Space. So vast, so empty, so void. Billions of stars, with trillions of orbiting planets waiting to be explored and inhabited. Space is endless. Yet perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Endless Space Amplitude Studio’s turn-based civilisation strategy, is how constricting and restricting it feels. Starting out with your chosen species you must break the shackles of your homeworld, colonise the stars and lead your people to discover new worlds, new technologies and mysterious new alien species. Ultimately you must drive your people to dominate the galaxy through tactical diplomacy, life altering science or sheer military power.
The tag-line for Endless Space could quite simply be ‘Civilisation in space’, yet despite how vulgar or facetious that sounds it would actually be fairly accurate. All the standard tropes found in that long-running series can be found here: Early exploration and expansion, science and technology trees, diplomacy, trade and, of course warfare. But everything is expanded to a galactic scale.
It is clear from the start that Endless Space has been designed with the experienced turn-based strategy or “4X” (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) player in mind, and it may leave players unfamiliar with any similar games slightly in the dark. Every campaign can be modified to a satisfying degree to suit the player, from the standard difficulty and time scales to altering the age of the galaxy changing the types of stars and planets you may discover, drastically changing the dynamics of the game and adding to replayability.
Campaigns start with your chosen species ascending from a mere planetary life form to a galactic power, with the ability to travel to other star systems. Dispatching scout ships to nearby star systems and discovering new planets to colonise. At first there are often only a few systems that you can reach as ships can only travel along lines that link close stars, and this usually becomes your area of dominance. It takes quite a number of turns to research the ability to use wormholes, which opens up the galaxy for exploration. This unfortunately means that unlike Civilisation, where often the start of the campaign is filled with excitement as you explore and discover the world you inhabit, Endless Space’s beginning is bogged down in tedium and being forced to let the turns tick by until you can proceed.
Happily, when the wormhole technology is discovered the game explodes as new stars, planets and alien races are discovered. Suddenly instead of feeling like a civilisation sleepwalking through space, you must jostle with others for resources using whatever means necessary to dominate. Each faction you can choose to command has traits that lean towards different forms of success. The default faction are the human United Empire, who lean towards expansion and
dominance and thus the populous are generally more genial towards rapid colonisation and declarations of war. This is opposed to other factions such as the grey-esque Sophons whose only desire is to learn and understand the universe and so become upset when war breaks out and undermines their research. Perhaps more bizarre are the Amoeba species who, having evolved from single celled organisms into a wise and philosophical race, prefer diplomacy and cultural activities to warfare. There are eight factions in total, each with their own traits, specific technologies and ship designs and unlike Civilisation where it is essentially possible to win in any form no-matter which civilisation was picked, Endless Space makes it much harder (though certainly not impossible) to break from your chosen species’ ideologies, be it destroying all life in the universe or simply evolving to a higher state of being as the Endless (a race of aliens that have long since passed from the galaxy, giving the game its name) once did.
Continuing along this slightly disconcerting theme of comparison to Civilisation, each star system you colonise effectively acts as a city. While you can inhabit and terraform individual planets; production, taxation and improvements are system wide and the produce of the game’s main resources (Food, Industry, Science and Dust - the currency) is a total of all the planets combined. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable parts of the game is refining each system into a perfect productive cog in the great machine, by terraforming planets to suit your needs. Each planet type (be it Earth-like terran, arid, desert or the virtually inhospitable gas giants or asteroid belts) produce a certain level of resources so understanding and exploiting this is one of the keys to success. Empire management which can often be quite a laborious and uninteresting process in similar games is extremely efficient in Endless Space as a quick glance at the empire overview screen can inform you of each star system’s status. Players can even allocate AI’s to control the turn-by-turn running of each system, although only in the most monstrous of empires is this particularly necessary.
This sense of efficiency and fluidity is what makes Endless Space worth playing. The ease of breezing through turns, organising the empire and progression without any awkwardness from the game’s interface, creates this dangerously addictive gaming vacuum that sucks away hours of your life with barely a notice. The simplicity of hitting the end of turn button, and the exceedingly short loading times (in single player games at least) ensure that there are no frustrating waits that are often common in turn-based games. Furthermore, the fact that Endless Space is played with simultaneous turns, so all actions taken by each player take place at the same time, creates an interesting dynamism to the proceedings.
It is not all plain star-sailing however as there are many areas of Endless Space that seem disappointingly lacking, if not entirely flawed, that descend what should be a satisfying space-based 4X simulation into a somewhat mediocre affair.
Research and technology trees, for example, feel horrendously confusing and yet far too simplistic at the same time. On a player’s first campaign it is exceptionally difficult to discover which technologies are required to solve the problems your empire may have. The only solution is endless hovering over possible future technologies until you are fortunate enough to uncover what you desire or resorting to online game wikis. Unlike historical science which is relatable given basic knowledge (discovering literature for example improves culture and science in Civilisation) most of the technologies in Endless Space are incomprehensible in terms of our current scientific knowledge because they are based in the realm of science-fiction. This is of course understandable given the subject matter of the game, however Endless Space does very little to aid the new player. Over time and repeated game plays, it becomes easier and more obvious, but the absence of anything like Civilisation’s Civilopedia is noticeable. This problem is perhaps slightly alleviated by the way the technology tree is divided into four separate paths: Warfare, Applied sciences, Exploration and Expansion and Diplomacy and trading. This simplifies proceedings considerably, for example if you want to improve the combat potential of your fleet, with better weapons and shields, research the Warfare path or if you wish to travel through space faster or colonise more inhospitable planets, the Exploration tree is for you.
This segregation and simplification of research brings with it its own problems however. Not only does it potentially make players idly accept new research directions, simply because they are in the correct vein of their current plans but it is completely farcical in terms of scientific paradigms. To segregate them in this arbitrary fashion with virtually no interlinking undermines the believability of the futuristic technology the game is presenting. Why, for example, does ‘Evolved Construction’ only have an effect on military hardware, with absolutely no changes elsewhere? The whole idea, while clearly implemented to simplify proceedings, ends up feeling uninspired and rather lacklustre.
If diplomacy breaks down between alien races, or you simply have an appetite for destruction, then it will not be long until fleets of spaceships gather in preparation for war. Battles in Endless Space are enjoyably cinematic, with the ability to zoom around space with a free camera and filming your own directorial perspective. The ships, previously only seen as little icons on the star map, become richly detailed three dimensional models. Rockets roar from their silos smashing into the enemy, erupting in flames. Plasma beams and bullets fly from guns, ricocheting off defensive shields. Since this is a turn-based ‘4X’ game and not a real-time strategy, user input is strictly limited. Battles are split into three segments: long-range, medium-range and melee, and each turn combatants simultaneously play a card which can affect variables such as accuracy, damage and defence. Furthermore, in a rather advanced form of rock, paper, scissors, certain cards counter other played cards giving the winner an edge in that round. It certainly adds a level of excitement usually missing in similar games of this genre, but sadly the outcome of any battle can often be predicted before a bullet has even been fired as the cards will rarely have enough of an effect to swing anything but the closest of battles.
One of the greatest problems with the battle system in Endless Space, is the command point cap that is placed upon any fleet. This can be improved with research, however it is always limited to a rather pitiful number essentially meaning even the largest combat situation will only be between a handful of ships. What could have been epic battles with hundreds of spaceships blasting each other into the void, in a similar fashion to cult space RTS Homeworld, often ends up as rather meek confrontations, with separate fleets waiting cordially for their turn to do battle. This also sometimes creates rather frustrating dilemmas where one over-powered fleet cannot be defeated despite being hugely outnumbered simply because any attacking army must be divided and wait for their turn to be destroyed.
Heroes add an extra layer of interest and tactics to proceedings. Having a much greater effect on the outcome of any battle than cards, these inter-species mingling individuals can be hired to not only lead your fleet to war but also, rather interestingly, improve the production and efficiency of any star system you assign them to. Similar to the Heroes of Might and Magic series, these pinnacles of society gain experience through winning battles and nurturing planets, and as they increase in level they unlock new abilities and battle cards, making them essential tools for your empire.
Balance is always an area that proves to be a thorn in the side of any game that resides in this genre, and Endless Space is no exception. There seems to be a conceptual problem with the game that sees the outcome of most campaigns decided far too prematurely. If a player takes an early dominating lead, often there is very little anyone can do to stem the tide of eventual defeat. There is no research (other than the early wormhole technology) that can really swing the game in a player’s favour, meaning that stalemates, resignations of defeat or suicidal wars are far more common than similar games. Which is really a shame because when a balanced campaign does manage, by pure chance, to form the game becomes far more involved and tactical.
Endless Space gets just as much wrong as it does right. Certainly a feverishly addictive game can be uncovered if a player is willing to sweep through all the dusty problems of restriction and poor balancing. There is such a clinical efficiency to the game that it perfectly captures that one-more-turn urge that lies in us all, often keeping you up until late into the night wondering what happened to the evening. Admittedly most of the problems that dwell in the vacuum of Endless Space may well be ironed out through updates or mods and perhaps here lies its greatest strength. Using a system called Games2Gether, players may sign up and vote for what updates and developments they want to be added at a later date. It is an interesting concept and one that should allow the community to shape and improve the game as they play. Assuming the developers continue this support for a product they have clearly spent many hours slaving away on, perhaps they will turn what is currently an average space Civilisation into a title deserved of recognition beyond the claustrophobic boundaries of the 4X genre. Only time, endless time, will tell.