Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Endless Space

Post-Launch Review
Endless Space
Developer: Amplitude Studios
Released: July 2012
Played: 5 games over 19 hours


Choose your race, establish your empire, and colonize the galaxy. Travel across the stars to discover systems with unique planets and strategic resources. Dominate your opponents with economic, military, science, expansion, diplomatic, supremacy, wonder, or score strategies.

At Launch

Endless Space earned average review scores of 77%.  Critics were impressed by its accessibility, replay value, and interface, but criticized the sound design and "lack of personality".

Post Launch

Several free content updates were released, adding a new race, more variability to the galaxy map and events, more technologies and heroes, and various new mechanics and gameplay improvements.
The Disharmony DLC adds a new race, new ship types and technologies, and major improvements to the combat system.

For me, a lot of Endless Space's pros are also its cons. The stuff that makes it feel unique and interesting has some downsides as well. Before I started playing, I was kind of given the impression of Civilization in space, so I'll make some comparisons to Civ V here (the only one of the series I've played at this point).

The first thing that Endless Space does well is actually making it feel like you're in space. The sun type of each star system determines the likelihood of finding different amounts and kinds of planets, each of which has its own pros and cons and potential for resources and anomalies. Star systems only connect in certain ways, so you can't necessarily jump from a system to a nearby one. The galaxy map and the planets have a very different feel to them than Civ's hex-based world map, which is great. I also love that you customize and upgrade your own ships instead of buying pre-designed units.

The downside is that most of the time the map is awfully boring to look at. It's pretty much just empty space with some dots and lines and shaded influence areas. Obviously it's not 100% realistic in terms of scale, but it's odd that the galaxy map makes a bit of effort at realism when the system overview is a completely unrealistic lineup of planets, which actually happens to look great.

The four-branched tech tree is also different from what I'm used to in a competitive game. Granted, I don't play a huge number of games like this, but I'm more used to seeing a single tree with lots of interconnecting branches, so that you can progress one strategy but come back to fill in some key technologies later. Here, though, you get four distinct trees that don't tie into each other at all. There's a lot more room to customize your approach when you have access to so many options at once.

Too many options can be a problem, though. Focusing on one strategy at the expense of others is often a trade-off, but here it can really cripple you. Focus too much on military and you won't be able to colonize enough worlds to build up your resources. Spend too much time on diplomacy and you'll be unprepared for an attack. This makes it difficult to prioritize, especially for new players - most races focus on a particular play style, but if you only follow that style, you'll be in trouble. The partial exception is science: if you can accelerate your research speed enough, you can pull ahead drastically in the long run.

The best thing about Endless Space is the same as the worst thing. There are a ton of different races and they all play very differently from each other. That's great! There's sure to be at least one or two that fit your play style, and they each have a few unique technologies and progress through the tech tree in different ways. One race can build hyperspace portals linking their planets no matter how distant. One focuses on dense population over expansion or research or military. There's even one that completely ignores several major game mechanics. The races feel more distinctive than Civ V's civilizations because each has a large number of pros and cons, typically including at least one completely unique mechanic that has a huge effect on how you play, whereas the civs have only a couple of abilities that focus mostly on early access to certain technologies or an advantage in a particular era.

The downside is that the races' unique abilities and play styles aren't really explained well enough. You can mouse over their powers on choosing a race but once you're actually in game there's no race-specific tutorial to teach you how to use the unique abilities or technologies. Race selection told me that I should focus on population and influence, but what does that actually mean? I can't win the game just by having lots of people on my planets. It ends up taking some time to learn the game mechanics well enough to figure out how to play some of the races when it could have been made much easier with even a single optional tutorial panel to give you some starting tips on your race.

Endless Space does a great job of making you feel the theme and has quite a lot of depth. For me, its biggest flaw is how visually unexciting the map is - despite all the mechanics and races to try out, I don't feel that thrill of exploration and discovery that I love in the early game of Civ V, so I don't feel as much motivation to keep playing. But if that doesn't bother you as much as it does me, Endless Space has a ton of cool stuff to experiment with. And the game is dramatically better than it was at launch with all the free improvements that have been released.

Recommendation: play it.

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