Picture a 4X game (that’s explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) in which you control an entire space-faring civilization. Forget cities and spear-men; the sorts of decisions you’ll need to make span the entire galaxy. As your sci-fi race of choice spreads to each solar system, you have to colonize new planets while researching fancier technology and designing gnarlier battlecruisers. As you explore the wormholes connecting the galactic network, you’ll meet other races of friendly allies or hateful rivals. With good planning, perhaps you’ll eventually wipe the other scum out of existence. Or maybe you’ll ascend to a higher state of scientific being, untouchable and powerful. Sound like a fantastic game? It was, and it was called Master of Orion 2.
Essentially, the Master of Orion series was a space-based analogue to Sid Meier’s much more popular civilization building empire, with the second game essentially serving as the same sort of all-time classic that Civilization II is. But after a dismal third entry in the genre, the series became dead in the water. Civilization V added new technology and much needed updates to the classic formula, but there was no chance of an official analogue for poor old Master of Orion. This is where Endless Space comes in. Put simply, if you’ve always dreamed of a modern Master of Orion 2, you should seriously consider giving Endless Space a try.
It may seem absurd to spend two paragraphs talking about a completely different game, but describing the gameplay of Master of Orion 2 is essentially the same as dissecting Endless Space. The latter follows the same galaxy-spanning 4X gameplay as its spiritual predecessor, focusing on the act of colonizing solar systems and expanding your borders and influence. The galaxy map is made up of dozens or even hundreds of interconnected systems, each of which have one to six planets to colonize and plunder. These systems essentially serve as your cities, and colonizing each planet in the system provides more population, more workers, and special rare resources. Each system can also build improvements or construct ships, which are bundled into fleets and sent out into the galaxy to get cracking at those 4X goals. As your spheres of influence expand, you’ll begin to butt heads with the competition and must use a strategic mix of diplomacy and might to come out on top. It’s deep, it’s epic, and any fan of Civ and its ilk thinking about a change of pace should definitely take a look.
Part of the appeal of Civilization V was the much needed tweaks and streamlining to the previous games, which is something Endless Space seeks to emulate. Everything from science to industry gets a bit of an overhaul to remove micromanagement wherever possible and make running a galactic empire manageable. Take science, which uses an intimidating but organized tech tree that keeps every research project divided into one of four categories (think colonization tech or ship improvement). It’s very easy to see the costs and benefit of each upgrade, and the curve of scientific development encourages you to cherry pick from all four sectors. Another streamlined element is the FIDS system, in which each planet produces a certain amount of Food, Industry, Dust (i.e. money), and Science. By looking at FIDS numbers you can easily see which of your systems are economic powerhouses and which ones need a bit of work, but the specific resources are still divided up and open to fine tuning. Unobtrusive notifications also keep the information overload to a minimum, and nearly every part of the UI is tweaked to give as much control as needed without sacrificing usability. There’s a clear sense that the folks at Amplitude Studios spent a lot of time figuring out what works and what does not when it comes to 4X.
It isn’t necessarily all tweaks to an old formula, however, as Amplitude Studios certainly takes advantage of modern technology. While the UI is fairly standard, the in-game ship and planet designs look fantastic and the plethora of art and lore surrounding the game is terrific. Each of the races have their own designs, their own back story, and their own mechanics. These range far beyond simple bonuses, with examples like an insect race that consumes planets or a warrior race that uses combos and becomes deadlier with every successful attack. Most impressive are the ship battles, which seem to solve the age old problem of pacing and complexity in TBS games. Endless Space balances between the simple stacks of doom in Civ games and the overly complex and lengthy fights in many other titles, including Master of Orion. Manual battles are divided into three phases, each of which allows you to choose your ship’s general actions. Want an aggressive push? Pick an offensive card and overcharge your weapon. On the ropes? Pick the engineering card that repairs your fleet slightly. However, certain cards counter other categories and remove all bonuses, creating a psychologically complex game of rock, paper, scissors, especially in multiplayer.
There are a handful of issues that crop up here and there, including a slightly cramped system management panel and one or two instances where armadas would just refuse to begin an attack. The races are diverse, but the mechanics don’t always pan out into the massive gameplay changer they seem to be. There’s also a bit of a learning curve, though it’s not as sharp as many others in the genre. However, Amplitude is committed to continuing development on Endless Space. From the decent but slightly flawed state the game was released in, there have been patches that fix and improve everything from overly zealous pirate attacks to the screwy AI’s construction plans. Indeed, shortly before this review was to be published, a free mini-expansion was launched that included a brand new race, the Automatons. Users can check out the official site to vote on what features they want to see next, and robust modding support is in place for those who wish to re-balance and revamp everything themselves. With such open design, it’s exciting to think of what the modding community will come up with.
Final Verdict: As space-based 4X games go, Endless Space is certainly at the top of the heap. The attention to genre design is evident, and frequent new additions promise to make the game a worthy investment. If you’ve been patiently waiting to find the Civ V of the stars, Endless Space is that game. Simple and refined enough for newcomers to slowly grasp, but attractive and deep enough for vets. Simply put, it’s a must for 4X fans.
[xrr rating=8.5/10, max_stars=10]
This review is based on a review copy of the Steam PC version of Endless Space provided by Amplitude Studios.