Endless Space review
I have a dark secret, a hidden passion. I try to keep it shrouded, but sometimes the mask slips and I am revealed for the monster I am. No matter how I hide it, how I distract myself, I will inevitably be forced to return to the truth: I have a burning love for research trees. Surely you see it too? There is just something divine about the humble research tree: hundreds of options extending into the future, hundreds of choices to make, each impacting into every further decision; it’s no wonder that so many strategy games choose to use them. And yet, for so many the research tree is little more than an option to tick on the check sheet of expected features, something to include because it’s expected, not something to put a great deal of thought into.
Clearly Amplitude Studios are staffed by someone who shares my passion. Someone who not only acknowledges the beauty of the research tree, but wants to share this beauty with other people. And so it is that Endless Space takes the mechanistic beauty of a research tree and matches it to an equally beautiful aesthetic representation. No simple series of parallel research lines for this game. From a central point, research options burst outwards in the four cardinal directions, splitting and rejoining as they go, creating a grand star-map of choices. Never hiding choices from the player, this zoomable, expandable map allows the player to take their own unique route through the constellation of research options.
And unique it almost certainly will be: unlike so many other games, research choices are never foregone. Two civilisations which have invested as many research points as one another may have vastly different options open to them; there is no point at which you would expect every major power to have certain technologies open to them, no predefined route to success.
Oh, research tree…
Some of this comes from environmental considerations: an empire whose nearby solar systems suffer from a dearth of water is probably not going to prioritise the ability to colonise arctic planets. Some is to do with the player’s approach to victory: someone gunning for a diplomatic victory might spend more time researching xeno-linguistics than military might. Some is sheer preference: does the player opt to make their starships rugged and powerful in close combat, or will they rely on short-term shielding and overwhelming volleys of long-range missiles?
This research tree makes for a game in which the player always has meaningful choices to make – each new technology helps shape your empire and the options open to you, and so every choice is agonising: do you continue to research your way to that technology which will solve your problem of rebellious colonies? Do you opt instead to improve your capability for research so that you may develop future technologies quicker? Or do you channel your efforts into improving your military hardware; the militaristic empire that has been expanding through its corner of the galaxy like a virus is getting uncomfortably close to your borders, after all…
You’re probably getting a little sick of me gushing about the (beautiful, lovely) research tree that Endless Space features, so it’s just as well that Amplitude Studios seem to have been determined to shake up a very many aspects of the grand strategy genre.
All hail Horatio!
First they’ve filled their universe with character. Partially through the writing: each faction, each hero has an accompanying backstory to flesh them out; for example the Horatio. Named after their founder, Horatio, the Horatio are a race of clones of, er, Horatio, whose aim is to fill the galaxy with the beauty of… Horatio! An endearingly daft idea, but one which breeds so much more interest in them than the generic “Here is the peace-loving faction, here is the cultured faction, here is the warlike faction…” This willingness to characterise the universe extends beyond writing and into the mechanics of the game, with each faction feeling like a completely different species, not just a list of different bonuses and flaws.
Take a look at the Cravers for example: an empire of all-consuming insects, the Cravers can never be in a state of peace with other empires. Not only that, but they are forced into continual consumption through their unique effect on planets: initially gaining a massive boost to production, they gradually exhaust each planet through over-exploitation leaving them lifeless husks after long enough. This leads to an approach to expansion almost the opposite of every other faction: where other empires’ colonies produce little at first, gradually improving as they build up infrastructure, the Cravers are at their peak shortly after colonising a planet, forcing them to continually expand. It’s a brilliant example of characterisation directing gameplay: to win as the Cravers you’re going to have to think like a Craver.
Endless Space also takes an interesting approach to colonisation. Solar systems are visible on the star map and each can contain multiple habitable planets. Each solar system’s output is made up of the combined output of all colonised planets in the system, and each system can have numerous improvements built on it. Every planet however can have but a single development: developments which significantly alter the planet’s production, scaling as the planet’s population increases, making them particularly important decisions early on in a system’s development: creating an agricultural planet can help build the populations across the system, while developing heavy industry will enable you to build further improvements all the more quickly. It’s a balancing act, where the player has to manage their planets in order to best develop their systems, while managing their systems to best support their empire’s objectives.
Meanwhile micro-management is required when dealing with your navies: not only is the player responsible for designing ships based on the technologies available to them, they get to dictate the flow of battle also. The designers of Endless Space clearly wanted to create a more involved system of combat than most 4X games without turning it into a glorified wargame; something they have achieved magnificently.
Rather than controlling individual ships in your fleet or having moment-to-moment control, the player chooses to select one tactic for each of the three ‘phases’ of the battle: long-range, medium-range and close-range. Each tactic provides certain advantages and disadvantages (perhaps redirecting energy from the shields to weapons, or disrupting the enemy’s guns) – moreover, cards can foil certain other cards completely negating their effects, allowing the wily player to predict his opponent’s choices and cancel them out. The cards available depend on the technology researched and any hero commanding the fleet, and have a significant impact on battles that play, all without taking up more than a minute of your time; so it is that Amplitude manages to increase player investment in each battle without distracting from the strategic core of the game.
It doesn’t hurt that the battles are nice to look at of course. In fact, if there’s one thing that is absolutely striking about Endless Space, it’s just how sumptuous it is to look at. Every view of the universe is gorgeous: from the most zoomed-out view of the galaxy to planetary close-ups. Every screen is slick and polished – be it the zoomable cluster of research options, the hologrammatic representation of your rival empires in the diplomacy view, or the techno-industrial trappings of the ship-designer. And this polish comes without compromise in usability – every option in the game is but a few clicks away, with the game never resorting to the convoluted, nested sets of controls that plague so many other grand strategy games. It’s very refreshing to enjoy a game of this type where a concerted effort has gone into making the UI just right.
All good so far, however…
This isn’t to say that there are no missteps in the game. There’s the overly-simplistic use of spheres of influence around each empire’s systems: disappointing in their relative lack of functionality. Limiting only the movement of empires which are neither at war, nor have free passage agreements with you, influence is made only mildly useful, making the existence of research and construction options which increase your ability to generate influence a little bemusing. Then there’s the fairly rudimentary diplomacy – while refreshingly up front about which actions of yours are influencing the other empires’ opinions of you, the choices available to the budding diplomat are fairly limited; no worse than the Civilisations’ approaches, certainly, but as one of the few areas where Amplitude Studios haven’t tried to outdo their rivals, it’s noticeably unambitious.
Which should tell you everything you need to know about Endless Space. This is a grand strategy game where those few areas where the developers were content to follow standard approaches actually stand out. It’s a game which isn’t afraid to do things its own way, made by developers who understand so much about what makes 4X games appealing, and have done everything they can to make a game of constant player involvement, backed up by a universe filled with beauty and character. It’s quite the thing.