When it comes to eye candy, Amplitude Studios’ new entry into the 4X genre certainly has a right to brag. Endless Space is a beautiful and well detailed turn-based strategy game that follows an old, solid concept for space games. When I first heard of Endless Space, I was drawn to it’s Alpha by something I had to look twice to believe – a developer was letting players choose between models and artwork by voting on their website. It might have been a bit of a gimmick, but it was interesting to use their tools to track the games progress through Beta and the eventual release.
The first thing that hit me as I started setting up a quick skirmish was the races, and one of them stuck out to me: the Horatio. Apparently Horatio was an industrialist that was every bit as crazy as he was rich, and ran away from civilization, only to stumble upon an alien cloning facility. Having an ego the size of your typical gamer, he immediately set upon creating a race modeled after the most beautiful person in the galaxy, himself. Now he and his army seek to beautify the galaxy by populating it with only the most beautiful. Laughing at the bit of absurd humor I knew I had found my race to play.
As I poked around in my first game against an AI, I found myself unable to shake a feeling of familiarity. Eventually as I found myself spending the game’s currency – “Dust” – to hurry production it hit me that the game felt like I was playing Civilization. That may be a gross oversimplification, but the feeling is hard to shake, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Little things like upgrading systems being similar to improving cities made me appreciate just how short Endless Space’s learning curve is for someone who is already familiar with the genre.
Within a few minutes I had explored a few pirates and run into my first battle against some AI pirates. The battles are real time and take place over the course of three major stages denoting the distance between opposing fleets from long range to melee. For each phase you can pick a different strategy or bonus, which can aid you, or cripple the enemy. Some, like sabotage, will work extra well against an enemy trying to use repair, weakening them further. While the inability to give individual ships orders and being relegated to picking tactics may seem annoying at first, it does allow you to sit back and take in the spectacle of the battles.
My tiny starting fleet was crushed, but not my resolve as I opened up the ship editor to see what I could do to make those pirates pay. Weapons and defenses in Endless Space are divided into three categories, missiles, lasers, and guns. The pirates only had guns so I figured that beefing up my kinetic defenses and trying some lasers would turn the tide. I threw in a recently researched upgrade to expand their space for weapons as well, but to my surprise, I could not build the ship with that last upgrade, I needed a strategic resource.
Much like Civilization again, the planets of the galaxy are dotted with strategic resources needed to build certain upgrades that are revealed through research. One of them, Hexaferrum, quickly became a focus for my invasions so I could build upgraded warships. The travel of spaceships in the early game is restricted to designated linear paths between systems, and the one I wanted just happened to be conveniently placed in a choke point between me and my first AI opponent.
Compared to the battles full of eye candy, invasions were somewhat disappointing. Your fleet sits there on the map and every turn a little bar gets closer to being filled based on the strength of your fleet and their defenses. It’s just about as anticlimactic as an invasion can get, and somewhat frustrating, too, when multiple enemy fleets arrive, and progress can’t continue until they’re all gone, but your fleet can only combat one other per turn. As far as complaints about the game, that’s one of the few I can make.
My frustration quickly turned to glee though as I got a notice when one of my colony ships arrived in a new system, but to my surprise there were now two of them! My advisor told me not to think about it too hard, because our chief scientist had been reduced to babbling in a corner mumbling about how the universe was “stretchy…like cheese.” The game continually peppers in these little random bonuses and maladies, even when you’re not exploring. A recall in your engines causing ships to move at half speed on the map can quickly turn a successful campaign into a nightmare.
Heroes add a bit of flavor to the game, as well. You can recruit one right off the bat, and more soon after, if you’re willing to invest Dust in it. Heroes can be assigned to a fleet or planet, and as they level up, new abilities can be unlocked such as passive ones increasing production or battle abilities that cost Dust to use in combat, but can give your fleet a significant edge during the combat phase in which they are played. Managing offensive and defensive heroes is an easy way to gain an economic and military edge.
After beating that first AI I quickly moved on to create a new, larger game and you likely will too, because Endless Space does a fantastic job of sucking the player in. While the gameplay can be simplistic at times, it rarely looses it’s fun factor, and the AI is intelligent enough to train players quickly for multiplayer, where the game’s true replayability lies.
Unfortunately, replayability is one of the few knocks I can give the game due to its map generator. While there are advanced options to tweak maps, those of the same type often are quite similar, so if you know your disc-type maps, chances are you will have a good idea where certain features like wormholes will be. This is a small gripe though and something that could easily be tweaked in upcoming patches.
In addition, one thing that feels very similar to Civilization, and unlike Endless Space’s other 4X brethren, is the similarity in gameplay between the races. They each have their own bonuses, but the strategies you can use with each race are not radically different, which means you cant get get a fresh start with the game simply by choosing another race.
Ultimately, it’s hard to knock Endless Space too hard for its few flaws because of how beautiful and polished the game is. Bugs were essentially nonexistent, and everything seems to be working properly. The game introduces nothing new to the genre – no radical changes in gameplay or features, and no great new ideas. Endless Space follows a time-proven 4X design and gives it a modern overhaul executed with such care and precision that it leaves me wishing they had tried something new.
Perhaps the risk Amplitude Studios took was involving players in the design of the game in the Alpha and Beta stages, and I have to admit, it certainly makes you want to cheer for them. It’s heartening to see them continue this program even after launch. Players who purchased the game can login to Amplitude’s website and continue to vote on new features that will be added to the game in the future. Perhaps the rock-solid base that is Endless Space is only the foundation for future creations, and I hope that is the case, because it is a future I very much want to see.