Endless Space is a 4X game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) due out on the 15th of July via Steam.
The interface in this game has a fantastic level of polish. Tooltips put most of the information you need at your cursortip, relevant information is logically placed, there are few submenus, controls make navigation easy with both the keyboard and the mouse, and it actually looks good. (Playing 4X games has conditioned me to expect to navigate at least sixteen confusing and unintuitive screens to be able to perform the simplest tasks.) Amplitude, the developers of Endless Space, have apparently taken a lot of time and effort to try to simplify gameplay, with what I felt was mixed success. It did make the game much simpler and easier to just jump into, but at the same time, there was a noticeable loss of depth when compared with other 4X titles.
I felt that the greatest loss in this respect was combat. I think it’s meant to function on a rock-paper-scissors system, but it doesn’t really work that way in practice. There are three weapons in the game: beam weapons, mass drivers, and missiles. Each of these weapons has a defensive technology that you can put on your ships to counter them: shields, plating, and flak. Both weapons and defenses can be improved through research. But the problem with this is that with no espionage system in the game, you don’t know what your enemies will be using to effectively counter it. So you can pick one and hope for the best, or try to defend a bit against all of them, or none of them. (The latter was what I went with, you get improved armour as you research missile tech, so you can just make your ships giant balls of hitpoints that the enemies can’t break before your missiles eradicate them.) Plating and flak also block hits instead of an HP amount, so it’s very easy to overwhelm enemy defenses if you just focus on a single weapon type.
I was also disappointed by the fact that the combat is largely cinematic. The only player action available is to choose your ship’s actions during the 3 ranges of the engagement, long, medium and short. This takes the form of a card system, which is again largely a blind rock-paper-scissors system, as certain action types will counter others, but there’s no way to predict the enemy’s choice. Each range also favours a certain weapon type: long for missiles, medium for lasers, and short for mass drivers. It’s always in this order, and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to change the length of the rounds. Long-range missile ships will still slowly and inexplicably fly towards the enemy, rather than keeping them at range for as long as possible. (Here again, I found missiles had an unfair advantage, as they hit very hard in the first round, so enemies usually died before they had a chance to get into a range that favoured their weapons.) You also can’t speed up combat, or auto-retreat. (And auto-battle will always have your unarmed and unarmoured colony ships try to fight enemies.) After maybe five or six battles, the system becomes quite tedious. It would be great if there were an option to just pick your combat actions and then run the auto battle, because all you do is literally click on 3 things, and large late-game wars take forever. And of course, the auto-battle option seems to somehow manage to lose ships in battles which should be completely one-sided.
There are 8 playable factions, each of which have some nice fluff, but mechanics-wise, they’re all pretty similar. While I realize that multiplayer makes it difficult to get too zany with this stuff, most of the faction differences seemed largely cosmetic when it came down to it. It doesn’t help either that all factions treat all the planet types the same; the sea-dwelling amoebas are as comfortable in a desert as the space robots. I also thought that they could have come up with a better mechanic to limit rampant colonization. As it is, founding new colonies creates “expansion disapproval”, which just makes all your colonies upset and less productive until you perform research to mitigate it. (You’d think they’d be happy that their civilization was spreading to the stars, wouldn’t you?) It seemed like a bit of a lazy solution to the problem. Why not limit production on your colonies for each outpost? Build and maintain supply fleets? Pay dust for outpost development? There’s no shortage of more interesting options.
Endless Space classifies planets by type, such as terran, tundra, gas giants, lava, asteroids, and several others. Unlike with many games, there isn’t a “best” planet type until very late game. Instead, each one is well suited to a certain type of production, and players are better able to take advantage of them as the game goes on. (For instance, desert worlds are great for industry, but less so for growing food. So you can create a system geared for industry by terraforming all the worlds into the desert type.) Definitely a departure from games where the player almost invariably tries to find or create terran type worlds. Endless Space also groups all the outputs of the planets in a system together for production, including food. A type of exploitation can be selected for each world which favours one of the game’s four basic resources, food, industry, dust, or science. (Dust is the game’s currency, which the fluff describes as nanomachines left behind by the ancient race known as the Endless.) Research allows for a broader range of planets to be exploited for each type of resource. Infrastructure is built on a system level, and benefits each of the planets.
The game’s fluff and backstory has a nice depth, and there’s a short description written for for most elements of the game. Their quality added an amazing amount of flavour and really fleshed out the setting. Though the factions may not be very different in terms of game mechanics, they do each have unique ship designs, interesting backstories, and beautiful artwork for the hero portraits. I was particularly intrigued by the Horatio, a race cloned from a single extremely wealthy narcissist. Again, I thought it was an opportunity to really differentiate the factions, but all they really get is a slight advantage in growth. Hopefully there will be updates or expansions to add some variety in this area.
Gameplay in Endless Space tends to be fairly simple, though I suspect that this is by design, to keep player turn length to a minimum for multiplayer. While the logistics of managing a galactic empire are far simpler than in many other games, and thus less challenging overall, it does make Endless Space much more welcoming to new players. 4X veterans will no doubt also appreciate the more streamlined interface and gameplay, as well as Amplitude’s original twists on the many standard elements of the genre.
Endless Space is lots of fun and the various factions, victory conditions and multiplayer create lots of opportunity for replay. It’s without question one of the strongest entries into the space empire genre in the past few years since Sins of a Solar Empire and the original Sword of the Stars games, and according to Steam, I’ve already put 55 hours into the game. (Some of those are no doubt left-on-overnight hours, but even so.) It seems like the extended alpha and beta phases the developers put the game through have really paid off; there were very few bugs and the game feels very polished. I would love to see additional content and expansions to this game, perhaps in the form of DLC, to embellish some of the weaker aspects of the game. Available on Steam for $30, (or $27 if you pick it up in the next 4 days prior to release).