, some warrior dino birdmen, science-obsessed amoeba and a tremendous race of weirdo clones called Horatio, to name a few.
The differences between each species, so wonderfully spelled out in text, don’t quite translate to a full set of alternate strategic approaches in the game. Yes, the tech trees for each are a little different, and certain strategies are only open to individual races (Sowers, the robo-Terraformers, can colonise pretty much any planet, for example), but the broad passages of play will feel relatively similar. No matter who you play as, you’ll have to engage with all four ‘branches’ of the research tree. Nobody can afford to ignore, say, the military section, even though non-violent victory conditions are available. Such is the interplay between all aspects of research, every race needs to take an interest in areas outside their supposed specialties. There are clear differences, just not radical ones.
In fact, tinkering with the game-winning conditions (there’s no ‘campaign’ as such in Endless Space, you simply set up various parameters and the number of opponents for your galactic sandbox) can be as much of, if not more, of an influence on overall strategy. As can your starting position, and the types of planets you find yourself closest to.
In space, combat is an inevitability. No matter how many peace treaties you sign and how much technology you trade, someone, somewhere, will eventually want to kill you (possibly for signing too many peace treaties).
Ship design is tied to how many new military discoveries you can pump out of your research labs, which in turn is tied directly to how many ‘science points’ your colonies are creating. Like everything in the game, it all interconnects. There are three main weapon branches (kinetic, missile and beam), each with a corresponding armour set. Support comes in the form of improved engines, bigger hulls and the bonuses provided by heroes who can be hired as admirals for your fleet (and as administrators for your colonial worlds).
Fleets meet in semi-automated battles, divided into three combat phases. In each phase, one of the weapon types is more effective than the others (missiles at long range, beam at mid and kinetic at short). You can also issue specific orders for each phase (represented by playing cards) to give yourself the edge of, say, +40% kinetic damage for the cost of -20% defense. Opposing fleets also play these cards, and some will ‘trump’ others, adding an extra tactical dimension to proceedings.
It’s a compromise between full, real-time battles and simple automation (though it is possible to auto-calc battles too), and as a reflection of your empire’s military power it works well. With a bit of smart scouting, you can figure out if the enemy has gone heavily towards one weapon type and create a counter-fleet accordingly.
The problem is, once you run into stack after stack of enemy fleets, watching a two minute (or so) space battle presentation in which all you do is select a few orders starts to get rather old. You’ll begin to drift to the ‘auto resolution’ button which, though it does a fair job, tends to produce worse results than a ‘manual’ fight. For some unfortunate reason it’s only possible to trigger a retreat from within manual combat itself, so the auto resolve isn’t always the most convenient option.
You will run into endless stacks of fleets on higher difficulties, because (like so many other strategy titles) the AI gets a hefty resource boost. This isn’t an ideal solution, as it’s always preferable to have an AI that gets cleverer (or less idiotic) at higher difficulties, rather than just a gigantic helping hand. However, development teams much larger than Amplitude have used (and will continue to use) this shortcut, so it is an understandable approach.
The AI can also be observed doing some rather strange things at times. Its colony choices can leave a bit to be desired and I’ve noticed a few instances of out of character behaviour, like the war-obsessed Cravers sitting back on a lone home planet like frightened little rabbits. In another game, the peace-loving science folks waited until they were large enough and then stabbed me in the back (although this kind of made sense; they probably had to remove me for the greater glory of science, or something).
For those interested in the multiplayer side of things (anything you can do in Endless Space’s single player can also be done with friends), be aware that there’s a bug at present that sometimes puts players out of synch with the host. This will undoubtedly be fixed, but right now it can make multiplayer a bit of a lottery.
Amplitude is running a system where owners of the game get to vote on the feature that will be included next, so there’s no danger of this title being abandoned any time soon. That’s all very positive for the game’s long-term future, but it’s still rather annoying to be voting for the inclusion of a couple of things (like the ability to raze a planet rather than capturing it) which should probably have been in there at release.
If this review has seemed to lean a little negative, that’s only because almost every other aspect of the title is damn near perfect. It looks and sounds gorgeous (especially if you’re into Blade Runner-esque synth twinkles), creates a compelling 4X structure with interesting races, technologies and planetary quirks, and serves as the smoothest possible introduction to the genre that you could imagine.
Veterans of this game type will rightly nit-pick at aspects of the combat, lack of espionage diplomacy options (this one does hurt a bit) and certain AI behaviours, but there should be no argument thatEndless Space is one of the best 4X titles to appear for a good long while. It hasn’t quite delivered the incredible potential it offers; but it’s tantalizingly close.