The 4X genre (Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate) has a huge following and a large number of legendary titles. Move into the space sub-genre, and while the titles become fewer, the quality does not dissipate. Master of Orion, Sins of a Solar Empire and Galactic Civilizations 2 make a wonderful pantheon of strategic space conquest. These are some of the best games ever made, and it’s into this landscape that the title Endless Space makes its debut (on July 4th of all days). It’s unfortunate that Endless Space arrived into a sub-genre with such a storied past, because, while decent and eminently playable, it falls short of its predecessors in terms of that breadth of quality. It makes some interesting innovations (most notably its use of heroes and a streamlined user interface) but will leave you pining for some of the other more meaty titles the genre has to offer.
Endless Space begins with your selection of a civilization in preparation for your attempt to conquer the universe. There are a variety of races to choose from, each with a different aesthetic for their ships, and a backstory. The Cravers have ships that appear in battle to have bugs swarming around them, and the Horatio consist of an entire race cloned from one individual attempting to make the entire universe in the image of the most beautiful thing he can imagine (himself). After that, it’s off to the dynamically generated universe, as there is no single player campaign. This seems to be a bit of a missed opportunity- a campaign would have been an excellent opportunity to flesh out a universe that seems to have a lot of stories to tell. Instead, it’s off to your home planet and filling out those stories yourself.
In standard 4X fashion, you start from your home star system, exploring the universe, colonizing other worlds, researching technologies, and meeting new people and beating them into submission. The universe consists of star systems linked by lines of travel, some of which can only be traversed after developing certain technologies. This gives an almost board game feel to the universe, making it feel anything but endless. I started several of my games on the “edge of the universe” which is a bit of an odd feeling (and a huge advantage, going back to my Risk in Australia days). The nicest thing about the universe is the design of the user interface. All aspects of the game, from fleet management to planets and so forth, are no more than two clicks from the universe map. This removes a layer of complexity and makes this game more ideal for newbie planetary emperors.
As you found colonies, they have a sort of zone of influence around them, expanding as the planets build certain objects and become stronger. Colonies can also “colony hop” by building additional colonies on planets in the same star system (I had some with as many as six). Different planets have different resources, allowing you to gain monopolies and get powerful bonuses by cornering the market on, say, Titanium 70.
The enemy AI is pretty simplistic. There is some slight variation on behavior depending on who you’re dealing with, but most computer players are aggressive and single minded. Complex treaties and negotiations (like you’d see in Sins of a Solar Empire or Galactic Civilizations 2) would be welcome here, but sadly most of the time first contact is the start of a border war that will escalate until you conquer your foes and knock them out of the game. The AI also makes some odd battle decisions as well, choosing to fight your main battle fleet with a single scout ship instead of running away. The concept of odds seems to not factor in.
Exploration and expansion are the preambles to building large fleets and fighting battles. Like many similar games, you create and build your own ship designs. Here, you don’t really design the ships (you just get a stock model for a ship of each size) as much as you equip their weapons and armor. A nice feature is the ability to, at the touch of a button, upgrade each ship class to the most state of the art equipment available. It’s a nice feature that really speeds up the design process. Once you’ve designed and built your fleets, you send them off to war. Battles in this game are system resolved, meaning you have no control over the outcome. You and your opponent pick a strategy for each round of battle (resulting in certain bonuses/penalties) and those strategies can nullify each other (sometimes in disastrous ways). After you’ve met the enemy and chosen your strategies, you sit back and enjoy the best part of the game- a cinematic showing you the entire battle. The graphics aren’t the best you’ve ever seen, but watching your fleet fight it out, with missiles and gunfire flying everywhere is highly entertaining. And, since you don’t micromanage the battle (like you would be in Sword of the Stars) you can actually enjoy the fruits of your strategic labors.
One system which bears mentioning is the hero academy. You can hire heroes to either govern planets or command fleets in battle, providing bonuses to your troops or construction efforts. The heroes level up as time passes or as they achievement success in battle, giving them more powerful bonuses. It’s an interesting system, though the cap on the number of heroes seems silly and makes the system more limiting than it otherwise would be. Running my galactic empire is difficult enough without making me to manage to get my three heroes into the right spots at the right time. Using them properly, however, can be devastatingly effective, making the correct planet a focus of activity or the right armada invincible in battle.
Endless Space is an entertaining effort which will provide a few days of entertainment for the enterprising 4X fan. Unfortunately, it fails to reach that upper echelon of game, held back by a lack of campaign mode, relatively weak AI, and a constricting map. It does some things very well (the combat cinematic and the easy-to-use user interface among them), but on a whole falls short of other games in the genre. The longtime 4X player will find this effort a bit lacking, but the neophyte may just find this an excellent introduction to a lifetime of strategic conquest.
- User Interface leaves every management aspect a click away
- Solid foundations and ease of use makes game optimal for a beginner
- Combat cinematic very entertaining
- Universe fails to take advantage of personality
- AI not up to task
- Map makes space feel like anything but endless
3 out of 5