Jumping into Endless Space
It’s usually a matter of policy for me to refuse to read impressions or reviews of games that I’m going to talk about in order to remain pure and unsullied by the opinions of others. In the case of Endless Space, due this summer from Amplitude Studios, I played neglectful mother and left that prohibition back at the supermarket. I can now think of three possible intros, none of them mine, and all of them quite good. The only solution, it seems, is to play it straight and tell you that Endless Space is looking great.
I’ve long had a nagging thought that a good space strategy game would be similar to an American railroad game. It would deal with themes of vast ambition, exploited labor and resources, both brazen and shadowy conflict, manifest destiny, and Pinkertons; and, of course, the trouble of concealing your dubious policies from the half-watchdog half-complacent society back home. I’m honestly getting excited just thinking about it. But while I’m willing to fall head-over-heels in love, most 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) strategies leave me cold. Also, often bored.
Here’s another thing that bothers me (and which will bridge the gap from my rambling to actually talking about Endless Space): star systems don’t work the way that most games portray. Sometimes (I’m thinking of Sins of a Solar Empire, a game that has never failed to leave my eyes glazed and my mind a-wander), you even have hundreds of planets sitting static around a central star. Other games have similarly peculiar versions of what space looks like. And that, well, bothers me. Because instead of exploring space, I feel like I’m prodding floaties suspended in swirly jelly. And I do plenty of that when my aunt has me over for dinner, thank you very much.
It’s into this barren constellation that Endless Space is born. And you know what? It feels right. It’s not everything I’ve hoped for, but it feels like it’s taking not only steps, but a few solid hops in the right direction.
I started out prejudiced. Not only had I never actually found a space game that I liked, it’s also not quite complete. It’s currently in alpha, and will probably release this summer, though it could easily pass for a finished game if its creators were sick of the project and decided to cash out. Despite my bias, a few things stuck out almost immediately.
The first was that star systems are actual star systems, with different ages of stars orbited by different types of planets. When you launch your starting scout, you won’t just find a solitary planet: you’ll find a cool blue sun orbited by a ruined desert planet, an arid planet with rich deposits of exotic metals, and an arctic planet with mind-controlling aurora waves perfectly suited for breeding docile (and dumb) inhabitants. Other systems will be composed of an asteroid belt chock full of ancient artifacts and some helium gas giants with explorable moons, or perfect terrestrial worlds just ripe for colonization. There’s plenty of variety on display, and though there’s some simplification going on, it’s possibly the most convincing shorthand for space that I’ve witnessed.
Another aspect actually made me grin: you can make detours around the game’s highways. As in SoaSE, you move between star systems via colorful ley lines. The effect is that your ships are tethered to them, and certain star systems become valuable chokepoints because they occupy a crossroads of space-lanes. Until you research warp drives, that is. Suddenly, your ships have a powerful new ability: while they will still travel faster along those interplanetary highways, they can now jump between planets at will, moving ponderously through deep space. The applications to warfare are monumental, as suddenly your fleets are bypassing enemy blockades and harassing planets that were supposedly secure only a few turns before. Which, if you think about it, is exactly how space combat should be.
The options for customization are suitably expansive. The technology tree (or rather, the four technology trees) permits myriad advancements, and even a scientific victory option. Star systems can support a number of improvements, and individual planets can be exploited in multiple ways. Heroes can be hired to act as admirals or governors. Alliances and cold wars and trade agreements are all possible (though some of this is a bit shaky, as I’ll discuss a bit later). And ships can be designed and upgraded through possibly the easiest customization process I’m yet to see in a space game. It’s entirely possible to disregard any armor or shields and build a ship bristling with kinetic cannons. Or to make a command ship that will confer radar and speed bonuses to its entire flotilla. Or to make a ground-siege fleet. Or to make boring well-rounded destroyers with missiles, beams, cannons, and protection from each of the same.
For all of these details, the user interface seems easy enough to use. Information is transparent, with plenty of helpful popups ready to explain the reasoning beneath your bankruptcy. And the tutorial screens that appear the first time you encounter each element of the game helped my empire’s ascent with little trouble.
There are a few downsides. The AI and diplomacy aren’t finished—as I said, the game is in alpha—so while they’re workable (and usually enjoyable), I was never quite sure why Horatio (a race of clones of one dude named Horatio) was perpetually suspicious of my benevolent trading policies.
Another oddity is the game’s simultaneous turn system. Normally, simultaneous is my favorite flavor of turn, but here things get a little strange. You’ll be in the middle of your turn, jump a fleet to intercept an enemy fleet that’s been harassing your wimpy science worlds, and suddenly that fleet will jump away. Or it will jump straight at your fleet, leading to comedic gold when they blow past each other on the colorful space-highway like space-keystone cops. Or you’ll move a fleet to attack, and your enemy will move his fleet to fill the gap left by your departing fleet.
See, everyone is taking their turns at the same time, but with fleets their movement occurs at the exact moment that they’re issued orders. Which makes the game feel not-quite-turn-based, since in turn-based games you’re not generally reacting to a person in real-time.
This is a minor nitpick. I would have preferred a true turn-based system in which you issued orders to your fleets that they then carried out once the “end turn” button was pressed, but I can live with this design decision.
Another thing that I’m not entirely sold on is the combat. If pics are to be believed, they’re dynamic and real-time and all kinds of sexy. In reality, they have all the dynamism of a game of rock-paper-scissors. Which is to say, the battles are a game of rock-paper-scissors.
When battle begins, two fleets appear and they both choose three “cards” (representing the tactics they’ll use in combat), one for each of three phases. The first phase is at long range, where missiles are most effective, while the second is at medium range (bring beam weapons), and the third is up close (fire kinetics!). The cards you assign to each phase will give bonuses to weapons or defenses, or decrease the efficacy of enemy systems, and can trump certain other card types. So, for instance, a Camouflage card (which falls under the “defense” archetype) will help evade missiles and kinetic fire, and will trump any card of the “sabotage” archetype. This will be good if your enemy picked a sabotage card like Weapon Disruption, which shorts out enemy missiles and counters “offense” cards.
Most of the time, you and your opponent will pick cards that will give small weapon bonuses but won’t trump the enemy card, though sometimes cards do get trumped for additional bonuses, and it’s even possible for both cards to cancel each other out.
This system is interesting, as it does mean that an outgunned fleet can, if not win, at least deal massive damage to a superior enemy. The downside is that every battle is exactly the same: two fleets warp in and fly alongside each other, drawing gradually closer while they pew-pew at the enemy’s shields and armor. Also, it means that battles are 90% dictated by fleet strength and the presence of a solid admiral rather than by unit placement or real tactics. You can gain new cards through research or leveling up your admirals, and some powerful cards cost a wad of space-cash to deploy, but these are still fairly dull ways to dictate the outcome of a clash of space empires. Even at its best, it’s more USARPS League and less Commander Adama.
Still, the combat doesn’t sink—or rather, blow up—the ship. Besides, the game is more about managing the fiscal and strategic side of an empire, and my third game seemed to go fine even with all the battles on autopilot.
Overall, Endless Space is looking great. The breadth of choice here is satisfyingly huge, and more than any 4X game I’ve played to date, it has managed to make me feel like the amoral and ruthless space emperor that I long to be. I’m excited to see the fine-tuning the AI and diplomacy are scheduled to receive, and the couple additional factions in the works. So far it gets three alien space-thumbs up (out of three—it’s an alien), even if those thumbs are holding cards instead of laser guns.