Welcome to another edition of So I Tried, the GameGrin segment where a member of our staff spends 30 minutes trying a game before moving on to the next one at a rate that makes a GameFly subscription laughably underwhelming. Can these games grab the attention of our intrepid staffer (me) in half an hour or less, or will that proverbial pizza be delivered free of charge? Is my joking reference to the old 30-minutes-or-less deal from Domino's in poor taste given the tragic delivery crash of 1990? Find out the answer to some of these questions and more as, in honor of its upcoming sequel, we try…. Endless Space.
What I Thought it Was
A cursory overview of the Steam Store under the keywords “strategy”, “4X”, and perhaps “space” will reveal that grand strategy games where you take control of a massive interstellar empire are probably numerous enough to be considered their own sub-genre at this point. Thus, given the artwork on the front and the basic description of Amplitude Studios’ contribution to the category, I was prepared for gameplay similar to perhaps Homeworld, Sins of a Solar Empire, or Master of Orion.
For those of you that have never played those games, the meat of their experience comes in three main flavors: managing the resource acquisition and distribution of your interplanetary civilization, trading goods and diplomatic proposals with other empires, and controlling the naval combat whenever your enormous space armada wants a specific piece of the theoretically endless amount of space (title drop) and someone else’s fleet doesn’t want to give it to them.
What it Really Was
These were all the things I went in expecting. What I ended up getting was a strange mix of satisfaction and disappointment, like a ten year old that’s told by his parents they’re all going to Disney World and then finds out it’s only so mom and dad can work there as janitors that do not get free family park access as part of their package.
On the surface, Endless Space certainly covers many of the tropes implied by this category of grand strategy game. The list of different factions and races you can play as are varied and interesting.
In my first game I tried going for an economic victory with the United Empire, which is thematically your standard evil empire with some Dune and Star Wars added in for flavour. I found out fairly early on that my military was consistently failing muster because I was putting resources towards acquiring shiny bits instead of shooty bits to guard said shiny bits, like a proper galactic dystopia.
On the flip side, this strategy worked much better during my second attempt. I was playing as a race composed entirely of clones, and with them I could build up enough cash to just buy off planet improvements and ship upgrades. Kind of like a spoiled rich kid that gets straight Ds in science and then brings in a fully functional mini-hadron collider as a final project. It fit my personality better! Then there was the fact that I could level up a single hero that specialised in maximising star system happiness and productivity and then use my faction’s ability to just make clones of it for every system I controlled.
Oh yes, I forgot to mention the hero system. From what I can tell it’s one of the more unique things Endless Space adds to the genre. Players are able to recruit (see “buy”) different units that can command fleets or run star systems, offering stat buffs and bonuses to both. Battles and passively generated XP allow you to customise their skill progression to suit their role. Although as a fan of the fluff I’d have preferred it if each empire had their own unique heroes rather than just a randomised pool of mercenaries to recruit from. I imagine my legions of identical clones were a tad put off by their planetary governor being a sentient monolithic AI from another species.
Its freshness aside, while the hero mechanic was an interesting twist it suffered from a pervasive problem I found while playing Endless Space: There’s little depth to it beyond pretty set pieces and stat numbers. You never get to see your heros do anything, not even in the big cinematic space battles which you can’t actually interact with beyond picking which strategy or formation to use ahead of time. Seriously, if it weren’t for the visuals space combat would essentially boil down to a slightly more complex game of rock-paper-scissors as you try to guess what your opponent will pick and then set up its counter. Upgrading and customising your ship as new weapon types are unlocked through research is fun yes, but you never see any change in the ship’s appearance after a new system or piece of tech is brought on board.
Land based battles have an even worse form of the sickness, resolving automatically and presenting you with a dry list of units lost on both sides. Such presentation is fine when you’re talking about a diplomacy or trading system where there isn’t much to be left to the imagination aside from how my clone merchant is going to successfully set up a trade deal with sentient amoebae. But when I’ve invested in heavier armor and better drills for my foot soldiers I don’t want to be told how their battle went, I want to be shown. And the simple fact is that Endless Space doesn’t show enough while also minimising interactivity with the parts where it does show you in detail what’s going on.
Picking up this game means that the majority of your time will be spent clicking on different research and construction options on a pretty little simplified map of whichever galaxy type you selected pre-game. Occasionally you’ll get to direct which system your fleet stacks are heading to next…. And that’s about it.
Will I Keep Playing
I’m well aware that I’ve spent the majority of this article tearing into the game for what I consider to be its most glaring issue. And make no mistake, that issue is pervasive throughout the entire experience… And I’ve also logged around 11 hours after I finished the 30 minutes segment.
Maybe it’s the sense of progress being made. Maybe it’s the relative ease with which a grand strategy fan like myself can get into Endless Space’s gameplay systems without too much hassle. But evidently Amplitude Studios have unlocked the magical goldilocks zone where a 4X title can posses the minimum level of complexity and still give off that just-one-more-turn smell that so many of us would rob a convenience store for. I’m honestly not sure if that counts as an endorsement or not.