I'll admit, I found it very difficult to write this, the first review for Runzwithfire.co.uk. I didn't suffer from writer's block, my regular job hadn't blindsided me with additional tasks like it normally does, I wasn't even disturbed by Mrs Runz or the kids. No my friends, the difficulty came with the fact that I have become hopelessly addicted to Endless Space, Amplitude Studio's new 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate) game, and having had it for little under a week I have devoted about 30 hours to it in my quest for galactic dominance. That's pretty much all my spare time, leaving me with very little opportunity to actually sit down and tell you how great it is. It's a situation that many fans of the 4X genre will be able to empathise with and I'm sure many of you have lost entire weeks or months to Sins of a Solar Empire, Galactic Civilisations II or Civ V and Endless Space will have you no less hooked. It's easy to lose yourself to the allure of 'just one more turn' as you're intrigued to see how the AI will react to your newly constructed warfleet or itch to finish researching that much needed technology which will solve whatever current problem is afflicting your empire most.
At its heart, Endless Space is a 4X game in the best traditions of the genre; you're cast in the role of leader to one of eight fledgling empires each with their own unique traits and aesthetic feel (see 'Love Thy Neighbour'), or alternatively you can opt to create your own race using a range of 100 positive and negative traits. It's your job to lead your people out to the stars of the galaxy in a bid to colonise new worlds, exploit their resources and eventually dominate the competition, either economically, scientifically, diplomatically or militarily. In fact there are seven ways in which you can claim superiority and win, although it much be said that not all them are immediately apparent and whilst it's obvious when you're winning due to territorial dominance or close to researching the science victory, other means of victory are less clearly explained and rarely is information clearly presented on how close the other empires are to achieving their goals.
There's a fairly broad selection of options in the galactic map types allowing, for example, spiral galaxies or colliding galaxies and options on the galactic age determine the liklihood of star systems being filled with rich verdant worlds or older, more barren rocks which are more difficult to colonise. The options provide variance to ensure that galactic maps don't get repititive on multiple playthroughs, but I would say that by default the maps feel a little bit claustrophobic. Even the huge maps containing roughly 80 star systems become very quickly crowded, especially with eight empires playing, and with a fairly standard setting of one Empire per constellation in most cases (although some settings do change this) there can be little dynamism during the early phases of the game compared games such as Galactic Civilisations II or Civilisation V.
Efforts have very clearly been made to follow Civilisation V's clean and simple UI system, helping to make management of your empire a relatively simple task even into the late game phase. Building construction is predominantly completed on a star system by star system basis, rather than by individual planets, and pop ups occur at the start of each turn immediately informing you of what has been completed; one click takes you into that system to allow you to set the next build order or reorganise your queue and one click takes you back out again. The same is true for research popups and other notifications, it's designed to give you the information you require immediately and the means to react to that information swiftly and with minimal fuss - no digging through complex menu systems hunting for obscure options. All this makes for a very intuitive UI system and it's very easy to get to grips with immediately on launching the game. It cleverly allows Endless Space to avoid the usual 4X trap of horrendously tedious micromanagement in the later game and keeps you focused on the decisions that really matter and your overall strategy that you no doubt have planned in your head.
For the slightly more complex aspects, Endless Space includes a fairly conprehensive tutorial which, although somewhat text heavy for my liking, did a very adequate job of showing what I should be looking at specific screens such as diplomacy or explaining how the combat system works. If I had a specific complaint about the tutorial system it's that once you close that lesson, there's no way to revisit it to remind you of certain game aspects. There is an 'Archive' option on the menu when you hit escape which I imagine will be an encyclopaedia type tool in the future, but for now it is greyed out.
Diplomacy is functional although not with as many options available in some other games. One particular innovation I did enjoy was the 'Cold War' status available between races. Basically this allows empires to engage in border skirmishes in unclaimed space and even invade and occupy outpost colonies before they become fully integrated into their founding empire (through projecting enough influence). These early skirmishes and seizure's can occur without immediate consequence, although it obviously causes a hit to your diplomatic relations and, if done too many times, will inevitably result in war. However, the somewhat simplistic sliding scale of 'I like this deal, I don't like this deal' makes the whole diplomatic process seem a bit shallow and there's never really any feeling that the AI is clever enough to use you by offering peace whilst preparing for war or by offsetting its dislike of you with the obvious advantages that alliances or bribes would bring. I would like to have seen a counter proposal system being put in place (again similar to that seen in Civ V) so that you could actually haggle deals and the ability to bribe other races into war would also have been a neat addition that is lacking. Espionage is also another aspect which would have made a very welcome addition to add another layer of depth and strategic consideration. As it is, all too often it feels as though you are in control of negotiations even when being threatened by a more dominant force and much of the decision making boils down to yes or no type deals.
The technology is huge and split into four distinct areas of research as opposed to the interlinked tree system of other games. Although daunting when first viewed, it actually provides some very interesting choices in gameplay; over indulge in one area of technology as you race to lead the field in missile capability, for example, and you leave yourself open to underdeveloped colonies and poor fleet command and control capabilities. The only downside I would comment on the technologies is that too much is shared between races with very few 'unique' sciences which are very often quickly overshadowed anyway, making it somewhat generic. Whilst games like Civ V can get away with it, it's a weakness, albeit a slight one, that stands out so much more clearly in a space setting when presented with a variety of alien races which are meant to be unique.
The overall visuals, it has to be said, are stunning especially considering the relatively light specifications required to play. From the canvas art style which is used to introduce each race, to the gorgeously realised battleships that clash during the combat sequences, right down to the slick UI mentioned earlier, it's very clear that style and aesthetic pleasure was very high on Amplitude's list of priorities and it has to be said that in this regard Endless Space stands head and shoulders above the rest of the genre. Fleet battles in particular have been designed to appear cinematic in scope with some beautiful sweeping shots of fleets as they unleash their weapons broadside into each other. Unfortunately the camera AI is less impressive as just as often your camera turns away from watching your missiles stream towards the enemy just when they are about to hit and destroy a ship to instead stare at a lone escort vessel that has already fired its weapons and is doing not much in particular. It's a shame as this happens all too frequently and distracts from the cinematic experience of combat.
Whilst we are on the the subject of combat, I have to say that it needs all the visual cinematic help it can get because overall I felt largely underwhelmed by its mechanics. Based primarily on a rock, paper, scissors system you watch as your fleet drifts in to engage the enemy fleet and you're presented with three very distinct phases; long, medium and close ranges (although their are theorectically five phases, the first is warping in, the last is post battle - nothing really happens in either of these two phases). During the long range phase missiles are the most effective form of attack, lasers and beam weapons excel during the middle phase whereas kinetic cannons do the dirty work at close range. Prior to each of the three phases you can play a card which can affect the course of the battle such as improving weapon accuracy or launching ship repair drones, in addition certain cards counteract the cards of the opposing admiral. Unfortunately, it's far less involving than it sounds. Most battles essentially boil down to who has the larger force and as you have no control over any of the ships your fleet there's no feeling of tactical accomplishment, everything is pretty much taken out of your hands and you're left watch an interactive movie. With the exception a few very powerful cards (Dust Warheads if you have a high level admiral and a lot of missile ships), there tends to be little real feeling that the cards have had any significant impact, even when you successfully counter enemy cards in all three phases. On rare occasions when an outmatched fleet does beat a superior force you're usually at a loss to explain what mechanics were involved to cause it to happen.
The truth is, many of the deciding factors of a fleet battle took place long before the two fleets met, primarily due to the ability to customise each hull class of ship and produce numerous variants. The process to do this is, yet again, simple and intuitive with each ship class having a tonnage limit and each module or weapon system costing a certain weight. There are numerous options to be employed including repair modules, health boosting shields and defence systems to help deflect against the three primary weapon systems in the game. So again it is somewhat disappointing to find that the AI rarely reacts to your ship compositions in order to build suitable counters, it's all to easy to load up a cheap fleet with high level lasers and watch it burn a hole through the galaxy - which is a shame because at the earlier levels of the game during the inital skirmishes battles can be enjoyable and engaging despite their hands off approach, but at later stages they become uninvolved and tedious.
Having a large number of fleets floating about when you're conducting a war on multiple fronts can also lead to some frustrations. Although it was rare, there were some turns when multiple fleet battles were occurring simultaneously and rather than allowing me to play through each battle in turn, the rather arbitary decision timer on whether you wish to manually fight battles or automatically resolve them just kept ticking down. This meant that whilst I was playing the through the first engagement, all my other battles were automatically resolved as the time ran out. It's a mechanic that is clearly designed for the multiplayer aspect of the game but seemed overbearing and obtuse in singleplayer and there's no option to turn these timers off. I lost several resupply fleets which I would have simply retreated had I been given the opportunity and ultimately it felt unfair.
Individually none of these flaws amount to much more than fleeting annoyances, slight tedium or an observation that perhaps an aspect or two of gameplay could have better; however, they do have a slight tendency to cascade during the later game. Combat becomes a more regular occurrence sometimes leading to a turn of abject disinterest as you fire through one battle after another or, worse, enter rage induced huffs as you lose a series of fleets through no input or fault of your own. It's a shame because the game is so very engaging at the early to mid phases.
As I mentioned there is a multiplayer element and the game allows drop in play with 'open sessions' or locked sessions so that you can keep it amongst your friends. Although I've not had chance to try it out yet, I have the feeling that this is really where Endless Space will come into its own. A few of my friends have played together and it has led to some dastardly back room deals on the diplomacy screen and a much more engaging combat and ship design process. A lot more thought is required in choosing your cards when playing against a human opponent and knowing that you're facing an enemy who can quickly retrofit his fleets to counter any 'cheese' ship builds which can be all too powerful in the singleplayer results in a much more thoughtful process. When you start taking this into account, some of Endless Space's more lackluster design elements do start to make much more sense and I think it is very clear that much of the game was designed with multiplayer in mind, it just wasn't marketed as such and 4X games aren't reknowned for being designed around multiplayer experiences so it's a brave move from Amplitude.
Overall I've listed a lot of faults here and I hope I haven't scared you away from what is ultimately a fun, enjoyable, engaging and modern example of the 4X genre. Endless Space is the epitome functionality, intelligent and fully realised design and exceptional polish. There is innovation where it's required and there are clear examples of borrowed ideas that work from other games. Unfortunately, it's all to easy to see where this game could have been truly legendary had it pushed the boundary and added that little extra layer of depth as opposed to merely be content to be a good game. However, the strength of 4X games has always been to create your own story as your empire struggles through adversity and the dangers of a hostile universe and Endless Space allows you to do that with aplomb.
I'm currently doing a playthrough diary of Endless Space which will be published every Wednesday; catch it here.