(Editor's note: Endless Space is on sale for $10.19 at the Steam Store until 10am Pacific Time on July 13.)
4X is one of the most ancient and storied genres in the history of PC gaming. Even its name is decidedly old-fashioned; “4X” is ultimately an acronym for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate — the ‘x’ being emphasized in totally XTREME 90’s fashion.
In the decades since, the genre has become highly niche. With only one consistent mainstream franchise — Civilization — 4X has fallen out of favor. The genre is (often accurately) dismissed for steep learning curves, terrible UI, and uncompelling visuals. This is where Endless Space comes in. From the game’s original launch in July 2012, it has stood out.
A NEW APPROACH
Completely upending the traditionally dense design of 4X games, the developer, Amplitude Studios, presented a streamlined and shockingly beautiful experience. The “alpha” pre-release version was slicker than most released games of virtually any genre. At release, every part of the game was simple, functional and smooth. The gameplay is pure 4X: you choose one of various factions. You begin with a single star system. You expand from there through the building of improvements, the gathering of resources, the expansion of your population and territory. Ultimately, you meet and compete with the other factions present in a match to determine the winner.
What makes Endless Space memorable is that care is clearly taken in crafting an interesting universe in which to play. Each faction and the overall lore is a display of simple good — often comedic — writing. Creative game design ties the lore into the gameplay well.
For instance, one of the factions is the Horatio, a race of clones begun by a single unhinged, narcissistic tycoon. This cloning technology and shared identity allows for faster population growth and a higher population cap on planets, but their shared love of themselves and perfectionism causes their shipbuilding to cost significantly more. Another, the Hissho, are a bird-like warrior race whose focus on combat produces great military capacity and gives them a temporary global bonus for each successful hostile invasion; however, this singular focus results in less-than-satisfactory scientific progress.
Wonders, anomalies and heroes, which have random placements and appearances offer additional variety. Heroes are given to all (original) factions. Each hero has a unique backstory and two special characteristics. Some heroes specialize in commanding fleets, some specialize in growing and building up systems, and others dabble in both. Anomalies, which are very common, randomly affect planets, giving bonuses, maluses, or both to the planet in question. Wonders are rarer and often give their bonuses to entire star systems or factions.
The downside is that the random nature of each of these can cause significant imbalance; system-building heroes are incredibly powerful in the early game, allowing you to ramp up your expansion significantly. Negative anomalies can occasionally turn exploration into a series of disappointments which can disrupt the flow of the game and make the experience significantly harder.
At a relatively low $30 price point, the original release was well worth the money and an unexpected treat for 4X fans. However, Endless Space received significant criticism for being too streamlined and too simple; players ultimately ran out of meaningful options despite the variety of factions and randomness of map layouts. Most games progressed too predictably after the player learned the game’s factions and mechanics. The original release also suffered heavily from outright poor AI and a battle system which was more aesthetic than fun.
Thanks to a number of significant free updates over the past year, and a paid DLC expansion called Disharmony, released on June 26th, Amplitude Studios has expanded the base game significantly, producing a fuller product.
THE BEAUTY OF DISHARMONY
While I played the game heavily at launch, I eventually stopped playing due to the aforementioned flaws. In my opinion, the game has been significantly improved in the past year, with Disharmony capping the game’s progression quite well.
With all the updates included, the additional content is staggering. For a mere $10: two new factions, new battle mechanics like fighters, bombers and formations, trade routes, improved technology trees, significant AI advancements, and more. Thankfully, all of these additions and modifications do not compromise the streamlined gameplay or the game’s fantastic polish.
Disharmony, in particular, adds a lot of punch to the game. Virtually every part of the passive battle system has been overhauled to give more player choice and more tactical action.
Originally, battles were quite simple: the opposing ships would jump into view and begin to move closer in a space version of the old naval “line” formation. For each of the three phases of battle, the player would choose “cards” of various types (offense, defense, sabotage, etc.) which would be drawn against the opponent’s card, causing various bonuses and maluses to apply. Beyond this card-choosing, the battle system was quite passive and came down more to ship construction and type in a half-blind rock-paper-scissors pattern.
The new battle system is much more involved, adding fighters and bombers to the mix, while allowing you to customize targeting and optimum range of your weaponry, and to switch up formations. The granular control and excitement of a manual battle system like in Master of Orion or Sword of the Star is still missing, but battles are now servicable and more entertaining.
Additional focus upon the mechanics of system invasions have also come into play, allowing you to starve out of a system, bombard it, and/or put boots on the ground in a surprisingly dynamic set of features. The overall effect is a filling-out of the game's cut corners, adding much-needed depth to the otherwise coherent design.
SPACE: NOW MORE ENDLESS
With Amplitude’s ample additions and corrections to the game, my already-positive appraisal of the game has had virtually all of its qualifications removed. I would still qualify that anyone looking for a “hardcore” 4X experience along the lines of other current entries in the genre will still be disappointed with the overall depth of the game. Yet, for its price point, the game is unquestionably worthwhile.
Complete 4X newbies will find themselves overwhelmed despite the streamlining and clarity of design, while genre enthusiasts will find themselves perhaps underwhelmed due to said streamlining and clarity, but almost everyone is certain to come down with a case of "one more turn.." for several evenings.