After Blueberry was born, I spent a fair number of nights up late with her playing (single-player) turn-based strategy games. The turn-based part was key: I never knew how much attention I’d be able to give the game, when I’d have to walk away, and even when I was playing, I often had a sleeping baby in one arm. So I returned to that old well-loved classic, Master of Orion 2. Indeed, if you have access to the family photo album, you’ll see a MOO2 screen in the background of one of the cute shots of me and her.
A few weeks ago I heard about a new game called Endless Space that promised to capture many of the important elements of MOO2. I bought it through Steam immediately. I’ve now had a chance to play through a few games so I can give a bit of an informed opinion. In short, it’s fun but slow, and not in the “book off a week of time” slow like a huge CivIV map on epic speed is slow, but in the inpatient “ok I clicked the damned end turn button and now I’d like the next turn to begin already” way.
Like MOO2 and many other 4x space games since, ES has a bit of backstory about ancient advanced civilizations, but the game universe is fairly sparse aside from a bit of flavour text here and there. You won’t be travelling to Orion to dig up ancient tech, and Antarans won’t be appearing over your colonies to extract vengeance and then disappear. So as a practical matter, it’s a pretty straight-forward 4X game without any underlying plot or external events to worry about.
The good: Well, I’ve played more than one round, so there’s obviously some good in there. The balance between system/planet level and galaxy level is pretty good: there’s some micromanagerial options to tweak your systems’ output, but you won’t get bogged down in minutiae. It’s not too hard to monitor your empire at a glance — though I wish there was a “take me to this planet” button when you got a notification about building being done so you could see where it was on the map.
The AI seems reasonably clever, and has put up a decent fight in the games I’ve played so far. Otherwise there isn’t a whole lot that really stands out in my mind as being note-worthy: it’s just fairly-well put together and balanced, with a few points that I’ll mention specifically below.
Travel: One item I liked was the method of faster-than-light travel: they have star lanes connecting stars that are close to each other in a cluster, and using those lanes is the starting tech, though you continue to use them later as they’re the fastest way to get around. Wormholes link different clusters, and you have to research the ability to use those. Later, you’ll be able to develop warp drive to fly between any two points without the need of having a wormhole or space lane linking the systems.
A pretty cool way to do it. The Sword of the Stars had really attracted me at first precisely because of the different FTL technologies the races had. However, I never could get into the rest of the SotS gameplay (never got past the demo, even). So I was excited to see this. However, aside from opening up more systems to explore in the galaxy, I don’t think warp drive was implemented very well. One particular feature that I found lacking was the option to force warp travel. The pathing AI automatically uses whatever combination of star lanes, wormholes, and free-flow warp drive will get your ship to its destination the fastest. But there are times when an enemy may have a natural starlane/wormhole chokepoint system, and have that planet heavily defended. If I have warp tech, I could in theory fly directly to a system in their rearguard and wreak havoc. Yet there’s no way for me to force a warp journey: the pathing AI will always try to send me through the starlanes (and thus, the enemy fleet) where possible.
Ship Battles: ES has a very simplified tactical battle system, where ships automatically engage each other while closing distance, which is broken into three phases (far, middle, near). At each phase the player gets to choose one action (termed “playing a card”), such as buffing kinetics damage by 25%, or sabotaging enemy laser accuracy by 15%. Sometimes your action will nullify the enemy’s action, which is kind of like a double bonus for you. Really basic stuff.
So I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s so slow. If you choose to manually control a battle (picking your card(s) yourself), you’re presented with a loading screen, then a pretty 3D-rendered movie of the battle playing out. It looks good, and it can be kind of helpful to see which of the enemy weapon systems is tearing you apart… but you can’t interact with it in any way. You can’t even fast-forward once it’s started. It’s just pointless and slow. Even the automatic battle resolution is slow, with a big timer bar (a “feature” that seems to be there for the benefit of multiplayer). I’m not sure why there isn’t a hybrid option giving you the ability to pick your cards, but not actually watch the action unfold.
To complement that simple enagement, ES also has a simple 3-weapon-type combat system, with 3 corresponding types of shielding. It’s not quite a rock-paper-scissors type of arrangement: though each offers benefits, lasers don’t lose to missiles but beat kinetics. Supposedly each type is good at a different engagement range: missiles for distance, lasers for medium range, and kinetics to tear shit up in close. However, lasers have the barest of range penalties for distance, so I’ve found in practice (my whole 3 games played) that kinetics get ditched in favour of the other two technologies. Indeed, all engagements after the first few technology steps end in the first round (distance), which exacerbates the annoyance of a manual battle: all that loading just to play one card.
I wish there were more tactical options beyond just picking which buff or debuff card I wanted to play that time. For example, what if I built a ship that was faster than my opponent’s? Shouldn’t I be able to choose to close the distance faster, passing through the effective range of missiles and lasers to open up with my kinetics? Or if I had missiles myself, to kite the opponent and extend the duration of the long-distance phase of combat? Plus many of the other neat tactical options that MOO2 had that are missing, like boarding enemy ships or racing past a fleet to bomb a planet.
Indeed, that’s another missing element from the combat system: the option to bomb the enemy into submission. If they built a wretched colony on a gas giant, and the people are starving and rioting and just generally detracting from the empire rather than adding to it — or even if it’s just in your way and not something you can afford to defend — there’s no option to just glass the planet from orbit and move on. Your only option is to invade and take it over, though I have to admit that I do like the mechanism for that: you spend a certain amount of time with your fleets in orbit on an invade mission, and the ownership bar moves steadily towards your side. When it’s full you have the planet, but just barely: the people are angry and upset, and it will take very little time for the enemy to take it back — when their fleets take back the skies, they’ll find the takeover progress bar already nearly filled. No marines and transports to micromanage.
Events: There are random events, but so far they seem very dry. Except for one (you magically get a colony ship), they’ve all consisted of buffs/debuffs adding percentages to some trait, sometimes permanently, but more often for a set number of turns. There are no space monsters, hyperspace fluxes, or archaeological digs uncovering the ancient secrets of mass driver technology. Even the boring percentage effects seem to magnify their dullness by almost always affecting all players at once.
I think the space monsters are one of things I miss most from MOO2. To make up for it, ES has pirates that rampage across the skies, seeming to originate from neutral systems. Thing is, in one game the pirates were pretty much non-existent: there were so many players crammed onto that map that very quickly there ceased to be any neutral systems (at least, none outside the scanning range of the other colonies, which seems to be another pirate prerequisite). In another game, the pirates had this little arm of a spiral galaxy to themselves until after wormhole travel was discovered. By that point, the pirates had more fleet strength than all the other players combined, which was kind of nuts — and that was on “normal”. There’s another level of amped-up pirate activity available in the game options that I’m frankly afraid to experiment with for fear they will come through the screen to overtake the earth itself in our reality.
Speed: My biggest problem with ES is the speed. I don’t know if the game is just inefficiently coded, or if the delay is a carry-over from multiplayer that screws up single-player… but it is slow. You click the end turn button and a progress bar worms its way around. Even at the very beginning with nothing to resolve it takes at least 3-5 seconds per turn to complete. So even if I have all my build orders queued and am just trying to burn through turns until I discover a technology (or whatever it is I’m waiting on), it can still be a slow game to play. The slow loading and playout for combat (when all I want to do is pick my buffs) really adds to that — and even automatic combat has a timer to wait through. Indeed, the slow speed of the game is ultimately what will relegate it to the dustpile for me.
Bugs and Miscellany: There’s the option to blockade your systems with fleets so enemies can’t just sail through to the next system: they have to park it or fight. Yet even though I never seem to be able to run a blockade, the enemy never seems to be slowed by mine. In one game there was a player I just couldn’t kill because my ships simply refused to accept their system as a valid destination.
One staple of the genre is cloaked ships, which don’t seem to exist here, though one technology’s description (of spotting all ships orbiting the system) suggests that at one point in the development cycle there were. There’s also no spying or technology stealing, though there are faction traits that give you research points and/or money when you blow up enemy ships.
It’s tough to think of hidden terrain existing in a space 4X game: surely your astronomers can at least tell you where the stars are, even if you have to send ships to survey the planets. Yet in ES you’ll find that even knowing how many systems lay beyond the wormhole you just found (and thus how big your opponent’s empire might be) is left as a mystery.
Each race has a good/evil/neutral alignment, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is they do [a search result suggested that it indicates how the AI will play the race — so no effect on the player].
Conclusion: To sum up, Endless Space is a fun 4X game that mostly gets the strategic formula right. Though I may miss the GNN robot, the dry atmosphere is perfectly fine for multiplayer, and I think the slowness in the single-player stems from that. The tactical game leaves a fair bit to be desired, but that’s ok — except for the odd important fight auto-resolution is the way to go with these games anyway. If you’ve been looking for a 4X game that’s like MOO2 but not just another game of MOO2 (and important to some, with more modern graphics) then it’s worth a shot. Though they don’t quite get the formula right, it comes closer to the mark than many other 4X attempts out there.