Here we are again, re-eXamining our 2014 GotY winner. This time around, we have another mini-expansion/DLC, Shadows, to look over. With this latest offering, Amplitude Studios added a new game mechanic that we have been clamoring for since the beta: espionage. This all comes topped with new gameplay mechanics, a few general enhancements and a new playable faction. Great, we can’t have enough of those!
The last two DLCs, one free and the other paid, expanded the endgame by adding a new victory condition, new titan units, cooperative quests and legendary deeds and buildings to the mid-game. With Shadows, Amplitude hopes to further improve every stage of the game.
There are a few lingering questions, though. What about the AI? Game optimization? Multiplayer connection issues and bugs both large and small? Are they still around? Those are all important issues, and I’m going to examine them. First, let’s take a look at the new faction and the gameplay mechanics Amplitude is introducing.
New Faction: The Forgotten
Who are they? Where did they come from? What are they all about?
The Forgotten are an espionage-focused faction that will strike fear in the hearts of Auriga’s denizens. They appear to be a Vaulter clan that was banished because of some ancient transgression. As the story goes, the Forgotten were exiled from the Vaulters’ underground kingdom and forced to fend for themselves on the wild and inhospitable surface of Auriga. Through sheer will and perseverance, the Forgotten survived and flourished. Now they are the masters of subterfuge and shadow fighting. Unlike the Dorgeshi, who were excommunicated from the Roving Clans, the Forgotten are not scattered and insignificant. They are ready to exact revenge and collect on an old debt.
What really sets them apart from the other factions in Endless Legend, especially the Vaulters, is their ability to purchase science. Like the Broken Lords’ dismissal of food resources and application of dust to grow their numbers, the Forgotten don’t produce science and instead utilize dust to complete research. That’s right, they buy tech outright. That’s not all; they can also steal tech from their foes through a faction-exclusive espionage action.
The Forgotten are no slouches in combat either. What’s better than one sword or an axe or even a crossbow, you may want to know? Two of them, that’s what. The Forgotten utilize a dual-wield technique where the second weapon does half damage and provides half the bonuses. The combined values are phenomenal, especially in the early game.
They are also very stealthy. Forgotten units are invisible on the world map to anyone without detection technology unless they happen to be within one hex of the unit. That makes them an early-game juggernaut because they can eXplore and eXpand without a worry in the world. Unless a roaming army happens to accidentally run into them, that is. But even then, they are more than capable of defending themselves.
New Mechanic: Invisibility and Camouflage
The Forgotten’s stealthy units make them practically invincible early on. That’s pretty bold if you ask me, but it’s not exclusive to the faction. Anyone can gain a weaker form of this ability through an Era I camouflage ring. The accessory makes units invisible on forest tiles, but that’s it. Another way to have an invisible army is to acquire a Forgotten hero and mercenaries from the marketplace. If your army is composed of only stealthy units, then guess what? It’s invisible as well.
Don’t worry though, there is plenty of technology out there to counteract the invisible army marching toward your city. Heroes can equip a ring that allows them to detect invisible units within a certain range. Watchtowers can be used to detect invisible armies too, so don’t dawdle too long before building them. Since this is the Forgotten-centric DLC, they do get a nifty ability to cross closed borders as long as they remain undetected. If they find themselves near the detection range of an enemy, the player has the chance to move them out before they are “spotted.” If the units do get spotted by opposing forces, they can be attacked if at war or cold war, or ejected from the enemy province if there is a closed border treaty in place.
New Option: Looting and Pillaging
So, how do the Forgotten get all of this dust they need to buy their tech? Easily, if you’re a warmonger that is. The Forgotten get bonuses from one of Shadows’ new mechanics: looting and pillaging.
What’s this? You finally get to pillage? Bravo. Pillaging can only work during war and cold war diplomatic states. You place your invading army next to a pacified enemy village, watchtower or extractor then reap the benefits. Well, it’s not quite that easy. Like everything else in Endless Legend, structures have a defensive value. Once you deplete this value in a similar fashion to a city siege, you turn off its function and earn dust (extractor and watchtower), and steal its resources (extractor) or heal your troops (watchtower).
Minor factions are a special case. Pillaging them gives you an additional option. Where watchtowers and extractors give you dust, resources or heal your units, the minors can be temporarily disabled. This stops their ally from getting their assimilation bonus, but the real kicker is that they will also give you loot the way searching a ruin does. The one exemption from this rule are villages converted by the Cultists of the Eternal End, which can’t be pillaged. Any faction can do this, but the Forgotten get a pillaging bonus for every unit involved, an 80% bonus to dust, as well as a looting option when destroying a pacified hostile village. But watch out – the minors with their roaming armies can pillage you right back. Don’t leave your regions lightly defended or they will be ravaged. I unfortunately found this out firsthand.
I know, it sounds a little wild, but don’t worry. The defender can get protective bonuses through research, building city improvements and governor abilities. Overall, it is a pretty neat idea.
New Gameplay: Espionage and Counterespionage
Finally, we’ve come to the crossroads. Do you focus on espionage or counterespionage? How about both!
Let’s talk about espionage first. In Shadows, espionage can only be conducted by heroes. These versatile units could always lead your armies and govern your cities, and now they can be spies. What do spies do? Spy of course, that’s a no-brainer. Having said that, first you need to amass influence because to start spying, you must spend influence points. Heroes can also act as spy catchers, making them more crucial to city administration than ever before.
To begin spying, you first need to send out scouts to locate rival cities. If you don’t know where the city is, how can you infiltrate it? Once you find the city, it will appear in the infiltration site menu. You’ll need to assign a spy to that duty. If they get in there undetected, you begin earning infiltration points the following turn. The longer you go undiscovered, the more points you accumulate. As you gain levels, you get more and more interesting choices which can impact both the city and the greater empire. You can damage their city defenses. You can decrease science production. You can reduce the industrial output of the city as well as the morale. You can kill the populace and injure the governor. The Forgotten also have the ability to steal technology from other factions. There are other choices of course, but these are a few of my favorites.
Thankfully, you get some passive benefits while you increase your infiltration. You can glean knowledge about diplomatic interactions between the infiltrated faction and its opponents. You can see what they are building and their activity in the marketplace. In essence, you can see what the city sees, which includes their garrisoned units.
When you conduct an espionage action, you use up your infiltration points and you start all over again. Every successful action results in bonus XP for your hero. But your spy may be caught, too. (No one said being a spy was easy.) The higher your seniority level is at the time you execute your action, the less likely you are to fail. Seniority is a misnomer though, because it’s really about how long you have been infiltrated, and not the length of time your hero has been a spy. Actions performed on an empire level are less likely to blow your spy’s cover, whereas actions taken against a particular city will most likely reveal you immediately. If you can carry out an action without your target finding out, you stand a better chance of escaping. A discovered spy can be captured and held as a prisoner or wounded, which results in the spy either staying hidden or returning injured to your academy at home.
The life of a prisoner on Auriga is not easy. You are beaten daily while being asked about how many lights you see… Okay, I made that part up. A captured hero is out of commision though. They will be held captive for a certain number of turns depending on your game speed (15/30 turns fast/normal). You can get them back earlier via a diplomatic trade or by paying a ransom. During this time, the gracious host pays ten percent of the maintenance costs for having the spy as its guest. When returned, the hero has unceremoniously been stripped of all dignity, equipment and most of his/her health.
Finally, there is always the roundup. The city militia walks door to door and conducts paper checks throughout your region, searches through your underwear drawers, and empties your wine cellar. Okay, maybe I made that up too, but I’m not too far off. To conduct a roundup, you give up 50% of worker production to flush out any and all spies. After a few turns as the city security percentage goes up, the door kicking begins, and shortly after that, the hard questioning starts. There is plenty to like here, and I am sure that much teeth gnashing will be done until the right balance is struck.
Open Issue: Game A.I.
Is the strategic AI able to get out of it’s own way? How about the tactical AI? Is it any better?
Good questions. My main concern (that the AI wouldn’t use espionage well) was for naught. The AI appeared to make decent use of the new mechanics, by way of scouting out my territory and occasionally embedding a spy. How do I know? I found them during a couple of roundups. They also built up their watchtowers every now and again.
I have also seen the AI making better use of its resources. City placement has slightly improved. Enemy armies are diverse and well-equipped. The AI searches for ruins and pursues the accompanying quests. I’ve even lost out to the AI when going for legendary buildings and deeds on a regular basis. However, I am still not impressed with the AI’s ability to defend its cities. The development team needs to give the AI some more attention in that department. Diplomatically speaking, the AI is generally aware of the global state and how it can leverage trades and treaties to advance its position. Unfortunately, solid alliances are still rare.
The tactical AI is a different beast. I am not as frustrated as I used to be, but I often find my units taking unnecessary damage when the AI has to make decisions for me. I am very meticulous when giving my troops orders, and as long as their target is alive, my troops do well. The moment their target is killed, the troops go nuts! It’s like their parents left and forgot to tell them what to do. This has been a problem from the beginning and it’s still a problem now. With the addition of some new AI developers to the Amplitude staff, I am hoping that some fixes will be implemented soon.
Currently, I still have to say that the tactical combat AI is the biggest weakness in Endless Legend. The second biggest weakness is the lack of proper instruction on how to wage war and what all the commands do. A nice tutorial could easily fix that.
Feature Improvement: Multiplayer
Desync to the left and balancing to the right. Since I’m not a huge online multiplayer gamer, I asked my Steam friends (going by their Steam handle) that play Endless Legend to pitch in. Here’s what they’ve said:
Vieux Chat said, “Endless Legend’s multiplayer has been improved with each release because each additional mechanic adds depth. Espionage adds a lot to diplomatic gameplay. The desync issue is much less troublesome than before, and the AI is improving. Unfortunately, it still does a poor job with tactical combat.”
Propbuddha said, “Endless Legend has the plumbing to provide the best multiplayer 4X experience available. Simultaneous actions, turn timer options and fast-paced tactical combat allow for streamlined play. The new Shadows expansion/DLC brings a lot to the table for multiplayer. Espionage and Stealth add in a layer of paranoia that is a lot of fun in multiplayer games. Desyncs continue to happen occasionally but are quickly resolved via a restart from the last turn.
The biggest problem with Endless Legend multiplayer is a lack of options to shorten the game’s length for groups that can’t play for six hours straight. Two or three hours is really the limit a gamer can expect other players to stay engaged. Also lacking is the ability to pre-arrange teams for co-op or team games. These options are very popular with multiplayer strategy gamers. If Amplitude is serious about supporting multiplayer gaming, these options, along with balancing and optimization, are must-haves.”
Nosferatiel said, “Shadows creates a sense of paranoia and the plentiful opportunities to spread the blame, making for a very interesting mechanical addition for the MP community.”
Panczasu said, “Paranoia. Distrust. And more backstabbing. With espionage, MP games are very different from what they used to be. Now you never know what dangers might lie in wait, or if people are plotting to destroy your empire.
Some of that was present in the past but not to this extent. Now you really need to watch your back, for a single spy can be your undoing. I personally love to plant a spy in my friends’ cities, kill their population and place the blame on someone else, claiming that all I did was alter diplomatic costs to improve our trade. Yes, I’m evil like that.
Espionage is one thing, but you cannot ignore stealth either. Every faction can send hidden armies to their so-called allies and suddenly attack an unprotected city. It really forces you to pay closer attention to your borders and to make a choice: should I invest in some stealth detection or just hope that nobody tries to attack me?
In short, everything you do in Shadows multiplayer is more risky but also more rewarding. If you manage to establish a good alliance despite the paranoia, you are likely to quickly rise above others. Question is: how much trust are you willing to put in others?”
Ongoing Improvement: Bugs and more bugs
So, what’s still bugging the greater community? I asked several players that have put hundreds of hours in the game. They all reported that they seldom have any issues in single player. The multiplayer de-syncs are mostly resolved. A quick reload through the lobby results in a return to normalcy as your game picks up where it was left off.
For the most part, Endless Legend is a pretty solid game as long as you meet the minimum requirements and have the right settings on. I’m sure there are people out there still experiencing problems, but I would chalk it up to their specific configuration. I have played EL on a PC and Mac without many issues since before the game was officially released.
Conclusion: State of the State and beyond…
Shadows is a fantastic DLC, but that’s just my opinion. I am sure some will disagree. I think the main points of contention can be distilled into four parts: AI, endgame, balance/optimization and the future.
The AI is improving, but it is a slow-going process. I have faith in Amplitude and their developers, so I will stay patient and keep giving them feedback. If they are able to create an AI that can challenge the player without cheating (too much), I think that Endless Legend will be the best terrestrial fantasy 4X game for me and many others.
The endgame, another weakness in EL that’s been identified by many in the 4X community, has received a tiny boost. The Forgotten also have an interesting main quest, one which I will not ruin for you. But overall, the thing I miss most are the cinematic endings which are a thing of days long gone. Maybe a couple of comic panels, I don’t know exactly what, but anything is better than a single flash of a victory screen. There is still hope.
Balancing and optimizing games takes time. The game needs to be (critical) bug-free and stable. It’s hard to optimize games when something is wrong at its core. I think once the majority of content is added to the game, the real work to improve the game can begin. The game is very stable and mostly bug-free in single player mode. Amplitude has done lots of post-release support in the past and I do not expect them to stop now.
That leaves just one question: where’s my aquatic gameplay? I think the next expansion/DLC will bring that to us, and maybe a little something something as well. Here is what I’d like to see in that eXpansion: A few more strategic and luxury resources unique to aquatic tiles as well as a new type of aquatic city. Then we’ll have the accompanying minor factions. I hope the aquatic combat is as good as its terrestrial counterpart. Currently, ships sail past each other and wave. During the harsh winters when Auriga freezes, ships put on ice skates and slide from one land mass to another. Well, that’s probably not true, but how else can they traverse the frozen waters of the planet? I know that I am being wishful, but so far, my wishes have come true, albeit one at a time.
What the future holds and what we’re yearning for are plentiful. I would love to be able to rename my hero. I’ve heard the reasoning behind why it’s not feasible, but I remember that initially, you couldn’t rename your regions either because it messed with the quests. That was corrected by Amplitude, and I think they need to fix the hero naming conventions as well. I am so tired of Hero I, II and III running my cities and armies. This is Endless Legend, and not Endless Space. The Horatio don’t exist yet – well, that’s not true, they might, but at least they don’t on Auriga as far as I can tell.
Endless Legend is by far my favorite 4X game since Endless Space. With this latest addition, I know I will break my 360 hours played in Endless Space. The game is that good, and Shadows is worth every penny, I would say. It brings us a full-fledged faction and a massive new gameplay mechanic that everyone has been clamoring for. We also have continued support for multiplayer and some new AI development in the works. All in all, for $12.99 (US), Shadows is a must-have for fans of Endless Legend or terrestrial 4X in general.
Nasarog played for 12+ hours with a public build plus an additional 11+ hours with a VIP build (for a grand total of 345 hours) on a Macbook Pro 2.9 GHz Intel Core i7 with 8gb ddr3 RAM using OSX 10.9.5
Disclosure: Because of my VIP status with Amplitude Studios, and due to NDA requirements, I requested the help of several active and prolific Endless Legend (VIP) players for editing suggestions and fact-checking my work. I would like to thank: Propbuddha, Nosferatiel, Vieux Chat and Panczasu for their contributions and general badassery in the EL community. Thanks guys.