Endless Space [Preview] – Streamlined Strategy26 Jun 2012
Have you ever fallen in love with a game’s user interface? It’s a rare (and quite sad) phenomena, reserved for those special interfaces that manage to combine elegance with functionality; where each click of the mouse is a new test of your beloved’s boundaries and every streamlined menu design evokes a besotted sigh. Amplitude Studios’ Endless Space provides just such an experience.
Of course, you don’t have to embrace it in quite such a disturbing way. That was just for show. Honest.
Docking smoothly with the “4X” genre of strategy games (expand, explore, exploit and exterminate … yes, it should really be 4E), Endless Space is one of those ‘beta’ projects that could easily pass for a full release. There are doubtless a few balance quirks to work out, but even if little else is added to the game before its proposed release in July it still promises to be one of the most welcome additions to this genre in a long while.
That is partly down to the wonderful interface, to which the images dotted around this article barely do justice. Every single option at your Imperial command (be it planetary colonisation, technological research, ship design or diplomacy) is within a single mouse click, and each screen is presented in such a clear, uncluttered way that the only things you’ll ever be grappling with are the strategic decisions themselves, not how to enact them.
It’s as if the developers have pre-empted almost every input annoyance in the 4X genre and smoothed it out. Applying a newly discovered DeathBlasto Ray or shielding capabilities to your older fleets is as easy as clicking a “retrofit” option, for example. Or take the technology tree itself, with its four sprawling (but neatly organised, colour-coded) branches. If there’s a specific tech that you desire a long way down one of the chains, you can simply select it and allow the game to automatically research its way up to that point without any further commands.
The Endless Space interface is, in short, a direct example of why ‘streamlining’ and ‘accessibility’ don’t have to be a dirty word in complex, tactical games. This isn’t dumbing down. The title is looking as in-depth as many others of this type; it’s just a whole lot easier to learn and play.
For a game this focused on presentation, it should come as no shock that the atmosphere it creates is also top-drawer. Amidst the eight different empires you can choose to take command of there are some unique gameplay styles on offer. Even the typical “yes, hello, we are the proud warrior race” option has been given the neat twist of an evolutionary background akin to intelligent avian-dinosaurs.
For the more adventurous there’s an option to play as civilisations like the ever-consuming ‘Cravers’; beings who exist in a constant state of war and ruinous consumerism, forced to move from planet to planet as they eat up everything to sustain their own system of life (feel free to make up your own joke about Capitalism at this point). A personal favourite is The Horatio, a race of clones created by a somewhat unhinged billionaire who seek galactic domination through spamming themselves across worlds and impressing people with their scientific prowess.
Those worlds and star systems also have attributes and features that do their absolute best to present stat increases like “plus one science point per population” in as interesting a manner as possible. You’ll stumble across giant mushrooms, ancient moon temples and planets with an atmosphere of hallucinogenic gases that make it hard for citizens to focus on technological research but keeps the population extremely mellowed out.
The eight playable civilisations have been preceeded by an enigmatic entity called the Endless, whose remnants manifest as Dust. This is a powerful substance which takes (essentially) the form of in-game currency. Alongside Dust, colonised worlds produce Food, Industry and Science points (which along with Dust are collectively known as FIDS). Production in all of these areas can be improved through researched technologies, improving population happiness or hiring talented heroes.
These chaps periodically show up (the countdown to the next one is always clear) and can be employed as administrators (or tyrants) for your worlds. Naturally, like everything in Endless Space, each of these characters has an interesting background and personality of their own. It’s also possible to appoint heroes to lead your fleets into battle.
Yes, at some point you’re going to run into fellow galactic megalomaniacs and conflict will be inevitable. Once contact is established the two empires are plunged into a Cold War phase, where attacks can only take place between fleets outside the imperial spheres of influence (in other words, anywhere that isn’t a colonised world). To launch attacks on homeworlds, it’s necessary to declare all-out war; unless you’re the Cravers, who don’t really understand any other state of being.
In many respects, combat can already be won before you meet your foes. With enough research put into the latest in weapon and armour designs, you’ll have an edge in the galactic arms race. Combine this with a talented hired hero as your admiral and your chances of victory will soar (even as one of the militarily weaker civilisations).
Ship design, then, is pretty important. Each hull type has a number of slots that can be filled with various armour, weapon, engine and ‘support’ modules, with the total amount restricted by a tonnage limit. Of course, increased tonnage space can be researched and is just as important as keeping your weaponry up-to-date.
In its simplest form, the combat has a rock, paper, scissors basis (every weapon type has a corresponding armour type that it’ll beat and one that it’s less effective against), but when you take into account the player-driven technological advancement and the influence of skilled admirals it gets a touch more complicated than that.
The combat encounters themselves seem to be a compromise between those who’d rather not bother with all that pesky fighting stuff and those who love more micro-management offered in titles likeMasters of Orion 2. As a result, it risks not quite pleasing either party; being too involved for fans of the former, and too perfunctory for the latter.
Battles take place in three active ‘phases’ (long, medium and short range), with each phase corresponding to the effectiveness of a certain weapon type. If you take ‘manual’ control of these encounters you can issue specific tactics for each phase in an attempt to tip the balance your way, but the results are automated and play out at the hands of an AI camera director.
This has the potential to get a touch annoying in a crowded end game, where the likelihood of fighting 10 or more of these in a turn is a very real possibility. There is an auto-resolve button which does a pretty reliable (and fair) job, but it’s always going to have slightly worse performance than a competent human general. If Endless Space has room for improvement, it’s in keeping the combat encounters interesting over the course of a lengthy game session.
Both single and multiplayer (that’s right, you’ll be able to play out simultaneous turns with other would-be Imperialists) modes are offered, each with options for user-selected victory conditions, galaxy sizes and player numbers. There’s no single player ‘campaign’ as such; Endless Space takes the traditional 4X route of letting players set up their own game boundaries, from massive eight player epics to skirmishes in smaller galaxies between two or three.
With even more features still promised (espionage appears to be on the horizon as a spin-off from the standard diplomacy options), Endless Space may yet push itself beyond even the level of this superbbeta. That’d be quite something, as in its current state the game is looking every bit the heir to the Imperial space-throne of contemporary 4X titles.