Endless Legend is the fantasy-themed followup to 2012′s Endless Space, a space-based 4X that I quite liked, on the whole, but which had a whole mess of technical and stylistic issues. Endless Space was an obvious attempt to produce a worthy successor to Master of Orion, and so while this particular gap in the market got filled quite ably by Age of Wonders III earlier this year it would have been logical for Endless Legend to take a swing at modernising Master of Magic. This is why I was more than a bit surprised that under the fantasy trappings Endless Legend was much more of a traditional 4X in the vein of Civilization; it uses the fantasy1 elements as flavour and does deviate from formula when it comes to factions and cities, but there are several key elements that distinguish MoM-alikes from the wider 4X genre that are consciously missing from Endless Legend.
While this wasn’t what I was expecting, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. At its core it might be much more conventional than its appearance would suggest, but most of what Endless Legend does attempt it ends up executing more or less competently, and there’s something to be said for knowing your limitations. I did miss spellcrafting and the ability to terraform the landscape, both of which are hallmarks of the MoM-alike; however, while I do think they would have added some much-needed spice to the game they’re not essential for Endless Legend to work. And Endless Legend does work, god help me. I have played one and a half games of it and I have at times experienced something approximating fun, which is more than Legendary Heroes managed. There is a solid game somewhere in here, one which can quite capably engage the same parts of the brain that Civilization does.
But if that’s the case, then why do I feel so underwhelmed?
Well, that’s not quite a mystery. I can point to several areas where I feel Endless Legend falls short, and I’ll do just that in a moment or two. Ultimately, though, I feel that its utter failure to leave any impression on me was down to a fundamental incompatability between myself and the game. I’ve played it for ten hours and come away nonplussed. On the other hand I have a friend (hi Jim) who doesn’t usually go in for this style of game but who has played it for nearly forty hours now, so I’m forced to conclude that there must be something in it that I’m just not seeing, and that elements of the game that I felt misfired badly were finding the mark for other people. It’s unusual that I come to this conclusion – last time was Brave New World over a year ago — but it might be the case that Endless Legend just isn’t for me, and that everything I’m about to castigate sounds like your idea of a great time.
So! Despite being a firmly ground-based counterpart to Endless Space, and despite the developers obviously taking criticism of that first game to heart when putting it together, Endless Legend still ends up falling into the same sterile and lifeless trap its predecessor did. This is weird because it is trying its best not to and does a lot of things right when attempting to inject the various factions in the game with some aspect of personality; each faction has distinct city styles which mark them out as different, their racial units are constantly visible on the map rather than being packed inside a tiny hologram of a ship, and Amplitude have also gone to the trouble of putting in some animated leader screens that aren’t completely terrible. This gets Endless Legend part of the way in that you’re no longer dealing with some faceless hologram robots, but rather those orange elvish dickbags who have built a continent-spanning empire that’s half again as big as yours and are nipping at your heels as you grind your way slowly towards a science victory. It does enough to support that sort of anthropomorphic projection onto what is ultimately an unfeeling collection of numbers; however, it doesn’t go nearly far enough in lacing these elements of personality throughout the structure of the game in the way that the truly successful 4Xs like Civilization and Age of Wonders III manage so effortlessly.
I’ll try to keep the Age of Wonders III comparisons to a minimum because — despite appearances — Endless Legend isn’t really challenging for the same crown, but AoW III does provide the best analogue for an area where I think Endless Legend really does fall down: its heroes and unit editor. An army composed of units that gain experience and new equipment over the course of the game is a great opportunity to let the player tell their own story; in the case of Endless Legend in particular they’re the most direct personification of the player’s empire present on the world map, and if it had played its cards right it could have built a system to rival AoW III’s ghost armies and orc musketeers. Instead the unit editor is almost criminally dull; you can upgrade and tinker with armour, weapons, shields and trinkets, but only the weapons will change the appearance of the unit — and often that means just switching the colour of a sword from grey to red. There’s only three or four unit types per empire (falling into the rough brackets of infantry, support, cavalry and heavy) and so even with the presence of minor races who you can gradually assimilate into your empire and field as special units I really think Endless Legend could have made more of an effort here. Sadly it prefers to make a barely-disguised carbon copy of the fleet system from Endless Space, where you don’t get the opportunity to rename new variants of a unit but must instead wince through a glorious army of ORC 4, STALWART 3 and BISHOP 5 marching out to repel an enemy siege. The AI suffers from the same limitation and is still very spammy with its units to boot; I don’t even have the words to describe how disheartening it is to face the fourth enemy army composed of six units of RANGER 17.
Unit upgrades at least make the numbers attached to that unit go up, but for a game whose predecessor basically sold itself on its clean, efficient UI Endless Legend is really, really disinterested in telling you what those numbers mean. So you’ll be browsing through equipment, and you’ll see that this sword increases lightning bolt by five, whereas this hammer gives you plus ten to explosion. What do these mean? I don’t know, because there’s no tooltips to explain these symbols when you’re in the unit designer; it’s only once you’ve exited into the general unit viewer that it’ll tell you what all the skills and traits are. Not that it’ll leave you any the wiser in the game’s turn-based combat segments, which is a confusing mess of directional markers and action symbols that appear seemingly at random. That spider thing did something to that other spider thing! I have absolutely no idea what it was, but it doesn’t seem to stop it from being riddled with all these arrows I’m firing at it. Endless Legend could have the most elaborately-tuned combat system in the world and I wouldn’t have a clue it existed because as far as I can tell I’m just hitting my enemies with swords and watching them die while all this other inconsequential shit happens in the background.
(I did like that armies phyiscally battled it out on the empire map rather than the action transitioning to a separate sub-map. When two armies run into each other they get a roughly ten hex by ten hex slice of the surrounding environment to fight over, with movement rates being vastly increased to ensure the combat can successfully resolve in the six-turn time limit. This made picking and choosing battlefields very important, and more than once I had what should have been a routine stomp of an AI army turned into something of a bloodbath because I was forced to fight through a bottleneck that completely eliminated my numerical advantage.)
So I felt the armies and the combat side of things was more than a bit of a bust. Fortunately the same can’t quite be said of Endless Legend’s empire management, which has its problems but which is where most of the good in the game is to be found. Endless Legend also imports Endless Space’s resource system, where Science is a resource to be extracted out of tiles and there’s no such thing as useless terrain; even arid desert is useful because desert tiles give you lots of money, even if they give you sod all else. It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense that this frozen tundra is so much better at generating science than the grassy flatlands five hexes away, but it avoids the classic 4X problem of spawning on endless plains and snow tiles; no matter where you settle you’ll get something useful out of the surrounding environment, and it’s just a matter of positioning your cities intelligently so that you get the most out of the terrain.
Said city positioning is probably the most interesting thing Endless Legend does. Unlike most 4X games where you can settle wherever the hell you feel like, the map in Endless Legend is divided up into randomly-generated territories and there’s a hard limit of one city allowed per territory. This isn’t just a solution to Infinite City Sprawl, but it’s required for cities to have enough room to make the most of Endless Legend’s city growth mechanic. When you found a city you get lots of resources from the central city tile, plus a somewhat lesser amount of resources from each of the six hexes surrounding it (which is represented by a nice farm graphic). These resources are gathered automatically and you don’t need population to do it, although they do provide bonus resources on top of what you get out of the city tiles. However, a city’s population count does have a big indirect effect on the quantity of resources you can harvest from a city’s surrounding environs, since for every two population your city has after the first you get to built a City Streets tile improvement. This is essentially another city tile just like the first one, and it’ll boost your resource yield from that tile. More than that, though, this second city tile will also gather a reduced amount of resources from the surrounding hexes. One City Streets tile can potentially get you three tiles’ worth of resources if you place it correctly, and so city growth becomes a matter of planning your city’s expansion in such a way that you maximise your resource yield through intelligent placement of the City Streets expansions.
I thought this was a great mechanic. It felt fresh and powerful and a much more interesting choice than the simple population placement seen in Civ, especially since each basic City Streets expansion lowers your city happiness by ten. If a City Streets tile is adjacent to four other City Streets tiles it levels up and that happiness penalty flips around to become a +15 bonus to happiness, but because you’ve tightly clustered your City Streets tiles to do this you haven’t maximised your resource yield. This makes city expansion something of a balancing act as you also have to build it in such a way that you don’t tip your city over into unhappiness, which will result in a big hit to production and gold income. It’s a pleasing conundrum, and also does what the rest of Endless Legend fails to do: because each city eventually grows to be unique, they feel much more like actual places than they do simple resource nodes to be exploited. Sadly it didn’t turn out to be quite as good in execution as it seemed in concept since this system means you can get far more out of plowing all of your resources into a single city than you can by expanding into new territories, which in turn made certain factions outright broken (such as the aptly-named Broken Lords, who buy new population with gold instead of breeding them with food and can grow their cities shockingly quickly as a result), but I appreciated the attempt and I’m not unconvinced it could work with a bit of tinkering.
The rest of Endless Legend is shockingly conventional; if you’ve played any of the Civilizations there’ll be little else in the game that will actually surprise you. As previously stated there’s no actual magic or terraforming to spice things up, and winning the game is the stock tedium of either conquering the world (yawn) or amassing money (double yawn) or researching all the big end game techs (by which point I am approaching cataplexy). There’s narrative questlines for each faction but they seem poorly thought out since they eventually require you to make war against the other factions — that’s not a quest objective, that’s winning the sodding game repackaged in a slightly different format. I’ve seen a lot of people say they’ve fallen in love with the art style and even I’ll admit it’s certainly distinctive, but the problem with everything looking like a model is that it exacerbates the whole lifelessness thing Endless Legend suffers from.
And that’s the killer issue, for me. I played one full game of Broken Legend. I admired the bits that worked. I got frustrated by the bits that didn’t. I eventually won, although it was a damn close thing. Having done that, though, I find that despite the improvements over Endless Space the world of Endless Legend has still failed to make me give even the tiniest iota of a shit about it. Maybe I just have different priorities when I play a 4X, but I put a much higher priority on how the game feels and how well I can construct my own personal narrative out of it than I do any mechanical excellence, and while Endless Legend shows flashes of the latter it has singularly failed to arouse my interest to a sufficient degree for me to see a second game all the way through to the end. To me, it’s an almost perfectly forgettable game. Perhaps that’s unfair on Endless Legend; a not-sufficiently-gripping setting isn’t something people usually pillory a 4X for. I’m not most people, however, and so all I can say is that despite its gameplay being quite good in parts and inoffensive at worst, I really didn’t get on with it.
- Actually technology indistinguishable from magic, since it’s set in the same universe as Endless Space. ↩