The strategy genre has always been one of my favorites, and while I’m perfectly happy to order my squad of marines to charge the enemy bunker or micro-manage the ins and outs of the local economy, there’s just something about space 4x games that really makes time melt away for me. I suspect it’s the grand scale of it all that really sucks me in. Why command a single battle or plan a lonely city when you can wage war with fleets of ships and colonize entire planets? The last one to really grab my attention was Kerberos Productions’ Sword of the Stars with its great ship design customization and the interesting strategic aspect of each race’s faster-than-light travel being unique. With Sword of the Stars II‘s launch being less than ideal, to say the least, I’d been on the hunt for a new space 4x game for some time now. I had tried a few games along the way, but nothing quite captured that “Yeah, it’s 3am, but I just need a few more turns” obsession. Enter Endless Space and exit my free time.
Working in the game industry, it’s often easy to know all the details of a title, down to ideal character developments, long before it comes out with all the trailers, beta coverage and other pre-release content. So the rare titles that surprise you are a real treat, and that’s how it was with me and Endless Space. I just happened to stumble upon it on Steam a few weeks back. Almost like going into a movie spoiler free, it’s refreshing to experience a game with a vacuum of player knowledge.
The thing that initially drew me in, and likely others, is just how damn well form is melded with function into a sleek look in Endless Space. It easily has one of the best designed user interfaces in a space 4x game, and this is in a genre that almost traditionally lovingly dumps the complex information required for galactic conquest in some of the least user friendly menus imaginable. In Endless Space, information is presented in simple graphical means whenever possible, and most importantly nearly everything responds with mouse-over tool tips. Not sure how the Metallic Water resource affects your colony? Simply hover over it and the game will explain and breakdown what it is and what it does for you. This makes it a remarkably easy 4x game to jump in to, but no less dense. It’s still got a lot of the complexity of a 4x, so it might not be something to throw at a brand new gamer, but if you’ve been looking to sink your teeth in something a little more meaty than an RTS, Endless Space is a good start.
If there is one area that’s likely to be divisive about Endless Space, it’s the combat, which is a much simpler and stripped down affair then you might expect. Rather than play out an extended battle, combat takes place in a pre-scripted scene divided into three phases. These three phases also cleverly twist in with the weapons types. Missiles are best at long range, whereas beams and kinetics are better at medium and short range respectively. With ships being fully customizable, you are free to create fleets of long range glass cannon missile boats, bruisers that attempt to survive and tear the enemy apart at close range or whatever strategy fits your style.
Combat is further augmented by your commands, which are displayed similar to playing cards. During each phase you can issue a single order, with new commands being unlocked with leveled heroes and through the technology tree. Most cards has inherent advantages and disadvantages to them, you might sacrifice weapon damage to increase the deflection rate on your armor. However, certain commands and tactics will directly counter each other, which cancel your opponent’s order and give you an even greater effect on yours. The rock, paper, scissor nature combined with the various weighting of risk and rewards of the various weapons is still pretty satisfying in this constrained combat.
The obvious advantage of these simplified battles is that it makes multi-player games far less tedious, since every engagement will be finished in a timely manner. The downside however is it gives very little freedom in what’s often the big payout for a number of folks. You have this great level of control down to what each planet’s improvements are, but you’re not able to say focus fire on an enemy dreadnaught. The other problem is that it can quickly get rather tiresome seeing the same animations play out each time. There is the genre’s tried and true Auto Battle, which crunches the numbers quickly and spits out the battles results, but tactics like retreating are only accessible from the command menu. I really did miss the tactically rich battles of some other games, but something about it just didn’t bother me that much on the whole when weighed against my enjoyment of everything else the game did so well.
The rest of the game’s management of planets, diplomacy and technology just hits all the right buttons to push you just “one more turn”. There are even heroes that you can hire that will level up and acquire new stats and abilities. Some heroes are brave and bold fleet commanders that will give you access to new command cards, while others are simply really great administrators who will massively boost any colony they are set to oversee.
The true joy of Endless Space really lies with the replay potential behind systems like managing and hiring the randomly generating heroes. Every match can be lovingly crafted down the number of players, size of the galaxy and you can even custom create races from a massive list of traits, but there’s also just enough randomness seeded in to keep things endlessly interesting.
There is one more aspect of Endless Space that’s worth bringing up. The developers Amplitude Studios have a system in place called Games2Gether which allows players to direct development and provide feedback in a measured amount. It roughly works out by allowing players to vote on what features or fixes are most important to them, and the others will be added at a later date. There is currently voting on which should take precedence; a notification to players on the estimated time an invasion will take, a new annihilation victory condition or the option to raze a planet instead of conquering it. It’s a really interesting idea that I love on a certain level. I have a slight concern that often the crowd mentality can make mountains of molehills. This could potentially lead to issues of having the community ignoring real issues and pushing voting for petty personal views. While we might often think we know better, most of us are, at best, armchair game designers. By presenting options instead of leaving themselves open for “nerf beams weapons they are OP”, I think the developers will get around most of it.
So there you go. Endless Space is going to be my new go-to 4x for the time being. The title really is an accurate description of both the game’s replay potential and its ability to drain away the hours.
Bottom line: Endless Space smooths over a lot of the issues typical to 4x space, but it also bulldozes perhaps a bit much in the combat.
Recommendation: If you’re looking for entry into the 4x space genre, Endless Space will be perfect for you.[rating=4]