Platform: PC (Steam, £26.99)
Developer: Amplitude Studios
Early Access has been dragged through the mud over the last few months, but it often doesn't get enough credit. For every failure there's a developer who makes a plan and sticks to it, engages fans without losing sight of their goals, then finally delivers a worthwhile game that couldn't have been made any other way. The system works.
Endless Legend is one of those success stories: a superb, solid and delightfully innovative take on the 4X genre from Amplitude Studios, the fearsome strategy fiends behind the excellent Endless Space and upcoming Roguelike masterclass Dungeon Of The Endless. As you've probably worked out by now, all three games take place at different times in the same universe, a sensational Sci-Fi fantasy fusion that kicks out elves and dwarves in favour of aliens, constructs, mad cultists, robot ghosts and necrophagous insects. It's a beautiful thing, both in terms of the overall aesthetic and some exciting design decisions.
I'm going to assume that you have a working knowledge of 4X games, preferably hex-based specimens like Civilization, Warlock and Age Of Wonders III, because otherwise this review is going to require several hundred words to explain the basic mechanics. To briefly recap, Endless Legend subscribes to a familiar basic formula of picking a race with different stats, starting out with a settler, building a city and then cracking on with the four Xs: exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination . You'll research new technologies, move units around a hex-based world, engage in diplomacy and generally rise to dominance through fair means and foul.
Here's the instruction manual if you want to know more. Rather than dwelling on minutae, we're going to discuss how Endless Legend subverts and reinvigorates the familiar genre template with fresh new ideas.
Let's start with the factions. The planet of Auriga plays host to a selection of races that don't just look different and boast a few unique stat modifiers, rather they completely change the way you play and experience the game on a fundamental level. The Vaulters (a knowing nod to Fallout and the Brotherhood Of Steel) provide a relatively familiar 4X baseline for less experienced players, but you'll soon discover that the other factions take a more nuanced approach. Take the Fallen Lords, a noble race of dead knights who consume Dust (the economic resource) instead of food, making them incredibly tough yet brittle and few in number. Think the Protoss, only reimagined as space robot ghosts.
They're joined by the Roving Clans, my favourite faction, who can't declare war yet move their nomadic cities around on the backs of giant scarab beetles while trading their way to economic dominance. The Necrophages, obsequiously polite yet deadly charnel-eaters who prefer creating and devouring corpses to diplomacy. The Wild Walkers use their natural affinity with Auriga to piece Fog Of War and field ravening beasts, whereas the insidious faceless cultists can only construct a single city, expanding their reach by influencing and dominating smaller factions.
Each race has their own backstory and even story questlines to complete that let you experience their unique worldview and philosophies. This purposeful imbalance does naturally lead to certain races being well-suited to early rush tactics, but that's a price worth paying for variety and scope. I haven't seen such an effective blend of high fantasy and hard Sci-Fi since Panzer Dragoon.
The world map is both gorgeous and functional. Hexes and cities rise out of the ground as you zoom in, revealing an eye for detail and visual representation of resources, or pulling back into an at-a-glance paper map for high-level strategic planning.
Minor races send out units to harrass you unless you put their villages to the torch, bribe them or even undertake quests to bring them into the fold. Temples and ruins encourage you to search them for prizes, resources or even quests of their own. Cities expand by building new districts, turning tiny hamlets into sprawling conurbations, all as the seasons change bringing fresh opportunities and challenges. Each faction fields their own unique units, not palette-swapped placeholders, blending perfectly with the fantastic and science fiction art design that hovers on the abstract and colourful side of realism. Exploring is therefore fantastic fun, whilst combat takes on a whole new dimension.
Much like any recent hex-based 4X title, you'll create unit stacks and move them around the world (with or without the help of some upgradeable heroes), setting up handy long-term routes that can be progressed with a single button press, but sooner or later you'll encounter an enemy force. Unless you're confident of victory and opt to auto-resolve, joining battle doesn't whisk you away into an instanced battlefield, rather each stack seamlessly splits up and individual unit takes their place on the world map itself, using the existing terrain and topography to advantage. As such, you're already subconsciously aware of the location of potential high ground or choke points before the engagement starts, while making Auriga feel like a cohesive, real place.
This being an Amplitude game, though, combat is a hands-off affair. Before each turn, you'll select a Rule Of Engagement for each unit (attack, defence or hold position), choose an enemy to target and then trust the AI to make the decisions for you. This works in the main, but often friendly units will pull off some frankly stupid manoeuvres such as ranged archers straying too close to melee enemies despite being given a hold position order, whereas more tactically-minded players will balk at the lack of control. Having waxed lyrical about the superlative Age Of Wonders III, I can't help but wish that Endless Legend also offered manual control -- the mechanics are already in place! -- in a pinch.
There's more. Research tiers take you through distinct eras of technological prowess. New unit types can be created with different unlockable armours, items and weapons. Heroes can attach to armies or towns, granting them unique benefits. Luxury resources can be mined and used as time-limited boosters. In the interests of brevity, I'd encourage you to take a look at the instruction manual if you're interested -- remember that this is a review, not an FAQ -- but suffice to say that Endless Legend's interlocking gameplay systems reward experimentation and learning the ropes through a few early losses.
Impressive as Endless Legend is, I do have a few gripes. The early game can feel stodgy and occasionally even boring unless you're playing as the most aggressive factions, as building your infrastructure can take an age. Dozens of turns tend to clicked away waiting for a few more workers to spawn, research options to unlock and construction to complete before the fun really starts. Seriously, most factions can't even talk to minor races before researching the ability to... erm... speak to them.
Then we come to the interface. I love the fact that the UI can be scaled up to avoid eyestrain (this needs to be incorporated into every 4X game from now on, please!) and net resource gains/losses are laid out at-a-glance, but on the flip-side important information and options are often hidden behind tooltips and nested menus that require an awful lot of clicking about, and can result in you either at a loss for intel or swamped in it. The research menu is a key case in point, a horribly laid-out and sprawling mess of options. Keyboard shortcuts aren't displayed on the screen either, which is a real bugbear of mine.
On the subject of bugbears, I'm also not sold on the diplomacy system. It's robust enough, but oddly hinges around its own unique currency known as Influence. Every single diplomatic action, no matter how important or trivial, requires you to pay out an appropriate amount of Influence, which is also used to create important racial strategic plans and bring minor races on-side.
This can leave you unable to make basic agreements even if you have the relationships and resources to back it up, feeling artificial, forced and annoying as a result. It's a shame, since with the exception of the Necrophages, diplomacy is often the best way to deal with AI that rarely takes the offensive (or effectively garrisons their cities, for more warlike types).
All annoying observations, but nowhere near enough to dampen what is still a brave and fresh new 4X game that feels like a genuine addition to the genre, not just a 'me-too' wannabe.
- Stupendous setting, art design and lore
- Unique factions act and play differently on a fundamental level
- Engaging 4X gameplay with numerous exciting twists
- Gorgeous world map and streamlined combat
- Early game can be sluggish and tedious (unless you rush)
- Interface is bitty, arcane and stuffed with nested menus
- Combat lacks direct control; quirky AI
The Short Version: Endless Legend is a excellent 4X game that takes the genre in exciting new directions, expertly blending hard Sci-Fi and high fantasy in the process.