This review is going to contain several comparisons to Master of Orion 2. Some of them will be good. A lot of them will be bad. The fact that I’m making the comparison at all speaks rather favourably of Endless Space’s quality. However, while it does nail the space empire game far better than any title since MoO 2, it’s still riddled with a number of flaws which drag it down and serve to blunt its effort to usurp the space 4X crown.
Writing the not-review a couple of months back has put me in a bit of a fix here since I’m going to end up repeating myself at length if I’m not careful. In a nutshell, Endless Space is a 4X (read: Civ-like) strategy game set in space with all the sci-fi wackiness that entails; a veritable smorgasbord of exploration, colonisation, terraforming, research, ship design and space battles. It pulls all of these things off quite well. Admirably so, in fact. Most concepts in the game have some sort of analogue in Civilization, so if you’ve played any iteration of Civ you’ll be familiar with the process of developing your empire to the point where you can murder all your neighbours and your neighbours’ neighbours. With that in mind I’m not going to waste my time outlining the basic gameplay elements of Endless Space. Instead, I’m going to focus on the areas where it makes use of its space setting to depart from genre norms, as well as the bits of the game that perhaps don’t work quite as well as they should.
Starting with the good, early game exploration is genuinely rewarding and exciting. Endless Space’s map is divided up into anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of star systems, with fleets only being able to move from star system to star system. Each star system contains up to six colonisable planets, and there’s many different types of each. Three of them are colonisable from the very beginning of the game: Terran, Ocean and Jungle. Arid and Tundra planets can be colonised after just a few turns’ worth of research.Arcticand Desert planets become available in the mid-game. And Lava and Barren planets, along with asteroid belts, can only be colonised after proceeding a long way down the expansion tech tree. All these different planet types come in a range of sizes from Tiny to Huge, which dictates how many colonists you can cram onto the thing once you’ve got it colonised, and planetary anomalies – both positive and negative – provide a final wildcard element to what you’ll find when your scout ship reaches a new system. A lot of the time you’ll strike out, only discovering a couple of gas giants or a bunch of planets you don’t have the technology to colonise yet, but that just makes it all the sweeter when you find a six-planet system with two Terran worlds and plenty of room for future expansion.
These bonanza systems are the priority targets for colonisation, but the developers have added in a brake to stop you from gobbling up every single colonisable system you find, and it’s the same one Civ V uses: happiness. Expanding too far too fast will incur a sizeable happiness penalty on every star system you own. Thankfully the implementation here isn’t quite as hamhanded as it is in Civ V and it seems to work more-or-less as intended thanks to techs in the expansion tree which gradually remove this expansion penalty and ensure that it’s only a factor in the early- to mid-game; the upshot of it is that you need to pick the first few systems you colonise very, very carefully because it’ll be a while before you can get any more. Of course, you might suddenly run into an alien empire which is making googly eyes at one of your future expansion sites (the AI gives no fucks about expansion penalties) and have to rush out a colony ship to ensure that you can swipe it first, securing the colony but eating the subsequent happiness penalty before you’re really ready to deal with it. It’s not ideal, but I have to admit it is fairly well balanced.
Colony development is… somewhat lacking, I feel. 99% of improvements you build are system-wide and affect every colonised planet inside it; the planets themselves provide more lebensraum for your population (although you probably shouldn’t expect people to be too happy about living on the lava planet) and base bonuses for each colonist depending on planet type and anomalies, but the only thing you can do to directly improve that is by building a single “exploitation” building per planet which basically reinforces its specialty – money for the money planet, research for the research planet and so on. In rare cases you’ll build farms on a planet that doesn’t specialise in farms in order to get a brand-new colony off the ground, but the inherent bonuses the exploitations give to planets that already favour that type of resource make it a no-brainer to eventually switch to the correct one. This makes development kind of boring because you’ll want to build most things in a system eventually, and the maintenance costs you have to pay don’t really provide much of a disincentive to do so. You end up just disinterestedly clicking at things in the improvement pane to give the colony something to do, with the best-case scenario being prioritisation of industry and food improvements for a new colony. Even worse, there are a couple of improvements that give you (for example) a flat bonus of six money while making you pay two money for maintenance. Why not just have it give you four money instead? While Master of Orion suffered from the same problem (arguably it was worse because you could only queue up five things at once) I was hoping that sixteen years of progress would have resulted in less-hamfisted development mechanics.
Anyway, you’ll colonise a few systems and build a few ships and deal with a few pirate raids and eventually run into one of the AI empires. Diplomacy in Endless Space is pretty much the stock 4X “what will you give me for this” silent trading, with an interesting deviation being that you can’t just offer the AI a peace treaty straight off the bat. They don’t trust you that much to begin with, and your default state of existence with them is that of a cold war scenario where you can attack each other’s ships and blockade each other’s colonies. It’s only after a protracted period of not blowing each other up that relations thaw to the point where they feel comfortable offering a peace treaty. I think this is a more nuanced way of dealing with diplomacy, but it’s a technical advance that’s nullified by the mechanical soullessness of talking to the other players. When you call the Horatio or the Sowers or the Pilgrims up on the batphone the diplomacy interface you see will be exactly the same as every other race’s diplomacy interface, with the sole difference being that the tiny 200 by 200 pixel portrait in the corner will be different. That’s not enough to communicate any sense of personality or character, and this is a problem which is compounded by the master diplomacy screen showing a set of blurry holograms that I honestly had to squint at for a bit to figure out who was who. Not to carry on beating this drum or anything, but Master of Orion was a game that gave making a call to Cthulu an appropriate sense of gravitas.
In fact the only time you really notice the differences between the empires – aside from their colour on the empire map – is when you engage them in battle and you get to see their specific range of ship class designs. The battles are something that really shouldn’t work and yet somehow do, since they’re almost totally hands-off and all you can really do is attempt to nudge things towards the desired outcome by playing up to three weapon/defence boosting cards. It’s undeniably nail-biting to watch, though, as the fleet HP bars slowly decrease and you pray that their ships blow up before yours do. I think that the ship design elements and the weapon/defence interplay also works pretty well; the only real problem there is that the AI has a tendency to frontload its ships with one type of weapon, making it trivially easy to dope it out with either shields or tactics cards. Speaking of which, the AI doesn’t have a clue how to use those either. I’ve seen it play repair cards on the first round of battle when it was at full health and beam-boosting cards when it was fielding a fleet of ships that didn’t have any beam weapons. I’m not entirely convinced the tactical AI doesn’t just play the damn things randomly.
So that’s a side of the game that could do with a little more work, and the only reason the AI is a challenge at all is because it is an absolutely shameless cheater. Seriously. Not even the Civ games are this brazen about magicking units out of nowhere. In my last game I was trying to stop the Amoebae from winning via an economic victory by invading their empire and stealing all of their sultanas, but while my huge, technologically advanced dreadnaught fleets could easily deal with three or four times their own strength in Amoebae ships, the problem was that the Amoebae had more than that. Far, far more than that. And they didn’t stop coming, either. Even when I took half their empire including their capital I was dealing with incoming swarms of sixty, seventy ships that had to be fought in a series of repetitively tedious manual battles to ensure my fleets survived. Eventually I said screw it, bought twenty more dreadnaughts (yes, you can do this if you have the cash) and blockaded/invaded every single one of their remaining colonies.. Two turns later another forty ships showed up from nowhere in one of the blockaded systems. I really don’t think they built those in two turns, and I don’t think they were keeping them under cover in the system hangar either. This certainly made smacking the Amoebae down a tricky business, but it grates with me that this is what they had to do to make it so.
The last thing I should mention is the victory conditions. The game is very, very bad at telling you what they are, and whether or not somebody else is close to winning. First game I played I teched up to the point where I was all ready to start building the wonder improvements needed to win the game, when suddenly a message popped up informing me that the Pilgrims had accumulated more diplomacy funbux than I had (it didn’t say what these were, or how they’d gotten them) and had consequently won the game. In the second game I wouldn’t have had a clue that the Amoebae were on their way to an economic victory if I hadn’t idly moused over the money counter to check my income and nearly had a heart attack when I saw they were 70% of the way to winning already. Even when I had half their empire conquered and the rest under siege their progress had crept up to 92%, so what I took away from that was that even when you notice what’s going on it’s very, very hard to stop it. This is a side of the game that’s incredibly opaque, with victories – both yours and the AIs – coming out of nowhere and feeling unearned/cheap as a result.
Reading this review back now, it all seems almost overwhelmingly negative. This is partly because I already mentioned most of the good stuff two months ago. That all still applies, and added to that there’s a lot of minor touches I haven’t really talked about like the tech tree and the planet anomaly descriptions. I’ve spent twenty hours with the game since release, not because I felt I had to but because I wanted to, so it’s hardly like I’m going to call Endless Space bad, or even mediocre, because it really isn’t. It’s a good game. It’s just very rough around the edges – not to the extent of, say, a Paradox title, but it could definitely do with a substantial period of continued development and support to eradicate the myriad flaws which still permeate the game and which hampered my enjoyment of it. Its attempt on Master of Orion’s title is one which is largely made on the strength of its own personal merit (the dearth of good titles in this particular subgenre are a minor contributing factor), but until those rough edges are smoothed out I’m going to have to say it’s not quite there yet. In six months, maybe. But not now.