The alpha-release of Endless Space I previewed a while back left me with mixed feelings, but also with my hopes intact, so when the Gold version finally arrived you could say I was happy to get my hands on the 4X genre’s latest prodigy. Yet even though the producers polished some areas, added new content and filled in the blanks, you can still feel that the game lacks pedigree.
My original criticism of not having enough playable races at our disposal was elegantly put to rest by adding three more factions, plus a good-looking feature of designing our own. As such, we now have the possibility of creating an entirely new race, complete with bonuses and disadvantages we can choose from a large variety in economics, warfare, diplomacy or space related stuff, not to mention one unique ability as well.
The tech-tree however remains largely the same, with only four branches to explore, namely defense, exploration, warfare and economy. And after a few matches, you will learn the research options by heart – a useful thing, considering that the descriptions still give no hint towards what you are actually researching.
This is in fact where the balance seems to be broken in the game dynamic, when you realize that the ability to create your own race is held back by the lack of late-game differences. Basically, you created a heavy militarized faction for nothing, as you will need to invest in economics and defense research in order to keep up, so in the end all players converge on the same point, as there’s little to differentiate them. You do have the option of creating a balanced race (where’s the fun is that?), but with the cost of denying yourself any surprises. Which is a pretty bizarre thing to have in a 4x strategy.
The first two X’s are pretty well designed, with eXploration and eXpansion being the most interesting features of the game. This is due to the fact that the initial expansion is critical to establishing the efficiency of your empire, although it’s still more important how many planets are in a system, not their quality. The pirates can be a headache if your fleet isn’t up and running, but I generally loved the fact that you need to calculate your moves a few turns ahead in order to get your hand on that juicy system at the edge of the galaxy.
The eXploitation was also tweaked a bit, with more and varied construction options on each system, and the economy was balanced well-enough so that it’s no longer efficient to build anything, anywhere, thus forcing you to choose and specialize your systems.
The Heroes are pretty much the same, just as useful for fleets, although those who are fitted for planetary management can bring in huge production bonuses as well. And you may now hire up to five of them, and the fact that their level caps at 20 is a balance decision I can only salute.
Space combat however has barely changed; the player interaction is still minimal and you can easily skip uneven fights, particularly if there’s an admiral at the wheel. It’s true that human intervention – via those playing cards – may or may not alter the outcome, but these cases are rare considering that each card you play may be counteracted by the card the enemy plays (just as your card can counteract his) and it’s impossible to tell which card the enemy will play, although I did notice the AI almost always playing the wrong card for that phase.
Speaking of phases, I still don’t understand what the producers wanted to accomplish when they designed the combat system. Missiles fly in long-range, energy weapons fire at medium-range and cannons crack in melee, but in practice I only fitted my ships with missiles and maybe a laser or two, since I do not want to reach that last combat phase. And it’s a pity because of a well-designed ship configurator and the nice graphics during combat (should you choose to watch), as there’s little strategy to manage and all that matters are the tech level and the number of ships.
Furthermore, the end-game degenerates into a hide and seek with the enemy, since those systems you thought of being bottlenecks and reinforced heavily can now be easily bypassed by a specific research.
The diplomacy does look fancy, but it’s largely irrelevant, unless you want to declare war or sign a trading treaty. I found that last option difficult to use, since you need some kind of positive relation with the other factions, which usually get slightly upset just because you have a common border, and there are very few options to improve it otherwise.
The Gold version comes with Multiplayer option, which I jumped upon with great interest. Anybody can create a public or private game – with the public side of things being well-handled by Steam – and I appreciated the option of taking over an empire controlled by the AI instead of starting a game from scratch every single time.
The servers are populated enough, although the randomness of it all means that you cannot select your own empire when entering a game mid-way. Also, there are still some strange events in such games, such as the AI you just replaced having some sort of ego bursts and trying to change your construction options from time to time – which can be annoying, and also some of the researches are slightly changed, even though I found no such options in the game creation parameters. Nevertheless the Multiplayer runs quite smoothly if you’re a fan of extended playing sessions (rivaling Sins of a Solar Empire) and long turn times especially in the late game.
Furthermore, the producers are showing great care for the community, introducing modding tools complete with tutorials and examples on the main site, allowing players to dive in the game’s parameters and create their own scenarios, which I something I always appreciate and will increase the longevity.
Ultimately, Endless Space can be a fun experience, even though I disliked the superficial combat mechanics and the skinny tech-tree. Yet the game’s biggest problem is the low replay value, with each game being eerily similar to the previous one, which is not a very bright point for a 4x strategy. I do hope the producers will add some spice to the mix in the coming updates, because the game looks good, sounds even better, lacks bugs and the overall package has great potential.