Space is huge. No, it is massive. In the summer of 2012, space became endless. Amplitude Studios released Endless Space (July 2012 PC, August 2012 Mac), their first game, and I was instantly drawn back into the 4X genre. I have been a fan of the genre since I first watched a younger cousin play Sid Meier’s Civilization in the early 90’s. My first experience with a space video game was Star Control, but that was later replaced byMaster of Orion in 1993, which quickly became a favorite and took over my life. I had started down the road to 4X fandom.
Endless Space introduces the universe in which the Endless series of games exist. This title takes place in the year 3000 AD in a randomly generated section of a galaxy. By way of introduction, the Endless were an advanced alien race that seeded life wherever they went. As the race achieved a sort of transcendence, a war broke out between the two leading factions: the Virtual Endless and the Concrete Endless. The story happens long after the conclusion of the ‘Endless Wars’ in a part of space where their creations continue to survive and attempt to uncover the truth of the past.
Welcome to the Endless Universe. A vast and beautiful place filled with aliens that you might want to crush under the heel of your growing empire, or ignore as you sit behind the proverbial walls you erect with your massive fleets, attempting to reach your own ascension. This is a place where heroes of questionable origins abound, and fantastical planets wait to be exploited. But whatever you do, advance slowly or the space pirates will leave nothing in their wake.
eXplore: The exploration phase of a 4X game is one of the most exciting aspects of the genre. This game is no different.
You begin your game in a system that tends to be on the average side of things with a planet that fits into your faction’s favorite habitable zone. Human-based factions love and thrive on jungle, terran, and ocean planets. A positive or negative anomaly that might have been selected for in the custom faction screen will impact your start. The planet might also have a moon that may be explored with the proper technology resulting in additional bonuses as well as living space for your citizens. Your system can have as few as one planet and as many as six that range from asteroids, which are considered class V (bad) planets, to terran, which are considered class I (good) planets and they vary in size from tiny to huge.
To reach out further and faster than is initially possible, since space is vast and travel is rather slow, you’ll need to delve into what I like to call the “tech flower”. This new take on a standard technology tree is broken up into four distinct regions. There is a military petal, a economic/diplomatic petal, an industry petal, and science one. Each of the races/factions (there are a total of 12 with 2 being practically identical) have some unique technologies that are specific to their kind. They also have unique affinities, but more on that later.
Amplitude Studios uses an original system to convey how your planet, your system, and your empire is faring when compared to the other factions. Endless Space utilizes a FIDS counter: Food, Industry, Dust and Science. What’s really unique is that it’s considered on a per planet and per system basis when total values are compiled. Dust, which is actually a remnant of the Endless, is composed of tiny nanites and is used as the game’s form of currency. It can also be used to boost science and production. In this particular game, Dust is equivalent to what might be referred to as magic in other games, because it is so critical to your day to day management.
The tech flower (I know, right?) is different than the standard tree, at least at first. You research the technologies that will advance your faction based on your immediate needs. Because each system is unique, you might want to take advantage of a particular set of planets, but as you expand, you’ll have to deal with local and empire-wide unrest, and to do that, you need to research tech that lets you utilize both luxury resources (plenty of those around) and empire approval structures.
As you stretch out and explore the neighboring systems, you might encounter random events, and they are very diverse (an identical ship arrives at the same time as you do or a system-wide bonus is granted for being first to explore it). As you progress through the tech flower you’ll need to research technologies that let you travel through wormholes and open space, because in Endless Space, you have space lanes that connect each system (think of Ascendancy from Logic Factory). To travel directly between two stars, you’ll need to delve deeper into the tech flower and finally discover a tech that allows you to practically teleport from one wormhole (under your control) to another. Exploration in this game is done right. I wish there were alternate ways to travel between the systems to further diversify the various alien races, but to do that, I’d need to play Sword of the Stars, and this game is very different.
eXpand: Now that you have discovered enough technological advances to expand outside of your immediate region, you’ll need to prepare your fleets. A little research into the military petal will arm your ships, and on you go. Here’s the fun part: heroes. The game offers a very diverse group of heroes that can be used as either fleet admirals or system governors. Each one brings something to the table, a certain skill set and a fun background story. These stories further connect them to the Endless metaverse and breathe life into it. Otherwise, this part of the game feels somewhat lifeless. The systems have some surprises in store, but mostly it’s either pirate fleets, planets with anomalies or some kind of wonder. No space monsters. No remnant of lost civilizations. You might encounter another alien opponent, but the diplomatic aspect of the game is rather poor and offers nothing unique or interesting. I couldn’t even create my own narrative for them because the 3D projections for the other players don’t move. There is a rich story to the Endless metaverse, but you just don’t get it through the gameplay.
Well, what’s this now, an awesome system with a wonder and a few good anomalies waiting to be exploited? Fantastic. Go ahead, send out your fleet and take control of the system. It’s a good long while before the outpost becomes a full fledged colony, and that’s actually pretty good, I think. It shows the progression of time, and that money, or in this case, dust, can’t buy everything. To further expedite the growth of the system, you can send additional colony ships full of citizens (that you lost somewhere else) to increase the population, like a taxi service. You could also migrate people from an inhabited planet to a non-inhabited planet, but this might cripple your growth in the system since everything is hard linked to your population. A planet with an almost maxed out population grows faster and produces more than one with fewer inhabitants. Something to consider for sure.
Your neighbors might not appreciate your expansion into systems they had earmarked for colonization. The human factions, consisting of the United Empire (Human Imperialistic scum), Horatio (clones), Sheredyn (UE offshoot), Pilgrims (UE deserters) and Vaulters (isolationists), might not be too angry. The Amoeba (Endless survivors), or the Sophons (alien scientists) might want to trade. The Sowers (Endless gardeners) and Automatons (non-Endless gardeners) might ignore you. Though the Hissho (war-loving space avians), the Cravers (think android zombie hive- minded thugs) and the Harmony (inorganic crystal) might shoot on sight since neither the Cravers nor the Harmony want anything to do with you. One wants to eat you and add your biological and technological distinctiveness to their salad bowl (Craver) and the other wants to purge you of the space drug called Dust (Harmony). As it turns out, space is not friendly at all.
The galaxy is beautiful though, and if you do not have a strong system, you might have to turn down the graphics settings to speed the game up, but that’s about it. It runs on my MAC without any issues. In-game, the systems are very similar. The same planetary wonders appear from game to game, and after a while, I grew bored with them. To test this, I played with the Amoeba, a faction whose affinity (special ability) is to see the whole galaxy. Unfortunately, game after game, it was very similar in composition. Even the pool of potential names was too small. It left me wanting more – a lot more.
eXploit: You have slowly carved yourself a small empire out of the stars. You are keeping your Craver neighbors at bay, and all the while your diplomats (if you can call them that) are trying to appease The United Empire, because fighting a war on two fronts is never good for your complexion (as any Horatio will tell you).
Once you have established some trade networks to further bolster your economy, you are good to go. Except you aren’t. Trade in Endless Space is very threadbare. You are permitted two trade routes from your home system and only one from all the other systems (although tech can increase this). You can only trade with other factions. There is no internal trade network, which is a shame if you ask me. The Cravers and the Harmony suffer for it.
There exist both strategic and luxury resources. The strategic resources are needed for building structures on planets, terraforming planets, arming your ships and empire-wide bonuses. Luxury resources are used to manage unhappiness, and can provide planetary and empire-wide bonuses as well. At first glance, this looks like a deep and well-ordered system, but it isn’t. With 4 copies of any resource, you now control a monopoly, and the bonuses cause significant unbalance to say the least. If this figure was increased to 8 or 12 perhaps, and the bonuses were cut, some balance could be restored.
The heroes are another seemingly amazing mechanic in the game. They can significantly improve your system as a governor, as well as your fleet as an admiral, because they grow in levels as they gain experience for everything they do (like breathing and looking menacingly at the mirror in their ship). The skill tree is different from class to class (administrator, fighter pilot, etc), but if you look at it closely, you will see how similar it really is. Where each hero has an interesting back story and a very elegant portrait, their actual skill differences are moot. Some are better than others at their jobs, but they are willing to be hired out to the highest bidder without taking into account that a peace loving Vaulter hero is piloting a Hissho invasion fleet. Say what? I would think that there would be a certain level of hesitation there, but no, that’s not the case at all. No such system exists where a hero might not want to follow the orders that you set before them.
Diplomacy could be useful in such a hostile environment. Except there is hardly any. The appearance of the diplomats is static, and their uninspired speech makes their avatars look downright emotional. This is something that wasn’t addressed with Amplitude’s first expansion for the game: Disharmony. Espionage is something that is also completely lost in this game. There is a glimpse of it through the hero skill tree, but it’s nothing that most people would even notice. Overall, I feel that Amplitude missed the mark with the whole exploitation aspect of Endless Space. I only hope that they can improve on it in future releases.
eXterminate: You have met your neighbors and you are unimpressed. You have decided that they don’t deserve to breathe (does crystal breathe at all?) the same molecules that their ships consume. You have sent out your massive, yet beautiful fleets to scour the galaxy clean of these dust-addled scientific non-biologicals (Automaton scientists would like to differ). You are ready for war, and you are too busy to upgrade your ships (the Harmony actually can’t) so you send your mark I crystal scouts mixed in with your mark XV battleships and are met with little resistance. What is going on here? Oh, sorry, the Automaton A.I. sent all of their fleets to siege the Craver homeworld. The A.I. isn’t very bright.
Amplitude Studios tried to do something different with combat. As a result, combat inEndless Space is an interesting beast. Every faction has a unique ship art style (for the most part) and it’s absolutely gorgeous. You have combat cards that stand in for orders. There are formations that were introduced when the Disharmony expansion was released. You also have fleet admirals that bring in a set of different possibilities because as they level up, you can open up unique orders and different passive bonuses. Combat comes in a total of six phases where the first phase has you in long range, and the last phase has you firing broadsides at one another as you pass close by (in classical naval combat style). With Disharmony, fighters and bombers were added to the mix (an awesome addition). Fighters engage ships and other small craft, while bombers engage ships and planets. Unfortunately, the siege mechanic is poor. You lay siege to a system and your invasion value is compared to their system defense value, and each turn the one with the highest value reduces the other by a set number. BORING! No ground invasion, and no planetary defenses (that can be seen). Tech from the military petal opens up various avenues for invasions and defenses, but it’s all really abstract because you can’t see any of it take place.
Let’s continue with the ship types, of which you have six hulls to be more precise. One hull is exclusive to colony ships, and there’s also one that is dreadnought sized. The remainder fit various purposes in between. You have to move down the research petal to open the hulls up for use. But if you move down just one side, you haven’t optimized, because in the industry petal you have tech that lets you improve your storage capacity, thereby increasing the effective ship size.
Next come the weapons. They come in three flavors: beam, missile and kinetic. To offset those, there are also three defensive options as well: shields, flak and armor. Each weapon type corresponds with a specific defense type. To make things even more interesting, three possible ranges to the weapon types are included. The missiles are slow, so they take multiple combat phases to reach their target, whereas kinetic weapons are most efficient up close and the remaining type, beam weapons, are decidedly mid-range. This entire formula was broken down, however, through an attempt at simplification when Disharmony was released. In the vanilla version of the game you could have as many weapon types as you had animations. It was all a bit overwhelming, and Amplitude listened to the community feedback, aiming to streamline the process with the Disharmony expansion. Unfortunately, many were unhappy with the results. The glass-cannon came back in force, and in my opinion, combat lost something.
Now combat itself isn’t bad. On the contrary, it’s actually beautiful and exciting the first couple of times you see it. Though I quickly grew tired of it due to the repetitive nature of the single Battlestar Galactica styled cinematic. With the introduction of the fighters and bombers in the Disharmony expansion, you can actually watch combat unfold from their perspective. Such a change was an improvement at first, but overall the experience is still boring. In the late game, with the huge number of fleets under your command, the combat grows tedious and banal. You are forced to auto-resolve combat.
The space pirates are a whole other ordeal. They act as the grand menace in the early part of the game, and they really can be. When a system is explored and left alone, pirate fleets might spawn from there forever after or until it is settled. They don’t have a base to conquer, so they keep coming back. Another pirate threat comes from system events or empire-wide random occurrences. Both of which can cripple you at the beginning of the game. Thankfully, if you have a hard time with this rowdy bunch, you can turn their difficulty down or turn them off completely.
eXperience: So far, I’ve covered many different things in this review, but I didn’t discuss what really makes the game stand out, and that is the lore of the Endless metaverse. The various alien races that inhabit the galaxy and myriad heroes that offer their services to you add richness to the game. I have said it before, and I will say it again, the game is beautiful. The planets, the ships, the wonders, the anomalies and the galaxy in general.
The reason I fell in love with Endless Space is because it brought me back to the days that I played Ascendancy, and the amazing times I had doing so. But like Ascendancy, the A.I. in Endless Space is weak. The diplomacy is practically non-existent and the game can become tedious in the late stages.
So, what does Endless Space do right? It’s visually stunning for starters. It has very unique and interesting alien races, just not enough of them. You can customize your race and your empire in many different ways. It uses a similar yet diverse hero system much like Master of Orion 2, another favorite of mine, to flesh out your space navy and your system government. It has a unique take on combat (combat cards and phases), although that does eventually grow old. It moves away from a linear research tree into the “research flower” (TM, can I do that?), where only a few techs are really mandatory, and each alien race gets a few techs that differentiate them from the rest. It has random galactic events that affect you and the other players, as well as exploration events when you discover new and previously unexplored systems. It has planetary anomalies that can be both good and bad. It has galactic wonders that can really change the course of your empire when discovered and exploited properly. It has all the standard 4X victory conditions. Endless Space has all of that and more, but something is off when you add it all together.
I didn’t mention multiplayer because I don’t partake in this part of the game. There is an issue with desyncs, and it has been worked on with each free add-on (5 so far to the base game). Each add-on has several focuses, including bug fixes, addressing balance issues and providing free content (heroes, factions, new wonders). All in all, most companies call this DLC, but Amplitude gives it out for free.
Though I do admit that something is missing in Endless Space. Now what could that be? Where is the diplomacy and espionage? How about the ground invasions? An unassisted A.I. to give you a challenge once you figure out how to play the game? Where are the minor factions? Where is the innovative UI? Where is the….
You know, I am not quite sure what to say about these missing elements. I personally enjoyed the hell out of this game, and still do, so it feels slightly disingenuous to knock it. A game that brought me back to the 4X genre after the disappointment that was Civilization 5(vanilla) for me. Some might not agree with me, which is perfectly fine, but I love Endless Space.
TL;DR: Endless Space was an amazing first effort for Amplitude Studios. It’s a beautiful game that has much to offer, but at the same time, it is missing something at the core. Some people say that it has no soul, no character. I disagree, it has both, just not enough of either. A game that hits the high notes, but doesn’t have enough to stay there.
You might like this game if:
- You want a beautiful space opera with a hint of the classic 4X, Ascendancy.
- You want a unique tech tree/flower and a unique combat system that doesn’t require much input.
- You like a good user interface.
You might NOT like this game if:
- You want deep diplomatic interactions and espionage.
- You like small empires with minimal micromanagement. You won’t find that here.
- You like ground combat or a representation of ground combat.
- You want tactical combat or to have a lot of control over combat.
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Nasarog played for 356 hours on a Macbook Pro 2.9 GHz Intel Core i7 with 8GB DDR3 RAM using OSX 10.9.5