Sunday, February 16, 2014

3 days of...Endless Space!

Bringing simultaneous turn chaos to the 4x genre

When I first began playing Endless Space, a 4x strategy game made by AMPLITUDE studios, I immediately drew comparisons between it and games like Sins of a Solar Empire and Star Wars: Empire at War. And it's true there is a lot of aesthetic similarities between them. Space faring races pushing for control of a galaxy with limited resources, with massive fleets throwing lasers and missiles at each other high above newly colonized planets. Unfortunately looks can be deceiving, and I had to stop mid-way into playing it, put aside my disappointment and look at the game for what it truly is. And it represents the origin of 4x Strategy games, namely the archaic board-game, expertly. 

It's very easy to see that card-based layout influenced this display.
This is the problem with modern 4x games. They betray the board-game aesthetic and separate themselves visually from their ancestors to fit in with modern games. This visualization is the first introduction to the game most people get, so they begin comparing the game with other games that are visually similar. However Endless Space isn't mechanically similar to a real-time strategy game, so if you run into it with those expectations you'll be sorely disappointed.

I suspended my belief of the illusion it was delivering, and though of it instead as a very complex board/card game.Then I truly began to appreciate it for what it did well. The tech tree is very complex and forces you to choose paths within paths in order to get ahead instead of generalizing. Exploring the galaxy and managing your empire are both deep and easily automated. As a matter of fact, everything can be automated by default so you won't forget to keep a planet producing something each turn. Hero units don't necessarily have to be generals either, they can advance as planetary administrators, which provides an interesting change of pace from other strategy games. 

At one point, I had this series of planets running themselves. Until
I got stabbed in the back by my neighbor.
Endless Space executes these things wonderfully, and stays true to it's 4x nature to a point. When you begin meeting other races, you'll soon realize that your turn is co-mingled with every other players. That's right, everyone performs their turn at the same time. Scrambling to move your colony ship to that planetary system before a competitor has a whole new meaning when speed is involved too. Positioning your cursor right after clicking the end turn button becomes important, and adds a new element to 4x strategy that certainly is interesting, but can be just as frustrating, as speed can get you rewards faster, but allows enemy fleets to dodge yours as fast as they can move. 

Combat is handled like a miniature card game, offering you 3 chances to trump your opponents chosen attack/defense type. Regardless of this however, it's difficult to beat a fleet that happens to be more powerful or prepared than your own. Taking this into account, preparing fleets ahead of time with plenty of options or just specializing in a specific type of attack becomes very important. During combat a cut scene is played displaying your choices and showing the ensuing exchange between fleets. The cut scene is purely there as a slow-moving visual representation of your battle; meaning you have little control over the fight beyond changing the next card in the lineup. Honestly, you can skip this minute long affair and just treat battles as if they were card-games with no animation. At least until your fleets become large enough to be impressive on screen.

Battle cutscenes are visually pleasing, if a little bit slow.

Like any other 4x game I walked into Endless Space thinking I could be an all controlling dictator, pushing automation to the side in favor of tasting everything the game had to offer. When I realized that speed mattered though, I began pre-programming what my systems would do, and how my units would move as much as possible. Automation seems to be the name of the game, and treating your empire like one big programmable robot seems like the best way to beat out your competitors, who are inevitably doing the same thing. It's just not possible to pay attention to actively moving fleets, and manage your empire at the same time. 

In some ways I enjoyed this. Endless Space handles automation like few other games I've played, and it was never a hassle to see what my directed tendencies did to my systems. In other ways I felt that I was just lining up actions at a point, and then ending turn after turn waiting for the next production queue until some galactic event changed the way I wanted to play. Giving me something to do every turn would have been a nice change of pace, or something they could have added, but I could literally go 5 to 10 turns sometimes without even having to do anything in my systems. That just happened to be the most efficient way to play. 

Compared to other 4x games (and board games), Endless Space doesn't disappoint, and delivers a rewarding and very challenging experience. There are endless ways to play, and the game gives you complete freedom on how you progress. It brings the 4x genre back to it's board game days and at the same time brings something new to the table in it's simultaneous movements. I can appreciate that. Things that I wish were better? Having something to do every turn, like playing the political meta-game with the opponents. And having a more useful battle interface that I'm not tempted to skip every single time it pops up. 

You'll like this game if: You enjoy delightfully complex board games, and wanted to see a wonderful visualization set in a detailed science-fiction universe. You might like it even more if you wish you could run a galactic bureaucratic administration to rule as much as you want to engage in large intergalactic hostile takeovers.

(If you had a different opinion or a new video game to suggest, leave a comment below! If you want to recieve regular updates, follow me on Twitter @SimonGolden.)

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