Thursday Review: Endless Space (+ Disharmony)

Endless Space is a turn-based strategy game of space conquest. It’s somewhat interesting; I tend to like games with a lot of crunch, and it delivers both on high crunch and a high degree of abstraction. Endless Space delivers just enough intellectual stimulation to provide an engaging experience and provide a game that can be mastered, rather than just played. However, more importantly, Endless Space is also a game that is not particularly intimidating, falling somewhere more in the Civilization area of difficulty despite having a more emergent experience than most of the entries in that venerable series have.

Endless Space is really a study in scale. As a game with a high degree of flexibility, there’s a lot of potential micromanagement. Custom ships can be created (think Galactic Civilizations, albeit more template-oriented), planets can be terraformed and exploited on individual levels, solar systems can be improved with various upgrades, and heroes can be trained and associated with either fleets or locations in order to provide useful bonuses.

Needless to say, Endless Space is a busy game. However, it’s far from overwhelming; while there’s a fair degree of stuff to delve into much of it will be familiar to turn-based-strategy veterans, and despite being a complex 4X game it’s more about management and balance than about having to memorize how everything gets done. I didn’t use any automation tools (it looks like it’s possible to instate governors for solar systems, which seems largely moot, at least from my experiences), but I still felt like I had a pretty good grip on things other than my wildly fluctuating finances in the first full game I played; a consequence of focusing more on colonization than economic development.

One of the things that makes Endless Space so intuitive is the incredibly fluid design. The game really feels like it wanted to be a GUI mockup, and doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Everything is fluid, sleek, and beautiful, and I’d recommend it as a reference for designers of other 4X games as a reference point; Endless Space’s interface is what any 21st century game should have. Sadly, the interface is also a source of all the glitches I experienced in the game; other than a single network-induced disconnect, only the UI gave me any troubles, sometimes drawing inappropriate population indicators around planets in one of my later games on Disharmony or giving me difficulty when I tried to go in and terraform my planets as a result of not closing out of a menu correctly. That said, both of these glitches resided firmly within the confines of the graphic interface, and did not persist between quitting out of the game and loading it back up. Even beyond its interface, Endless Space is a remarkably pretty game, and even includes the ability to watch fleet battles unfold in real-time, a feature that gives not only rather pretty (but not necessarily astonishing) battle visuals.

As a strategic wargame, Endless Space has a variety of opportunities. In addition to the methods used to customize ships, it’s also possible to customize fleet behavior on the fly. While this isn’t done to a particularly detailed extent, feeling more like a game of Rock Paper Scissors than a Total War experience, it’s a nice touch. With more than ten possible behaviors at any given time (some of which fall into the same win/lose pairings), there’s an opportunity to experience a variety of styles, though I found that my gunboats tended to do best when they were simply firing all their cannons all the time. Heroes provide an edge to fleets they’re associated with, and managing the admirals of your fleets can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

The AI were rather aggressive in my single-player games. Admittedly, I usually wound up fighting one-versus-one matches against the Carvers, an alien faction that is mechanically predisposed to war, but I never made it through to a diplomatic victory even with the other factions I went up against. If you’re looking to make peace with the AI, you’ll have to be proactive about it, because in my experience they weren’t the first to come to me and negotiate an alliance.

My one gripe with Endless Space is that it can be a very flukey game; getting a resource-rich or Endless artifact planet of a type that you can easily settle in the solar system next to your home can quickly place you on the path to victory, while being slow to expand can be pretty devastating. That said, a smart player can overcome even the highly situational environments through the large branching tech trees. My only gripe with the tech trees is that they often feel a little too simple and arbitrary, and it’s not possible to queue up different non-sequential researches; something that my experiments with a custom research-oriented faction could have used when I started researching combat techs and researching the economic technologies that I needed to keep my empire happy at the same time.

Disharmony is a particularly interesting expansion. It adds in a radically different faction that is more about long-term planning than the more flexible factions in the core game. It’s not necessarily the most radical expansion to a game, but it’s got some interesting things and makes the combat considerably more nuanced and complex. It’s worth looking into for fans of the original game who want to add a little more spice to the game, but not really something that’s necessary to enjoy the game.

In short, Endless Space is a good, interesting 4X game that has a lot of elements to it without becoming too complex to be easily played and enjoyed; most of its sessions take about four hours to complete in my experience and are pretty enjoyable. If you have a particular “favorite mechanic” in any other 4X game there’s a chance that you’ll find something similar in Endless Space, and while it has a broad variety of little components they all work together well to create an enjoyable and satisfying strategy experience.

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