There are plenty of games about flying a starfighter, or being a space merchant, or a humble lowly space marine who runs through space stations shooting everything that moves. There are plenty of games where you're an officer in some kind of army of the stars, clicking your way to victory as your tiny little minions give their tiny little lives for the cause.
Those kinds of games are fine, but sometimes, you want more. You don't want to be the guy taking orders from the Emperor. You want to be the Emperor.
Endless Space lets you be the Emperor.
Managing the economy, industry, science and military of a sprawling galactic empire isn't - at least I'd guess it isn't - an easy thing to do. All those planets to monitor, all those unhappy workers, all those alien starships blowing stuff up across the fringes of known space, it's a lot to stay on top of.
For Endless Space, a game that follows so closely in the footsteps of classic 1993 title Master of Orion, staying on top of the nuts and bolts of galactic governance is never a problem. A surprisingly attractive and clean user interface (these kind of games are normally as stylish as a text book) makes it easy to navigate the necessary levels of menus and research screens, while smartly-designed pop-ups keep you informed about decisions that need to be made sooner rather than later.
WHY: It may be lacking in character, but Endless Space is still a smart, slick attempt at giving the average human being desktop control of an entire galaxy.
Developer: Amplitude Studios
Released: July 4.
Type of game: Space Strategy
What I played: Three singleplayer games, one as the United Empire, one as the Pilgrims and one as the Sowers. Briefly tested multiplayer (it...works!), but didn't have time to complete a whole game.
Two Things I Loved
- It's pretty. Every other game in the genre should take note that, yes, it helps when you look good.
- There's a great understanding of prioritising player information and pop-ups.
Two Things I Hated
- The game has a personality disorder. Namely, it doesn't have one.
- Combat is basic and unfulfilling.
Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes
- "The perfect game for fans of spreadsheet clicking! 8.5/10!" - Luke Plunkett, Kotaku.com
- "It's no Master of Orion, but you know what, it's close enough" - Luke Plunkett, Kotaku.com
What could easily have been the game's biggest stumbling block, then - keeping the player informed about the dozens of things that needed their attention every turn - is vaulted with ease. Considering that's the point where many games of this ilk begin to lose the player, that's quite the achievement.
The thing I enjoyed most about Endless Space, though, was its degree of customisation. Don't like the eight default races? Combine a bunch of attributes and make your own. Can't find a starship that does what you want? Roll up your sleeves and design one yourself. It really helps invest you in the empire you're creating, giving you the sense that you're building everything, not just the big stuff.
It's a shame, then, that while the universe hums along nicely under the hood, the rest of game can't convince you it's worth controlling at all, let alone saving.
The real joy of these kind of titles where you explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate (fans call them "4X" games) is in feeling like you're playing, well, a game. Against other people. They're at their best when a rival empire isn't simply a competing colour on the map, but a convincing opponent, one that communicates and reacts like a person (or, in Endless Space's case, an alien).
Unless you're in a multiplayer battle, Endless Space almost completely overlooks this part of the experience. Story and context are practically non-existent, while diplomacy - which should be rich with intrigue and personality - feels sterile and arbitrary. The computer's intelligence is also suspect, rarely giving the impression it's able to react to even the broadest and most successful of player strategies.
This empty feeling continues through to the game's combat. Sure, it looks gorgeous, as starships soar past planets exchanging broadsides, but aside from a basic card-game system of bonus powers (which are largely ineffective) you're not actually doing anything. The computer is just tricking you into thinking it hasn't already made a snap decision on who wins, basing it entirely on who brought the bigger guns. The inability to set even the most basic strategies turns what could have been one of the game's most exciting aspects into one of its most mundane.
Endless Space, then, isn't endless at all. It ends about halfway where a truly great game could have ended. It ships as a title complete with all the management tools and streamlined design you could hope for in a game with such scope, but you'll need to abandon hopes of finding much humanity - or any other form of conversational life - amongst the stars to get the most out of it.