Since days of yore (circa 1993), scores of humans have sought to satisfy their primal urge for conquest and domination of the cosmos through titles such as Masters of Orion, Sword of the Stars and, in more recent times, Sins of a Solar Empire. Although the graphical representations and storylines of these titles differ, the heart of real-time or turn-based space strategy has remained the same since its inception: build army, find aliens, kill (or appease, or talk to, or build monuments faster than) aliens, waste a ridiculous number of hours attempting to micro-manage your ever-burgeoning empire.
Amplitude Studio’s Endless Space enters the fray in what, in this reviewer’s opinion, is a vastly under-served genre of PC game. There have been, of course, countless attempts at making engaging 4x strategy games with high replay value, but few have garnered considerable success. Most provide a scant few hours of entertainment before heading to the shelf to collect dust. Star Trek: Birth of the Federation, anyone? Thus, when asked to review Endless Space, I admittedly approached it with considerable caution and low expectations, much like an Adam Sandler movie.
From the outset, Endless Space challenged me to raise the bar of those expectations. While fans of the genre will recognize many of the stock-standard game elements (planetary management, ship design, custom factions), it’s the sheer depth of choices of customization presented to the player that will blow you away. Rather than play in small/medium/large/huge galaxy, why not play in a high-density ovoid galaxy, where constellations are an average distance apart, but connectivity between stars is low, and planets are medium in size, with a high proportion of resources? Get the picture?
The customization doesn’t stop there, either. Choose from eight playable factions, all with varying positive and negative traits, or pull from over 90 different traits to create your own. The volume of traits allows for the standard factions to offer very different forms of gameplay, from the peace-loving Amoeba (yes, you can fulfill that long-running dream of roaming the galaxy as a giant amoeba) to the planet-devouring Cravers, a faction that is actually prevented by game mechanics from being at peace with others.
One of my personal favorite elements of Endless Space is the research tree. As you might expect, this too is relatively extensive, allowing specialization in four separate branches: Exploration & Expansion, Applied Science, Diplomacy & Trade, and Galactic Warfare. These specializations allow for unique new options for your empire, unlike what I’ve seen in similar games before. For example, rather than simply having the option of peace available to you, you actually have to pursue it, and other diplomatic options, as a line of research. Other research allows you to colonize previously uninhabitable worlds, discover new minerals with special boosts for your empire, and build better and stronger blowy-up things.
The research tree is where the power of customization really comes into play. With such a vast array of options for discovery available, the player is forced to choose which branch to really hone in on, playing off the faction traits already established. This makes for a pretty unique and interesting style of gameplay depending on the route chosen and, coupled with the game’s Hero component (AI minions who manage fleets or star system and provide bonuses), can make or break an empire.
What is truly amazing about a game like Endless Space is its sustained ability to entertain. It is extremely easy to pick-up, especially for fans of the genre who will immediately recognize most of the options presented to them. Unfortunately, and this perhaps being one of the only drawbacks to the game, is the tutorial is non-interactive and limited in scope. For first-time players to the genre, I would recommend playing as the default faction (United Empire) as, if nothing else, the names of game objects are self-explanatory. Need a ship that can travel fast and scout the galaxy with low-level armaments? Choose…the scout. Once settled into the game, however, this is yet another element which can be customized to fit the bizarre galactic machinations of the end user.
Endless Space is not going to test the limits of a high-end graphics card, but visually it still looks great. The user interface is (mostly) intuitive and most game management options are available through only a few short mouse clicks. I say mostly intuitive because, for a reason I have not yet fathomed, the right mouse button is the default button for cancelling actions and returning to the main screen. This can be somewhat annoying in the first few hours of gameplay, but is really a non-issue in the long haul. The soundtrack for the game is nothing spectacular, but provides an appropriate space-esque theme to cruise the galaxy by. Plus, the thought of advanced alien species battling it out across the stars probably needs a more somber tone than Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, which I chose to play over it.
Adding to this already potent mix is a strong multi-player component. With support for up to eight players, the neat thing about multi-player in Endless Space is the ability to jump in and out of a game with ease. If a player chooses to leave the game (what, a huge galaxy with 8 players on a turn numbering well into the hundreds is too much for you?), the AI seamlessly takes over and does a relatively decent job of managing the empire. Jump back in to the same game and, voila, the AI has, at least, kept the empire from crumbling to ruins. A non-intrusive in-game chat also provides a fun way to taunt enemy factions and share tips, but the game sadly lacks a private chat option, which would have been great for teaming up with others and planning sneak attacks.
All in all, Endless Space is more than I imagined it to be and, while it has some drawbacks, these are made up for by the sheer fun of clicking the ‘End Turn’ button one more time to see just what havoc has ensued. Whether new to the genre or a long-time fan, this game is definitely worth checking out.