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Endless Space: A review
on July 16, 2012
I will start by saying that I will compare the game to Civilization 5 (CiV) at times ONLY to better educate people as to where the game is coming from, and to meet many critiques being thrown at the game with reference to one of the most accepted 4X franchises in gaming. I do not think that CiV is anything like Endless Space (ES), so please do not give me flak for comparing the two. Read on and I think you will see my point.
I will follow the above statement with my list (with ratings) of 4X games that, I believe, give my review some weight if you like the same types of things:
Master of Orion 2 (4)
Sins of a Solar Empire (Trinity and Rebellion) (4 and 5)
Galactic Civilizations 2 (4)
Civilization 2, 4 and 5 (4,5,5)
Sword of the Stars 1 and 2 (updated) (3,3)
So, Endless Space as I am sure you know is a turn-based 4X game set in space ([...]). It follows the tradition of Master of Orion and Sword of the Stars rather than GalCiv or Civilization in that 90% of the game is a connect-the-dot star system map, connected by jump-lanes and wormholes, and various empire management menus and tech-trees. There are not tiles your units move to. The battles are really the only time you see your individual ships, which is done as a cinematic cut-scene rather than a "this unit moves here and kills that unit and it's over". The game features 8 different races with the extra ability to create your own version of those races if you wish. It also features a extensive list of pre-game options including galaxy sizes, victory conditions and resource abundance. Gameplay tends to take anywhere from an hour or so, to a sprawling 10-15 hours depending on your pre-game options.
ES sports a VERY fantastic interface. Easily one of the best ones in the genre. Very easy to navigate, you never feel lost amid the onslaught of options and too tips, and you can always find the things you need. The interface is super-clean. Think minimalistic Asian interior design meets operating system of PCs and Tablets. But this is just to make finding the plethora of options easily accessible.
The many options and empire management menus are what 4X games is all about. Tech trees, economics such as tex, and the numerous resources, buildings/improvements, planet exploitations, fleets, ship designs, military breakdowns, diplomacy and the rest of the things that make a good 4X. These all work together in ways that make sense logically and graphically. Like any good 4X game, the economy is affected by the tech-tree, but the tech tree is affected by the economical focus. You can make up for the lack of production a planet produces by giving it a boost, or you can improve what it is already good at and make it a power house. Too much military will hurt your economical debt, but too high a tax will make your empire unhappy and lower production/science values. You get the picture.
The game's strengths in my opinion come from not doing something specifically new to the genre, but taking what others have already done and fine tuning them, taking out the fluff and making them great. Something I didn't like about Master of Orion is the lack of flavor, which this game has lots of. Something I didn't like about the Civ games is the lack of more difference between the different races, which each race in ES has several (6-10 different strengths/weaknesses). Something I didn't like about Sword of the Stars is the interface is terrible, and ES has a near perfect one. And you get the point.
The battles are something many people have major issues about. I have heard several people review the game and give it a lower rating due to the combat. They say it's dull, slow and doesn't have enough interaction. However, except Sword of the Stars, I have yet to see a turn-based 4X game with super exciting interactive combat. Most of them contain the "Move unit. Kill unit. Done. Repeat." The Civ franchise (arguably the most successful and most well respected 4X game around) contains simple, quick battles than oftentimes do not make sense. More times than not, I find myself wondering "how on Earth did a bunch of spear-men even have a chance against a modern battle tank? How did they just kill it?" In ES, you not only see the battle taking place (which really isn't specifically exciting, but interesting at least), but there is a battle-card mechanic in the game that not only gives your ships bonuses, but they can also act as a rock-paper-scissors mechanic as well. Some cards can block others from taking effect, and gives you a advantage, even if you're outgunned. This is also done in real-time. If you so choose however, you can "auto" the battle, and you will skip it and combat will take place within a second or two (no battle scenes) and you will get a message if you won or lost (basically if you want to go the Civ route).
Another thing people get upset about is the simplicity of the game, or that it lacks depth. I honestly cannot see how. It meets every standard of well established 4X games such as Masters of Orion and GalCiv2, but does so without the sub-sub-sub menues, and the huge amount of information on a single menu. It compounds the options and information into smaller and more easily accessible bits, but it does not loose any of the options and adjustments that most any other 4X game would have.
When I got Civ5, I was really impressed with how simple the interface was, but still contains all the options and features from the other games. Governments were transformed into Social Policies, which still perform much of the same function, but it was easily to understand the effects, and in a single menu and tech tree using tooltips for explanations. Fans hated it though, and refereed to CiV as a dumbed down noob version of Civ4. Much in the same light, ES is not "lighter" than most. It just goes about complexity with a more simple presentation of it. The mechanics are there, but the player doesn't have to search menus within menus to find it.
I have found that Endless Space (after having played a few games) fills the void I have needed to fill for a while now. I absolutely love the Civilization games, specifically 4 and 5 for the ability to manipulate history in ways no other game has really come close to. GalCiv2, in my opinion, was the definitive 4X game in space. I would say it had a steeper learning curve than Civ, only because it was out of our normal element (no historical reference to go on). Sins of a Solar Empire is one of my favorite games due to the blending of RTS and 4X and it's strong military focus. Sword of the Stars was for me what I was waiting for, but it's delivery left me hanging. Endless Space fills all of my wants in the 4X genre. A huge sprawling multiple star empire. Managing trade, economics, diplomacy, research, military conflicts, cultural boarders, intrigue, hero's, great graphics and theme, and a useable, easy-to-navigate interface, and a epic, long game that can have multiple and unexpected outcomes/victories. The battles are the same as any turn-based 4X game, except with the battle-card mechanic to add some choices and flare. Each race has many differences between the others, and really makes one play differently. The ability to design your own races and ships with quite a bit of detail, or exploit planets to meet your demands. The tech tree is pretty unique in that there are actually 4 different trees, rather than just one. It also allows you to just meet one of the prerequisites, rather than meeting 2 or 3. This makes for a more streamlined mechanic, but it also makes up for the fact that there are multiple trees, and makes for more meaningful path choices.
I have to give the game a 5. Good graphics where it counts. Simplified interface while keeping much of the complexities and depth of the genre. Great differences in races make each game very different. Couple that with the large pre-game options and various end conditions and impossibly huge galaxies, Endless Space features all of the great things we love about 4X games but are rarely found in the same game. The price is fantastic as well. 30 dollars is a small price to pay considering the countless hours you can spend exploring the different techs, race abilities, ship designs and victory conditions. I will be playing this game for a long, long time.