Space. It’s big, it’s cold, and it’s desolate. I must rule it all. I won’t rest until I can impose my dominion over the known universe, and I will crush everyone who gets in my way. It didn’t have to be this way, really. If those damned Pilgrims would have simply gotten out of my way when I was expanding towards the Sophons, I probably would have let them live…probably. I will be vilified by historians for millennia as they refuse to consider the fact that I saved my people from extinction by giving them worlds to consume. History isn’t interested in that fact, though. History is only interested in the pretty heroes.
I never know quite what to expect when a new 4X game hits the marketplace. The very nature of the genre brings out something primordial in me that I probably shouldn’t bring out in public. I become outright sociopathic. When you give me the option to expand, explore, exploit and exterminate, I will, with a fervor not seen since Britain’s attempt to colonize the planet. Endless Space offers the perfect vehicle for me to enact my perverse tendencies throughout entire galaxies.
The first step in any quality attempt to conquer the known universe is always finding your identity. There are eight different races available right off the bat, each with a very distinct background story and unique traits. I was immediately drawn to the Cravers, an insect/robot hybrid that must constantly conquer new planets to devour or else they will quite literally eat themselves to death. I’ve found that the fear of self-cannibalization is a pretty good motivational tool in the past (the race for my 6th grade class president was pretty intense) and seemed a perfect fit for my outlook on expansion. The other races are just as insane with the high point being the Horatio, a race of perfect clones of the most perfect human to ever grace the planet If one of the 8 races doesn’t suit to your fancy, there’s an extremely robust custom race editor which offers close to 100 different traits. You’re ideal civilization is hidden in there somewhere; you just need to find it.
Once you’ve chosen your conquerors, you’re thrust into the inky void. The first thing you’ll notice is just how clean the UI is. Everything is put together expertly, eliminating a lot of the intimidation that can be found in titles such as this. Each menu has a tutorial which will automatically begin the first time you open it up giving new players a decent amount of detail without being overly intrusive to players trying to jump right into the thick of things. The tutorials are strictly text based, which is a bit of a bummer considering that with a bit of animation or voice work an otherwise very dry part of the game could be more engaging. This would in turn eliminate the temptation to skip it altogether leaving you in a bind when you have no earthly idea of what you’re doing.
While a lot of the streamlined mechanics work well, some of the decisions are questionable. There doesn’t seem to be a downside towards building upgrades with a single goal in mind. I never felt I had to juggle a planet’s economy vs. viability or anything of the sorts. If my people were unhappy, I just simply built a more powerful upgrade and everyone was sated. Without the micromanagement usually found in the genre, I found that some of my choices were hollow. I was simply maxing stats as opposed to making difficult decisions.
Strangely enough, with all of the attention given to the different races, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference throughout the game. Yes, there are certain benefits but unless you’ve played with that specific race before the differences seem mostly aesthetic. Ships look vaguely similar, and outside of the Cravers needing to continually expand as they consume the planets they conquer, there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference in how they play out. The technology trees do offer unique skills based on your race, but again from an outside perspective you’d never notice.
The technology trees themselves are huge, but are unfortunately very dry. The game takes itself a bit too seriously here preferring to stick with technical jargon as opposed to clearly describing what you’d be unlocking. This lead to the unfortunate situation where I was stuck in my quadrant of the galaxy frantically looking for a way to use wormholes while my opponents were able to expand, taking valuable planets and resources away before I could even see them. I eventually had to consult the wiki to find out what skills I needed to travel through a wormhole, and while this failing may be attributed to me, it was exasperated by the lack of clarity.
Once you get used to the way things are laid out, it’s an extremely robust system. There’s a massive amount of options waiting for you to uncover and through careful decision making you can swing the tide of war in your favor immensely. It’s always a great thing to be the first guy in the galaxy with access to nuclear weapons or the ability to abandon the star lanes completely in favor of mapping the galaxy.
When I first was introduced to the combat system, I was in awe of how it was laid out. The game’s hands on approach to conflict is something I had never experienced in a game like this, and it was a very welcome breath of fresh air. The battles are broken into five phases including three combat phases. During these phases, you can choose from a list of abilities in your deck turning a passive experience into a game of Rock, Paper, Bazooka. Every ability can be countered, and by unlocking new technologies or leveling up your admiral you gain access to even stronger ones. With a bit of luck, an inferior fleet can take out a massively overpowered opponent if you played your cards right.
The problem is that for everything Amplitude Studios put into play for the cerebral part of combat, the visual side is extremely dull. Each race’s ships look identical no matter how they’re outfitted, and the battles never differ from two fleets showing up and firing at each other from a distance. If there was a bit more visual flair in play it would have spiced up a part of the game I felt tempted to alt-tab out of.
It doesn’t help things that the AI is fairly inept. They tend to grossly overvalue any of their own resources, and don’t seem to comprehend quite what it takes to create a viable fleet. It became too easy to mass produce cheap ships and send them out against your opponents who can’t find a way to counter them. The best metaphor I can come up with is releasing a horde of squirrels against an enemy who doesn’t realize they have a hammer. (In case anyone is wondering, this is both the greatest and most shameful sentence I’ve ever used as a journalist.)
I also encountered a fair bit of stability issues that would cause the game to crash out to the desktop. There were a few posts on the official forums about the issue, and it does seem that Amplitude Studios is working on a fix, but it’s an annoyance that gamers shouldn’t really have to put up with to begin with.
The multiplayer mode is pretty straightforward. Without the questionable AI in place, the game becomes a bit more interesting since you’re having to outsmart other humans, although without any sort of direct messaging it’s hard to scheme with an ally when everyone can read your conversation. The only real complaint I have with the multiplayer is that waiting for your opponents to take their turns can be agonizingly long, so either set a limit before the game begins or be prepared to alt tab often. Where multiplayer really shines, however, is by injecting that personality into the game that the single player so sorely missed.
Endless Space is a game with a ton of potential and is something fans of the 4X genre should definitely look into. It falls short of being a great game since it can’t quite invoke the wonder I would want from a title like this, and a lack of personality will outweigh untapped potential every time. I didn’t have the same connection to my empire that I did in games such as Civilization. I can’t recommend this game to everyone, but I know it won’t be long until I fire it up for one more go at galactic domination.
Endless Space is dangerously close to being a great game. Fans of the 4X strategy genre will find plenty to love here, but some questionable mechanics will keep the game from seeing much mainstream success.