Edit: I happened to glance at my site analytics and this post has picked up a staggering 1300 views over the last week, which mostly seem to be driven by people typing “Endless Space review” into search engines and getting this as one of the first links. Firstly, to anyone finding this post subsequent to this edit, hello! Secondly, this is not a review of Endless Space because Endless Space is still in an alpha state. However, what I’ve written here should hopefully give you a good idea of what that alpha is like and inform your subsequent decision to purchase the game accordingly.
When the advert for Endless Space popped up on my Steam display yesterday evening I didn’t give it much thought. There’s dozens of awful knockoff spacesims being released on Steam every month (while Valve happily reject other, proven genres WHERE ARE MY PINBALL GAMES YOU BASTARDS) and Endless Space didn’t do a whole lot to stand out from the crowd. Generic sounding name, generic looking ships, and the ad didn’t tell me a lot about what ES was actually about. I can’t remember what it was that eventually led me to the game’s store page, but that I ended up there at all was very much against the odds. It’s a good thing I did, though, because in amongst all the obligatory babbling about the intricacies of the sci-fi world the developers have come up, I caught a glimpse of this screenshot of the research tree.
OH MY GOD. Eighteen British pounds flew out of my virtual wallet quicker than you can say “Alpha Centauri”, and forty minutes later I was paddling around in the alpha version that’s thoughtfully been made available to preorderers. Well, they call it an alpha, but aside from the odd rough edge in the text descriptions everything that’s included in it is rock solid; the only thing differentiating it from whatever gets released in a few months is that there are some races missing and (I imagine) a few gameplay mechanics to be smoothed over. Still, this is not a formal review. It would be unfair to review Endless Space when it’s still very much unfinished, no matter how stable it is. It is merely me sitting here and telling you why you should absolutely consider buying Endless Space on the strength of my experience with that alpha version.
Okay, so, who played Master of Orion.2? That’s the current paradigm for the space-based 4X genre which – given the fact it came out fifteen years ago now – is rather telling about the quality of the games which have been released in the interim. It had detailed colony management, heroes who could either govern colonies or command fleets, a sprawling research tree, intricate and complex ship design and tactical combat. Every single space 4X between MOO2 and Endless Space has either omitted or screwed up at least one of these aspects of the game. Endless Space is the first I’ve played which not only includes nearly all the features of a game released in 1997, but which also comes within stabbing distance of getting them all right.
Endless Space does the usual thing of starting you off with a single planet in a star system, a scout ship and a colony ship. Double click on your starting system and you’ll see something like this:
There are other planets in the system besides yours, but you probably won’t have the tech to colonise them yet. It’s still worth having a look, though, because not only can you focus your future research efforts to grab them as soon as possible but you can also see what bonuses/penalties the planets have. Some planets have resources, some planets give inherent bonuses to a certain type of output (industry/science/food/money) based on their habitability, and there’s also random qualities like that Strange Fossils one there which confer a unique bonus to the planet. Once colonised a planet does not function as a separate colony but instead acts kind of like a cultural expansion in Civilization; it gives you more spaces in the star system that can be worked by citizens and which might be more or less productive than the ones you’ve already been working. However, forcing everyone off their nice temperate Terran world to go and work in the strip-mining operation on the lava planet may not go down too well with the population, and you’ll have to deal with potential unhappiness problems.
So you send out your scout to find more planets, and when you find one you can colonise you send in the colony ship to swipe it before anyone else. Meanwhile, you’re clambering your way up the first rungs of one of the most intricately detailed tech trees I’ve ever seen in a game. I’m not saying it is in any way comparable to the exhaustively researched masterpiece that is Alpha Centauri’s tech tree, but it’s a fine effort despite dealing in space magic from the outset. Interestingly while the developers are French they obviously have somebody on their staff who can write decent copy in English; there’s the odd bit of Franglish which crops up here and there (understandable given the game’s alpha state) but the tech, ship and improvement descriptions are all readable at the very least, and some of them even manage the wry sense of humour that GalCiv 2 missed by several light years.
(Oh, one of the other things you should do when you have the cash is hire all the heroes you can get your hands on. They’re incredibly useful as both admirals and governors, and they become increasingly powerful as they level up over time as well. You get to choose how they level up, of course. Very Age of Wonders/HoMM.)
Sooner or later you will get into a scrap with one of your neighbours (the AI in this game is a dick) or pirates, and this is potentially the most interesting part of the game. Endless Space once again goes for the GalCiv 2 approach – there are three types of weapons and three types of armour which deflect each – but once again they actually make it good. Command of space battles is hands-off, and happens in three phases: long range, medium range and melee. Missiles are good at long range, lasers are good at medium range and kinetic weapons are good at knife-fighting range. Before the battle starts you can play one order in each phase which confers a buff/debuff for that particular phase like +40% kinetics damage/-20% missile interception. Of course the computer can do this as well, and some of the orders it plays might outright cancel some of yours – or vice versa. The selection of orders you get to play with at the start of the game is very limited, but as with most things in Endless Space you unlock many more as you climb up the tech tree. It’s a take on space combat in a 4X which is much fresher than the RTS-style blobbing of your opponent, although how it will pan out in the long-term remains to be seen.
Did I mention the AI is a dick? The AI is a dick. I started my first game on Easy and still had to give up by turn 80 after my kinetic destroyers were shredded by laser… pretzels? Actually that’s my one complaint about Endless Space: the ship models you bolt all your offensive tech to are painfully dull to look at. That and the difficulty of finding certain items on the tech tree are pretty much the only things I can find wrong with the game at this point – and remember, it’s supposed to be in an incomplete alpha state. Fix those problems, add a searchable encyclopedia of everything in the game, add more races and make them fully customisable and this game would not only be feature complete, it would actually have a shot at usurping MOO2’s fifteen-year reign. That’s not something I’d say lightly. If you like the space-based 4X genre at all you owe it to yourself to take a look at Endless Space. I guarantee you won’t regret it.