PC Game Review: Endless Space
Chris Massey explores, expands, exploits, and exterminates within a game that's offering the boundlessness of space to gamers.
Publisher: Amplitude Studios
Developer: Amplitude Studios
Bless You, Gaming Gods
Since early in the year I’ve been on a fantasy kick. I’ve been reading Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series (up through the sixth book, as of now), been enjoying some casual returning play with World of WarCraft, not to mention a mad month spent playing Diablo III, and my movie choices have even been influenced by the fantasy genre. However, a friend of mine loaned me John Ringo’s Live Free or Die a couple of months back, and my fantasy kick died violently and instantly, but a new science fiction kick began. Since that time I’ve reread several great science fiction novels, including Foundation by Isaac Asimov and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. I’ve returned to both Star Wars: The Old Republic and Eve Online, while my World of WarCraft characters now watch from the sidelines as I cleave baddies with my lightsaber or…just go mining; and I’ve even started another play of the itinerant classic, Homeworld. Bless thee, gaming gods, life is good.
Then, one day while browsing Steam in the early throes of my newfound science fiction addiction, I came across Endless Space. I had not yet heard of it, so I did a little research and discovered that it’s a 4X (eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation, eXtermination) game set in the endlessness of space, created by Amplitude—an independent studio. Some of the reviews compared it to Master of Orion, which for most is the holy grail of the genre, not yet truly surpassed (although some games have come very close—*cough* Galactic Civilizations 2 *cough*). Having just bought the ultimate edition of GalCiv2 on Steam, as well as the Sins of the Solar Empire Trinity bundle, I thought I must be crazy to contemplate installing yet another space game. So, I bought Endless Space and here we are.
When I first began a game of Endless Space I thought to myself: “yes, this could certainly be endless.” Not only were the options for setting up a game exhaustive, but the game seemed very dense at the onset. As it turns out, Endless Space has a steep learning curve. This is somewhat ameliorated by the various tutorial windows that pop-up when you first access certain screens; but they are often just information on how to utilize the various windows and don’t really get you under the hood. The manual does offer some very basic strategy beyond window mechanics, though assuming anyone reads manuals these days. Remember the massive Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri tome? Yeah, me too. I still have it on my shelf. I miss those days; manuals are lucky to be more than a single page nowadays. A true tutorial would have helped immensely, because Endless Space may just scare off someone not already in love with this particular genre.
Thankfully, the interface is an absolute joy. I know that’s an odd statement about an interface, but in the past most 4X space games have been weighted down with clunky, unattractive interfaces attempting to offer too much information with most of it buried two or three screens deep. Not so here. Everything is, quite literally, right at your fingertips, navigated with simple left-and-right clicks. The basic view is of the galaxy, like this:
Simple and clean with pertinent system information centered upon the various systems, travel lines obvious between systems, with window buttons and information in the top left and the end turn/turn counter button on the bottom right. Every screen in the game is this simple and clean, from the empire screen to the fleet creation screen. Navigation is easy too, with left clicks delving deeper into the UI and right clicks exiting whatever screen you’re looking at. Left-click on a system and there’s your system screen showing all of your planets in that system; left click on one of the planets and delve deeper, showing information pertinent to just that planet. Right-click twice and you’re right back at the galaxy map. It is, hands down, the best interface for a game of this type ever created.
I’m a big videogame soundtrack nerd. I own a ton of them, and I listen to them all the time. A few science fiction games have had some truly amazing soundtracks over the years, from the beautiful score of Homeworld to the hefty catalog of electronica associated with Eve Online. It’s interesting to hear different interpretations of what space must “sound” or “feel” like. Endless Space does a fairly good job of this, although for the most part the music is a little too subtle for my taste. It never quite gets the blood pumping, even during the combat sequences, but it does evoke the almost sorrowful solitude of the emptiness—the Endlessness!—of space.
It may be easy to navigate the game and locate importation information, but managing your empire is no easy task. There’s a lot to keep track of, and once your empire has grown to encompass more than a handful of systems, and eventually most every planet within those systems, it can be very tough to balance your economy, push fleets about and keep the research spending flowing. One of the drawbacks to this type of game can be the mid to late game micromanagement. This has also been true for many predecessors of Endless Space, including the venerable Master of Orion. Space is a big place, and becoming the master of the universe requires an army of accountants. After awhile, I usually chose to allow the AI to take over for some of my systems. You can pick various types of AI for different systems, depending on what you want that system to work toward, be it research or industry; the AI does a passable job of keeping everything running smoothly.
The core of any strong Endless Space empire is FIDS. This is an acronym representing the four resources you gather from your systems and planets, the foundations of any good economy: “Food, Industry, Dust and Science”. Each resource is a certain color (green for food, orange for industry, etc…), which is important to remember when navigating the tech tree as the colors denote which advances fall into which categories. Every planet generates a certain number of each resource (or maybe none at all, depending on the planet type). Planets can be given different exploitation plans related to each resource, which improve its production of that resource. But only one can be active per planet, and shifting planetary exploitations costs money and time. On top of the individual planetary exploitation options, each system can build a variety of “Star System” improvements, improving upon not only FIDS production but also improving system defense, influence and approval—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. System options are limited only by how deep one has researched into the technology tree. It’s easy to see why. With up to 80 systems and up to six planets in each system, it can be a monster of a job to manage your empire. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with the game and still feel like a novice when it comes to making my empire the best it can be. There are also planetary anomalies, advanced terraforming technology and various luxury and strategic resources to consider while expanding, building and, eventually, trading. I really enjoy the minutia, at least up until my empire grows too large. There’s a lot to consider and options for just about any avenue you desire, which is important in a game of this scope. I never felt like I was locked into any single path—just the opposite, actually. There is too many options, but I feel this a strength and not a weakness. But I imagine it’s not for everyone.
Technology Tree Times Four
The technology tree is a massive affair. Sure, we’ve seen Civilization tech trees for years now, we’ve bounced around tech trees of various sizes in other strategy games as well, but the technology tree in Endless Space is TRULY massive. To begin with, it’s not really a single tree; it’s four different trees extending outward from the center in four different directions, like a huge plus sign. Each branch of the tree is a different tree in and of itself and each tree is focused upon a certain research area. The lower tree encompasses exploration and expansion, on the right is applied sciences, the upper tree is galactic warfare, and the left is diplomacy and trade. Learning the tree within a single game is nearly impossible—there’s just so much to take in. To be honest, it was a bit overwhelming at first. Slowly I began to realize the interaction of the technology tree and the other facets of the game were very dynamic, be it economy or diplomacy or warfare. It’s very interesting, if somewhat dry, but never boring. It does take some time to read and study the various technologies, planetary improvements, various shipboard weapons, colonization and terraforming options and much more. The massive, diverse tree offers a very technological gameplay experience, and I still have a lot to learn.
For the most part, I like the diplomacy in Endless Space. As in other games of this type, there are a lot of options for trade, peace, etc… and the options keep growing as you research more, increasing options for dealing with your space friends and enemies. My biggest complaint is the utter lack of personality in this department. The eight different races are divergent and interesting, according to their descriptions and history, but going through the diplomatic process is much akin to doing your taxes. The races need faces, feelings and emotions. I want them to call me out thunderously or come to me obsequiously begging for forgiveness. This could be an easy fix, if Amplitude gives it some examination in the future. It’s easily one of my biggest complaints about the entire game.
Ultimately, you’ll have to crank up your production and build a few ships in order to secure your place in the universe. I’m not talking just scouts and colony ships, although those will help you early in the game. I’m talking massive space hulks bristling with guns, surrounded by cruisers and frigates, launching volleys of missiles and displaying amazing tactics.
Sounds fun? Well, not quite as fun as it could be, I’m afraid. The combat in Endless Space has turned out to be one of its biggest dividing points. It’s very different from combat in previous 4X games, and a little too simple for some, including myself. It’s really pretty, showing the opposing ships battling before nearby planets. But there’s no real control beyond choosing various tactics for each phase of the combat, knowing your weapons’ loadout compared to the enemy (the three categories are kinetic weapons, missiles and lasers), then watching the battle unfold (a couple of minutes) until it is resolved. I enjoyed it at first, but eventually found myself wanting more control with a deeper combat system—instead of a simple card game. This is a shame because ship planning and construction is fairly deep, particularly later in the game. When you throw your fleet at another you’re faced with choosing three cards, one for each phase, and then sitting and watching the movie play out. It’s kind of brilliant in a way, when you stop to think about…
Online play in the game is well thought out and downright awesome. You can start a game and leave it open to friends or even the public. Then, as you play, your friends or just any ole Endless Space player can drop in for a “go”, taking over for any AI they desire. So, you can meet your friends and start up a new game or just meet new friends in the middle of your own game. The connectivity seemed strong the couple of times I tried it, and the simplicity and power of the online play is one of the game’s strongest suits. The brevity of the space battles is certainly a plus in long online games.
Endless Space is easy to recommend to players who like this type of strategy game. It’s an indie game that manages to look like a “triple A” game from any big studio, from the interface to the art direction to the music, it’s all there. And it’s only a cool thirty dust…I mean bucks. It’s an interesting and deep experience, though it doesn’t quite live up to the “just-one-more-turn” syndrome associated with this type of game. The developers also seem to be intent on improving and expanding the game through the Games2gether initiative, which allows players to vote on future improvements and changes to the game. I have high hopes for where the game might be in another year.
Review written by: Chris Massey, Staff Writer
About Chris Massey
Chris Massey is a husband, father, gamer, reader, writer, armchair general, lover, hater, once the Master of Orion but stepped down, mailman and even picks up that old acoustic from time to time. He has never really learned to focus on a single genre of game as he loves them all, and manages to focus on each in turn. He usually does this with his current MMO of choice serving as backdrop, bouncing from fantasy to sci-fi to action to adventure—no matter the platform. The Wargamer has let him litter about for years; he's not sure why. Every now and then they call him into the kitchen, give him a bowl of milk and scratch him behind the ears. "Purring is fun," they tell him, "now get to work." And he litters about a little while longer...
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