Endless Space Review
A dark starscape, bleached by a swollen red sun drifts lazily past my ships. A monstrous armada of weaponry bristle at the sight of the Craver fleet, and start to take aim. Enough fire to level a planet to a molten husk tears a jagged line in the black, and half the Craver fleet disappear in a wash of light. A few of my own ships are lost to the fierce answer of the Craver ships, and the battle begins. Despite terrible losses, our enemies are armed with far superior firepower to our own – decades of consuming the other races of the western-spiral of this galaxy have allowed these vile creatures to break us time and time again, with power beyond even their understanding.
But then, what does a Craver understand other than hunger?
Oh no, don’t make the mistake of thinking that Endless Space is just another 4X strategy game. It’s a little better than that. Touted as an “indie” game, it was released at the beginning of June to almost no fan-fare whatsoever. And yet, amazingly, this is probably one of the greatest 4X space-strategy games of all time. High praise, but given the level of polish this game had while still in beta, I honestly saw the potential even then. During the weeks until release, the Avalanche Team have honed and buffed until the stars literally shone from the screen.
A 4X game, for you uninitiated, is a strategy game. Generally played in turns, you spend most of your time eXploring the galaxy, eXpanding to other worlds and moons, eXploiting said planets and moons to their fullest, as well as your neighbours, and eXterminating your enemies (and neighbours, if you are of a mind). Endless Space takes you to a randomly generated galaxy, built to your specifications regarding size, shape, and number of races inhabiting. Several pre-made races are available to choose from, from the evil United Empire, to the peaceful diplomats of the Amoebas. Cleverly, each race has a characteristic mentality, that ties directly to a unique victory-type. The Amoebas are peaceful diplomats, yet technologically advanced enough to have some serious firepower – meaning you can either befriend the galaxy, or blow it up.
Of course, 4X games never make it that easy, and thanks to the Amoeba’s love of peace, war will make your entire race unhappy. This encourages you into playing the game like your faction – combat is viable, but always the last-ditch option.
Each popular play-style seems to be accounted for too. From the war-and-conquest loving Hissho, to the spectacularly mad Horatio – a race made up of the clones of a rich, eccentric ego-maniac who simply want to populate the known universe with themselves. The Sowers and the Cravers are a particular treat – the former wants to build and enhance everything, and the latter just consumes. Everything. This even includes planets – there is little point in taking a Craver-owned world by force – they leave very little in their wake.
Each race even has unique technologies in it’s research-tree that aren’t available to any others – most tend to be strictly conductive to the race in question’s win-condition, but it’s still nice to have a-symmetrical tech-trees, and more reasons not to simply pour all your effort into weapons-tech and engines.
But Endless Space certainly doesn’t force you down any route in particular, the races all have a preferred “win” condition, but you can win any way you choose. You can even construct your own race, with whatever merits and faults you wish. But the history and setting of the game, unlike so many other 4X games, fits in superbly with the default races mentalities, drives and passions.
Hence my on-going and, to be brutally honest – losing, war with the insatiable Cravers.
Which brings me to the exquisite jewel in the Endless Space crown – the combat. A weak point for so very many 4X games (Total War games aside, of course), they tend to fall down on two points – fun and complexity. Some are simply games of numbers; I have more guys, so I win etc. Others baffle you with mindless configurations and options, most of which are unusable without a certain amount of trial-and-error, which for most of us, simply isn’t fun. Endless Space dodges this beautifully by making one tiny adjustment – it’s battles are so very pretty. Lumbering, gargantuan flotillas of weapon-leaden death duke it out slowly, and ships detonate in a typically cinematic style as your view slices along the outskirts of the carnage. Occasionally zooming in for a close-up death-throe of a cruiser as its armour gives out.
Most battles in Endless Space are decided before the fight even begins, thanks to a robust but slightly over-complex weapon-vs-defence system. Armour, shields and flak defend as guns, missiles and lasers breach the opposition. Yet another layer of complexity falls over the proceedings as certain types of weapon do more damage at different stages of the combat. Each fight is divided into five rounds; “Approach”, “Long-Range”, “Medium Range”, “Short Range” and a final round to decide for close fights. This setup actually works very well, as you can customise your fleets to do decent damage in all rounds, or go for the killing stroke at a particular moment.
This is helped by the weapons range-bonus – missiles do more damage at range, lasers at medium, and kinetic at close; allowing you to fine-tune your ships for just about any engagement thanks to a generous amount of customisation offered by the ship-building screen. There are also “cards” – abilities that you can activated during any of the three main rounds of combat. Some are defensive, others boost weapon damage or accuracy, a few have special effects that may help decide a particularly close encounter. However, during my time playing, these felt like marginal boosts to your fleet’s capabilities, and almost never decided a conflicts outcome.
Still, it’s nice to have a hand in all the explosions that sprinkle the very pretty combat screen of Endless Space. And despite the overall lack of interactivity, it’s all still very lovely to watch unfold.
To be honest, the combat is simply the icing on a very rich and well-made cake. A varied and beautiful galaxy, full of wondrous and horrific creatures to barter/threaten/cuddle with, all tied to what has to be one of the most intuitive and slick interfaces every to grace a 4X game – and I’m including the Total War series there, this is simply better. Clear, concise, nothing is hidden and everything is there in front of you at all times.
About the only gripe I can throw at Endless Space, other than its slight swing towards overly complicated, is that the race-AI can be a little weak. For example, nearing the end of my very long and very costly war with the Cravers, my little alliance started to crack at the seams as the general opinion of my race plummeted for some reason. Eventually, the alliance splintered, and fell apart as the other races declared their neutrality towards me. Some turns later, the Cravers finished us all off, and that was that. And the reason for this fall-out?
The Cravers had taken over so many planets, their empires had ended up so much smaller than mine, they felt threatened by my size . Well done, lads.
Next time, I’m just going to let the Cravers eat you first.