All Kinds of Awesome
4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) strategy games have been in the doldrums for years. The great shining light of the genre was Master of Orion II, a mind-numbingly addictive game from the previous millennium.
The reason nothing has matched MOO2 is simple: designers honestly felt the best way to improve the genre is add real-time elements. Apparently it wasn’t enough to control the social, economic, and military destiny of an entire race across several dozen star systems while engaging in multi-front wars. Designers actually thought making a would-be stellar emperor do all that in real-time would make the genre better. The number of failed games in this genre since MOO2 are too many to count; it turns out having only one brain and two hands wasn’t enough to do everything in real-time, no matter how clean the interface. Even if a player could do it all, there’s no way to have much fun thinking of interesting strategies, when there are only a few seconds between one battle and the next.
At long last, the wheel is reinvented, and a 4x game with minimal real-time elements, and many familiar design ideas from MOO2, has come to market: Endless Space.
The game begins with the player selecting a race; in addition to a solid handful of pre-designed races, an experienced player can also design his own race, using a point system to buy various attributes and abilities. After selecting the number of enemies, difficulty, and some universe properties, it’s time to get started.
The races honestly don’t feel that much different from one another, even if, ostensibly, one is a race of sentient amoebas, another thinking machines, another aggressive pterodactyls, and so on. Much of this is because there aren’t that many attributes that feel special, beyond “racial affinity” granting a bonus in diplomacy when dealing with other, AI-controlled players of the same race. Conquering a world imposes the same type of penalty regardless of the original race and ultimately makes no difference what the original race was.
The other reason races are interchangeable is the hero system. Various heroes (of various races) are for hire, and they work for anyone, regardless of race, and are equally effective regardless of home race. These heroes gain experience as they battle or develop systems, although it usually pays to focus on one or the other. A hero can easily double a fleet’s combat ability, no small matter, as fleets are restricted to a fairly small size (five small ships, initially, maxing out to fifteen small ships, or perhaps four large ones, once research is completed).
Ships can be designed to every detail, from armor and speed, to weapon systems and counter-systems. Weapons are regrettably minimal, restricted to kinetic (i.e., “bullets”), beams, or missiles. Counter-systems are critical. A fleet with a low combat value with kinetic weapons can shred a larger fleet that doesn’t have counter-kinetic defenses.
Combat is a strange affair, being either mostly automated, or fully automated. In the “mostly automated” case combat consists of three phases. Long range favors missiles, middle is for beams, and short is for kinetic, although missiles, for example, are still quite devastating at close range. At each phase, the player selects a combat card, granting bonuses or penalties (for example, overclocking the weapons systems increases firepower of kinetics, while decreasing the effectiveness of anti-missile systems). A special bonus is awarded if a player picks a card that counters the other player’s card; the better fleet will still generally pound the weaker fleet regardless. There are a dozen or so such cards, and after the card is picked, a short video displays the combat, then it’s time to pick cards for the next round. Combat encounters are plentiful enough and usually one-sided enough, so that most battles are fully automated and quickly resolved.
This is the only “real-time” part of the game, and it’s annoying as heck. There is no retreat from fully-automated battles, and combat defaults to this if the player doesn’t respond in a few seconds; walk away when it’s not your turn, and come back to find your colony ship is destroyed by a single barely armed enemy scout. The game is set up this way to facilitate multiplayer, but I sure wish it could be turned off, as I favor solo play.
While fleet combat isn’t great, it’s sometimes interesting and does the job well enough. Invading worlds is heavily abstracted: just park your fleet over the world, tell it to invade, and… wait. This can be a long wait if your fleet is weak, or if the defender has built various abstract defenses to slow down an invader. Defenders will ultimately lose, however, with no way to defeat an enemy fleet.
“The highlight of the game by far is exploitation.”
The highlight of the game by far is exploitation. The universe is filled with a wide variety of planets to explore and colonize. Planets come in various types (asteroid belt, gas, barren, terran, desert, etc.) and various sizes, with various anomalies (low gravity, natives, better resources, etc.), and various bonus resources (too many to list, each with special bonuses, and various quantities). A player must pay special attention to colonizing, carefully selecting only the best or most strategic systems, at least for the early to middle part of the game. Developing a powerful interconnected system of worlds and resources is key to the game.
Research, while not amazing, is still done well enough. There is a handful of basic fields. One researches ship weaponry and armor, allowing better things to go on ships (there’s a way to upgrade ships in the field with new equipment). Another focuses on social planetary improvements, such as better farms, better luxury systems (your people, regardless of race, generally get unhappier as your empire gets larger), better colonization (allowing colonization of more difficult worlds, eventually terraforming and better engines), and better resource exploitations. There’s lots of overlap between these fields, and there seems to be a “one best” way to research to get the most useful technologies right away, with little reason to deviate from that one strategy more than a little. There a few special racial technologies, but nothing critical, and everything is usually analogous to the “general” technology.
The game has a few ways to victory, but primarily a player wins by beating the crap out of the other aliens: they’ll generally declare war on you long before you can win any other way. Diplomacy, always a low point in the games, is pretty low here. You can sometimes negotiate with the AI, but typically the only time you’ll get anything like a fair deal is when you’re both at war against someone else. The AI will also capitulate sometimes, offering pretty good terms (although you’ll often just conquer them out of existence anyway).
While I do have my share of problems with the game, this is still an incredible time-sucker. I guess I like it so much because it really has been that long since a game in this genre has actually been playable. Endless Space is more than just playable and worth every penny for anyone that likes 4x games. It’ll be on my computer and actively played for a long time to come.