Indie 4X Done Right.
I know this is only the first line, but I'm already done writing this review. I love you guys and all, but... I do not want to be here right now. I've got so many better things to do than tap away at my keyboard for y'all. See, the Cravers in the next constellation over finally figured out how warp drives work, which is basically the equivalent of your worst childhood bully having a teleportation device.
Now they've declared a war on me that I can't hope to win and my strongest military ally just decided to pick up their toys and go home due to a dispute over a Titanium-70 deposit. Heck, if it were any other race, I could just throw my near endless amounts of money at them in exchange for peace, but these guys don't actually have a word for peace in their language, so yeah, what were we talking about again? Oh right! I was writing a review for you guys. Sorry.
This is what I have become: a drooling idiot whose only waking desire is to click “End Turn” incessantly until the sun comes up and the birds start singing. I blame Amplitude Studios, the indie dev responsible for the soul-blighting addiction that is Endless Space, a new turn-based 4X strategy game. If it weren't for them, I'd be going to a barbeque and eating flame-grilled animal carcasses like a normal, socially functioning citizen of the United States should be doing on the 4th of July. Instead I'm here, telling you all to go buy this game, and afterwards, most likely playing it until morning. Again.
Like many sci-fi 4X titles before it, Endless Space casts you as the head of one of many races vying for superiority in a galaxy with limited real estate and resources. As ever, the goal is to explore the galaxy, expand your empire, exploit the territories you colonize to the fullest, and exterminate your opponents. Where this game distinguishes itself, however, is in how it makes genre elements that are usually tedious feel fresh and enjoyable with several interesting design choices, the most far-reaching of which is the interface.
Anyone who's ever played a game like this knows that turn by turn, it gets more complex and managing everything can become a chore. This often leads to frustration and players soon deciding to ignore the finer points and just turn-burning until something cool happens. But here, every time a significant event occurs, a clickable icon pops up in the lower right of your screen, hyperlinking you to the appropriate screen without having to go through a bunch of menus.
So for instance, when a research project completes, you will be notified. Clicking through shows what it unlocks and clicking again sweeps you away to the research page to choose a new research path, and one more click backs you out—simple, fast management of every important factor, every turn. Instead of advancing a turn and then menu hunting to find the important needles in the haystack among colonies, fleets, and research projects, it's simply provided up front, keeping you focused on making meaningful decisions.
Each time you encounter a new system in your constellation, you have a judgment call to make. Unlike a lot of other 4X games, expanding willy-nilly isn't always the best call. Some planets aren't worth the effort without the right technology. But the soloar systems and planets within them are so diverse that the decision is rarely black or white. Factors like size, climate, and resource output all play a big role, but that's just the start. Planets also have a chance to spawn one of 50 anomalies and 24 rare luxury or strategic resources which further alter their properties. Every system presents a unique puzzle, and the sizable research tree gives you a diverse set of tools with which to solve them.
Despite this complexity, you'll always feel informed without having to parse through a tangle of help menus. Don't know what something is? Just mouse over it for a detailed breakdown of exactly what it does and how it works. The information is always right there when you need it, which means more time playing and less time “studying”. Imagine that. Playing a game. What'll they think of next, a combat system that isn't visually boring and tactically bankrupt?
Actually, that's exactly what they thought up next. Not content to settle for genre standard “icon wars” on the map screen, you get treated to a gorgeous, real-time view of the carnage, replete with Battlestar Galactica-style music and camera angles. While it appears real time, the battle is ostensibly turn-based with 3 distinct phases: long, medium, and close range.
Before every phase, you and your opponent choose an action card to play, each of which ranges in effect from general stat boosts to overcharging one weapon system at the expense of another. Each card also has a type, and some types straight up cancel actions of another type, potentially allowing you to turn the tide of battle by outwitting your enemy. Making a risky, decisive call in the heat of a pitched battle and seeing it pan out will make you feel as if your name were James Tiberius or Jean-Luc. It's leagues more interesting than watching chintzy little animations from the map screen and having battle outcomes decided solely on statistics.
I could honestly write a thousand words more on what makes Endless Space so much more addicting and absorbing than the bulk of its contemporaries. Visually, it's detailed and opulent where it needs to be, yet simple and clean everywhere else. It makes its voluminous level of complexity accessible with a terrific interface which affords a pace and ease of management that few other games in the genre can match. But I'm not going to write those thousand more words, folks. I've got a galaxy that's waiting to be conquered, one more time.