Developer: Amplitude Studios
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
"Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it's a long walk down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space. Listen..." - The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
As Douglas Adams so brilliantly informed us, space is absolutely huge, and the 4X genre has been on hand to let us lead a race to glory through the wild black yonder using eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation and inevitable eXtermination. As a turn-based 4X title, Endless Space certainly goes through the motions well enough. You'll choose a race or design one from scratch, tailor the galaxy to your satisfaction and then plunge headlong into the experience; expanding your reach via equal amounts of conquest and diplomacy. You'll concoct alliances and smash rival fleets in turn-based fleet combat. You'll choose which planets to settle on by deciding which systems best compliment your race's particular biological setup, and improve your technology through some labyrinthine tech trees. And, should you get hooked, you'll be clicking the End Turn button long after the sun sets and rises again.
Endless Space doesn't distinguish itself from the pack in terms of what it does, but manages to rise above most of the competition thanks to the way it implements the classic 4X systems; balancing insane depth and scope with an intuitive, hands-on approach. Orion has a new master - one that's both incredibly expansive and packed with dense, meaningful depth at every level. It's a proper sandbox: i.e. it's huge... but full of toys.
Before you even begin, this enormous galaxy sandbox can be endlessly (sorry) tinkered with. The eight races on offer differ massively in terms of their outlook on life, their affinity towards different types of world and victory conditions. The intrepid Amoebas, for example, rely on exploration and diplomacy to expand their reach, while the techology-obsessed Sophon rely on advanced technology to offset their feeble warriors. On the more warlike end of the spectrum, the ravening Cravers delight in plundering worlds for resources and burning anyone who gets in their path. Each race comes with their own set of vulnerabilities, making every playthrough completely different in terms of how fast you expand, how you decide to advance your technology and how quickly you prepare for war. The AI is also extremely nuanced, making each of the races you encounter act as per their creed.
Should none of the races take your fancy, players are also able to design their own species by tinkering with ninety different racial traits. Brilliantly, you're free to increase your limited number of trait points by equipping negative drawbacks (such as being isolationists or having weak spaceship hulls), creating extra resources for some of the more powerful positive attributes, meaning that you'll end up creating a truly unique and balanced force regardless of how you spend your stats. Upon choosing or creating a species, players can then dictate the size, age, shape and victory conditions of their galaxy, all of which factors into how long a single game will take and what environmental challenges it poses.
Once in-game, you'll have access to all the traditional 4X staples. A slick four-path technology tree allows you to carefully choose whether to invest in military advancements or more esoteric scientific breakthroughs designed to make colonising planets easier. Spaceships can be designed and equipped with a dizzying array of weapons, modules and defensive upgrades, specced for exploration, all-out conquest or anything in between. Choosing which planets to colonise or terraform becomes an incredibly important concern thanks to the presence of numerous randomly-generated luxury and strategic resources, while a simple interplay of four key resources (Food, Industry, Dust and Science) makes a planet's worth incredibly simple to understand. Depending on your race, Endless Space arms you with the tools to pursue your own ends and eventually rise to dominance, whether it's through scientific renaissance, peaceful expansion or unstoppable fleets.
All of this is incredibly addictive, but unlike certain other 4X games I could mention, Endless Space does its best to properly inform and empower players through a thoughtfully-designed GUI. Dynamic tooltips abound: arming players with easily-digestible information about every system, research goal, ship - in fact, pretty much anything you need to know. What's more, key events (such as reaching a research target or a revolt taking place) are heralded by an alert screen, which gives you instant access to the tab or system in question with a single click. From there, you can seamlessly drop in and out of the important menus and address the most important concerns rather than having to cut through swathes of meaningless numbers - indeed, it reminds us very strongly of Dungeon Keeper's information panels that constantly keep you apprised of important events and allows you to view them immediately. Streamlining doesn't have to be a dirty word, especially when it's done properly.
Endless Space takes a streamlined approach towards fleet combat, which is bound to both delight and deter players in equal measure. Instead of being given no control over your flotillas and being told results at the beginning of each gameplay turn by a text box - or painstakingly controlling each individual ship Homeworld-style - you'll dole out order cards to dictate your fleet's rules of engagement at different ranges. Essentially, it's a card game. These seemingly simple offensive and defensive orders can be used to effect some truly grand strategies over a small number of turns, providing a uniquely streamlined take on something that's usually either too involved or not fleshed out enough. Once set, you'll watch each turn play out in some slick and dramatic 3D action scenes; the winner determined within a few minutes. Personally, I feel that Endless Space actually benefits from these speedy resolutions: there's enough depth and Star Trek/Battlestar Galactica-esque cinematic moments to satisfy, but it's quick enough to let you get back to ruling the galaxy without becoming bogged down in minutiae. However, if you crave a huge amount of hands-on strategy, you might well come away slightly nonplussed.
War isn't your only option, and many races will need to conduct a fair bit of diplomacy. Rare resources, which spawn randomly on various worlds throughout the galaxy, can become an important bargaining tool to secure military alliances or deter a particularly warlike faction from turning your worlds to ash (if you happen to have the Cravers on your peaceful tech-loving doorstep, you'd better secure some powerful allies before they turn their eyes to your delicious habitable systems), with the outcome of trade negotiations being more powerful than battleships for several races. Though I personally feel that inter-racial politics could use a touch more personality as opposed to a string of fairly dry treaties and contracts, it's still a potent tool in your arsenal.
Macro-scale interspecies relationships, large-scale research objectives and galactic warfare goes hand-in-hand with dynamically evolving micro-level events, such as making sure your colonists are able to thrive on your worlds of choice and happy enough to not consider going on strike. Critically, there's always something to do, and your actions always carry deep consequences that either ripple through the cosmos or determine the fate of a single system. Since every playthrough, race and galaxy provides a different gameplay experience, 'Endless' isn't just an idle boast.
The 4X territory does come with a few problems, however, and you'll encounter a couple of them in Endless Space. Once you've passed (survived?) the exciting early-game expansion, it's easy to become mired in micromanagement as your sprawling empire requires ever more attention. This can be exacerbated by the insescapable fact that Endless Space is also rarely particularly thrilling - it's undeniably addictive, but the uninspired sound design and a slight lack of real personality can conspire to make some slightly dull moments. By the time you get that far, thankfully, you'll probably be too invested to care... and if you're all about constant moment-to-moment stimulation then you've come to the wrong genre, friend.
- Unbelievably, wonderfully compulsive
- Balances depth with immediacy
- Endless replayability
- Could use a little more genuine personality
- Spartan, slightly uninspiring sound design
- Divisive streamlined take on fleet combat
The Short Version: Endless Space is a sensational 4X title: absolutely epic in scope, but packed with dense, enjoyable features and boasting an intuitive, palatable GUI. Its infinitely customisable sandbox is chock-full of toys and things to occupy your time, providing profound choice and variety at every gameplay level. Though streamlined fleet combat may deter hardcore strategy fans, Endless Space really does let us make the universe our own.
As Douglas Adams said: "you just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is."