Endless Space – Beta Review

Space. Space never changes.

I’ve had Endless Space on my radar for a little while now. Most opinions will say “Yeah it’s pretty good” without bothering to articulate why. They make references to a lot of points which don’t make any sense to an outsider. Although the game is still in beta, you can pre-purchase it on Steam. Would you want to though? What’s it like? What’s it about? Is it worth the asking price? My answer: yes.

SPACE AMOEBAS.

Firstly, although it’s a beta, unless somebody told you it was a work in progress you probably won’t notice. The game looks very well polished and is easily streets ahead of most beta releases. It does have a few bugs and in some cases might be a little “light” on content, but finished commercial releases at times come out worse than this. Don’t be afraid that it’s a broken mess; it isn’t. It goes beyond the word “playable” in my opinion.

Endless Space is a 4X game which I’d most readily equate to Masters of Orion 2, arguably one of the greatest games in the genre. We’ve seen a fair bit of movement in this sector in the last couple of years, which is heartening, though each series goes off in its own direction. Galactic Civilizations II for example goes a bit deeper into the empire building aspect, while Sins of a Solar Empire took an RTS approach with a focus on military fleet engagements. MOO2 by comparison, being of an earlier period, tends to be a bit more sedate and ‘simple’ than GalCiv 2 or SoaSE… by which I mean it doesn’t go too deep such that you feel overwhelmed. Larger GC2 games can get a bit unmanageable, and the RTS aspect of SoaSE tends to get a bit chaotic at times. Endless Space returns to the turn-based roots, and for that I’m pretty thankful.

At present there’s a couple of different races for you to try out, including an evil corporation-dominated human faction, scientists who may as well be the Psilons out of MOO2, and space amoeba seeking diplomatic understanding, amongst other races. Each faction has its own focus and bonuses and thus their own general gameplay path. The interface quite happily explains all of this to you so it’s easy to pick a race that suits your gameplay style.

Hey, look! A game map that actually looks like a galaxy!

The galaxy settings offer for a fair bit of scope of customisation. Unlike the traditional “bunch of stars spread across a board” map layout, Endless Space actually enforces a spiral galaxy structure with a number of arms. Score one for realism I guess? No, seriously, that’s always sort of bothered me. I like seeing a galactic structure that makes sense, the random scattering of stars in GC2 or MOO2, or the supermassive solar systems of SoaSE really don’t make sense and really annoy me, but I digress. The game also allows you to add in pirates, which tend to be a little bit broken at the moment because they’re often a bit too powerful. As in other games pirates race around raiding the shit out of places and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

The interface looks great and is highly functional.

The interface is slick. It’s incredibly functional and also exceptionally well designed. Finding information is easy and is presented in a visually appealing way. It’s sort of minimalist in that there aren’t flashy effects with massive windows and bezels, but it’s not a series of spreadsheets with boring data. Tooltips are abundant and often make it very clear what an option does or how statistics are being generated. Graphically, the game is very impressive as well, right down to the combat phase which we’ll get into later. Planetary graphics are fantastic, as is the general appearance of the galaxy. It’s exceptionally well done.

Planets look great.

As you’d expect your goal is to expand, either though colonisation, domination, or diplomacy. The general progression of the game is much the same as any other 4x game with a few exceptions. Firstly, planetary and system management is fairly easy to come to grips with. You take over solar systems by colonising the planets that reside there. Planets have their own types (like ocean, arid, or even asteroid belts) which provide various bonuses or problems. Each planet has a population cap, and outputs food, industry, science, and Dust (called the FIDS system), which for gameplay purposes boils down to a system-wide thing. Food is used to increase the population on the planets. Industry is used to produce things. Science goes into research. Dust effectively acts as currency. Each planet can have anomalies (which provide bonuses or negatives), resources, and a moon which can be explored. You can also exploit a planet in various ways to boost production. Systems themselves can have improvements built to affect the system as a whole, as well as building ships. It’s a really easy system to understand and works very well. It goes away from the micromanagement inherent in some other games while still giving you enough flexibility to run your empire as you see fit.

Combat is rather interesting, if a little limited. It can either be auto-resolved or you can have some limited influence over it. Ships are designed by you, and you can invest in a few different technologies which appears to have been taken from GC2: beam weapons, missiles, and kinetic weapons which are effectively mass drivers. You also need to invest in defensive tech, engines, and different specialist packs which grant various bonuses or special abilities. It’s a fairly simple system but probably needs a bit more complexity; it’s very “rock paper scissors” at the moment similar to GC2, but honestly I think an RTS aspect like Sword of the Stars would be too much here.

Combat looks great but could use more complexity.

When you choose to manually resolve combat you’re taken to a big 3D battle scene, showing the two fleets. Combat resolves in a series of phases. Each phase can have a Battle Action selected from a set of cards. Cards give the fleet different orders and bonuses. For example, you might choose to sabotage the enemy’s weapons, or use an offensive card to boost attack power at the expense of defence. Some cards cancel out other cards, so if by luck your card beats the enemy’s card, you can leave them at a disadvantage.

The first phase is the prologue, where the fleets are moving into position. You can pick cards for any of the phases here. The first combat phase is the Long Range phase, where missiles are the most effective weapon. Following that is the Medium Range phase, where beam weapons are most effective. Next comes the Melee Phase where kinetic weapons are the most effective. Finally the battle ends in an epilogue phase, which is basically a cutscene of disengagement showing the results of the battle.

This combination makes combat part tactical and part luck. There’s no opportunity to micro or exploit the system, or at least there isn’t much room for it. You have a certain amount of influence but part of it is still about luck, which might sound ridiculous but makes sense in context; you’re controlling an empire, not sitting on a bridge of a battlecruiser. You design your ships and employ fleets and defences against your enemies, and select abilities for the various phases that you think will give you the upper hand. But at the end of the day, the enemy might counter your tactic or might not get countered by your card, at which point it’s out of your hands. This sort of thing strikes the right balance between control and acceptance. Games that let you micro are inherently artificial, games that are too random don’t feel like games. This is a nice balance where you exert an influence but at some point it comes down to the fleet itself.

This mess is the Tech Tree.

The Tech Tree is my only real problem with the game… namely because it’s a bit of a mess and doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. The idea is that there are four pathways you can take: science, colonisation, military, and diplomacy. It effectively consists of four trees, and you don’t have to research each and every tech to get further up the tree; each tech tends to have two attached beneath it, and researching either one will let you go to the higher tree. This is fine, but the presentation is a little bit messy. Also some of the options seem pretty redundant, but of course this is a beta – balancing still needs to be done.

As it stands, there are a few ways to claim victory. You can conquer 75% of the colonised universe, take over every homeworld, research the top level Science technology, amass a particular amount of wealth, or by having either the highest score or spending the least amount of time at war by the end of the game.

Heroes can be assigned to fleets or planets, just like MOO2.

Of course the game is unfinished so this is less of a review and more of a “first impressions” sort of thing, but what is present is extremely impressive and it feels like a proper game. By comparison, Sword of the Stars 2 still hasn’t managed to reach a state one might reasonably consider “playable” so it’s high praise for Endless Space to say that mechanically it actually feels finished. If you’re looking for a real time game with tactical fleet combat then obviously this won’t fit the bill, but it harkens back to the golden age of 4x games before people started adding crap on just for the hell of it or getting too silly with it. It’s highly focused which makes each aspect stand out as being mechanically sound and interesting.

You can get Endless Space on Steam.

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