Sunday, July 08, 2012

Endless Space Review

Endless Space, developed by Amplitude Studios and published by Iceberg Interactive.
The Good: Outstanding user interface, meaningful flexible ship design, extensive non-repetitive technology tree, recruited leaders gain experience, streamlined colony management, distinctive races, humans can replace AI players online, multiple victory conditions
The Not So Good: Uneven AI, little interaction during battles
What say you? An efficient, user-friendly 4X turn-based space strategy game: 7/8

Endless Space exploded onto the strategy gaming scene when the “alpha” was released in May. I say “alpha” in “quotes” because it was a very polished, almost feature complete version that wasn’t really a true “alpha” (if you’re used to looking at early preview builds like I am, the first Natural Selection 2 build was a true alpha: a barely functional tech demo). I guess “alpha” now means “beta”, and “beta” means “demo” (Battlefield 3 and it’s “beta” demo comes immediately to mind), when things are turned over to the public. In any case, the game made a lot of noise thanks to its streamlined features and slick interface. Now, the game is officially released (after a two month alpha and beta period? uh huh) and we can take a critical eye towards the heavens and see whether Endless Space offers endless joy or endless sorrow.

The graphics of Endless Space are good for a space strategy game. The map is not cluttered or dominated by distracting backgrounds (common in space games), placing the visual emphasis on what’s important. The planets are nicely animated and visually distinctive, as are the extremely detailed ships employed by each race. The battles are also very nice to look at, with lasers and explosions aplenty. All of this visual splendor means nothing if the game is unplayable, so thankfully the interface of Endless Space is likely the best I’ve seen in a strategy game. All of the important information is accessible from the main screen, and small icons display the most pertinent values (cash flow, happiness, leaders, diplomatic relations) at all times. On the main map, you have one-glance access to the number of planets in each system (with color-coded indications showing whether they can be colonized), plus the population size, hangar fleet, and current production in each owned system. The game displays a handy list of game events, showing finished production, research, or heroes that have leveled up. You can also press a button to move ships before the turn ends (useful if they will reach their destination this turn), but I would also like to have an idle system and idle ship icon and the ability to auto-explore. The empire screen provides a spreadsheet for all of your systems, which can be sorted according to population size, approval rating, any of the four resources, current production, hangar size, AI governor setting, hero availability, and whether they are being invaded. The research tree includes a search box so you can find specific technologies (why didn’t people think of that before?), although I’d like the search keywords to be expanded to include the actual benefits (so I can type in “speed” and it will cycle through all the techs that increase ship movement rate). Still, the interface in Endless Space makes accessing information very easy. The sound design is dominated by the fantastic music and distinctive effects for notifications. There isn’t any voice acting, but you won’t notice as you push your ships across the galaxy. Simply put, Endless Space has an interface of a quality other strategy games can only hope to meet.

Endless Space is a 4X turn-based strategy game, where you eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXhibit eXtreme Xenophobia by killing numerous alien races (also known as eXterminate). The game features eight races that come with different starting tech and attributes that roughly define their overall strategy: the human United Empire has higher ship hit points and an increased income rate, the scientific Sophon specialized in research, the militaristic Hissho gets damage and production bonuses after victories, the diplomatic Amoeba has the galaxy explored from the start, the populous Horatio enjoys mass cloning, the machine Sowers have specialized improvements, and the happy Pilgrims enjoy system retreat. You can also create a custom race using any of the starting attributes available to the eight default factions. The galaxy composition can be defined by the user, setting shape, size, age, density, planets, resource, and connection attributes. In addition, higher difficulty levels give bonuses to AI opponents, higher game speeds can increase movement and research rates, and neutral, hostile pirates cause earlier ship construction (pirates can be unbalanced enough, throwing outrageously large fleets at you early in the game, where I simply disable them for all my games). Several victory conditions are available: expansion, scientific, revenue, supremacy, diplomatic, wonder, and overall score if the 300-turn time limit is reached. Endless Space can also be enjoyed online, played in real time against human foes. Interestingly, you can join a game in progress and replace any AI player, and resume games later if you have coordinated players. Tutorial messages pop-up the first time you play; while not as good as an interactive introduction to the game, they do serve their purpose. Overall, the features set of Endless Space is pleasant and fulfilling.

There are four resources to worry about in Endless Space. Food is required to grow your population, and is the resource you’ll worry about first. Industry determines how quickly improvements and ships are produced in your systems. Dust is used to pay for ships, leaders, and most improvements. And science determines research speed. In addition to these four basic resources, you’ll also encounter special luxury and strategic resources on some planets; once you have researched the appropriate technologies to unlock their use, luxury goods provide income or happiness, and strategic resources enable better weapons or ship hulls. Each system actually comprises of a number of planets that can be individually colonized; the resource amounts derived from the individual plants, based on their planet type (undesirable types come with a hefty negative approval rating) and randomized attributes, add up to determine the overall resource values for the system as a whole. Each individual planet can have one exploitation that increases production of one of the four basic resources; some planet types have an additional bonus, and better exploitations can be researched. System-wide improvements can also be constructed, which usually exchange dust for more food, industry, science, approval, trade, or other effects. Since improvements act on the system as a whole, you don’t need to worry about placing new items on the “correct” planet, which is a helpful simplification. There are some improvements that should be built in all systems (the basic ones that improve food, industry, and science output for little cost), but the later improvements usually have a high cost and should not be spammed in locations that would not fully benefit from them; this strategic choice makes improvement construction more interesting. It is very important to keep your systems happy: approval rating directly effects production, and ecstatic systems are the only ones that maximize their output. Happiness is primarily increased by lowering taxes, but approval-raising structures can also be built. If there is nothing suitable to build, you can convert some of a system’s industry output into science or dust to balance the checkbooks, and if you have many systems, and AI governor can be assigned with an area of focus (but I found system management to be controllable in all but the largest games). Thanks to diverse planet types, a straightforward economy with exploitations and improvements, and a dynamic approval system that impacts production, colony management is an intriguing part of Endless Space.

Of course, what’s the point of having all of these resources if you’re not going to use them to build a massive navy? Other than the low-level starting ships, there are no pre-designed vessels in Endless Space, but thankfully ship design is a painless process. First, you pick a hull and then click to add weapons and defenses. The game uses a clear countering system: deflect stops kinetic rounds, shields stop beams, and flak stops missiles. So, it’s simply a matter of finding out what the enemy is using (the pre-battle display shows the designs of all the enemy ships involved in the upcoming skirmish) and then designing your ships (and guiding your research) to counter that strategy. For example, if the enemy is using missiles and shields, you should opt for kinetic and missiles, with flak for defense. Larger ships can also be equipped with additional power modules, planetary invasion weapons, armor, improved engines, enhanced scouting range, or repair capabilities. Ships must be organized into fleets (although you can have a fleet of one ship), which makes finding and managing your military easy. Each fleet can move, guard, invade, attack, or merge together. Overall, the ship design and management aspects of Endless Space are easy to grasp.

A number of leaders can be hired to lead fleets or manage planets. They start with two classes, a mix of military and production persuasions, that determine the starting bonuses they will provide. As they gain experience through battles or management time, you can choose new skills that add significant bonuses to your fleets or systems. Although there is a large selection of skills to choose from, Endless Space does not provide a skill tree to figure out the best path to the most desirable skills for your current strategy. High-level leaders become important parts of your empire, as their bonuses can be very significant.

The research tree in Endless Space is very extensive, and I found myself opting for different techs in each game, depending on my current situation (at war, trade-heavy, colonizing, production enhancement, et cetera). There are a lot of choices, including planet terraforming, improved weapons, faster research, enhanced industry, alliances, trade, faster movement, new ship hulls, and a host of system improvements. Each new technology usually unlocks two new things, like an empire improvement (such as faster movement speed), hull type, star system improvement, strategic resource, ship module, improved exploitation, or new battle cards. While individual techs become memorable over several games and your starting research strategy seems to play out the same each time, there are certainly a lot of options to choose from.

Diplomatic options in Endless Space are pretty standard, although some wrinkles are introduced. To start, every alien race your encounter starts out in a “cold war”: you can attack their ships and even invade colonies that are not within their sphere of influence. Beyond that, you can declare war, make peace, enter a cooperation agreement (for trade), or initiate an alliance. Other options include trading dust, strategic or luxury resources, technologies, or entire systems; these are useful in sealing an important diplomatic deal. The game displays a clear indication of who benefits more from a particular agreement, and the AI will agree to things that are near neutral (or on their side, obviously). While Endless Space fails to bring drastic innovations to the diplomatic table, all of the appropriate options are present.

While combat is completed in real time, you don’t take direct control of your ships. Rather, you play three battle action cards that give different bonuses, each of which can cancel the actions of another type of card: offense (more damage) counters tactics (a mix of offense and defense) counters engineering (repair) counters sabotage (less accuracy for the enemy) counters defense (uh, better defense) counters offense. Some cards are more appropriate for specific ship loadouts (no need to improve your missile accuracy if you don’t use missles), and more options are present through research. I feel the battle action system in Endless Space is innovative, and while some users will bemoan the inability to choose specific targets and interact with your ships during combat, I think those features are beyond the scope of the game. Really, ship design plays a much larger role in determining the victor than playing the right cards or choosing the best target. The cards really only become significant when two evenly-matched fleets are duking it out, but it is fun to see which tactics the enemy employs during battle, and attempt to counter them.

The AI in Endless Space is a mixed bag: there are things it does quite well, and things it does horribly. The AI knows how to run the economy, maximizing production and out-producing experienced strategy gamers (namely myself) in the early game. The AI loves to build system improvements, even ones that it doesn’t really need, which can lead to a mid-game economic crash when the AI cannot afford the upkeep required to keep all of those structures (and its military) running. The AI is very good at building large, impressive fleets, and then not using those imposing vessels effectively, haphazardly invading systems with a single fleet, if at all. The AI is simply not aggressive enough, especially when it has a vastly superior military force: it will park several to many huge fleets in one of their systems while you invade their border systems, even if you leave your adjacent systems complete undefended. The smallest military force can still beat the AI because the computer isn't intelligent enough to use its massive forces effectively. The computer does change or vary ship designs on occasion, giving you a sense of uncertainty when you do engage in battle. The AI colonizes too many bad systems early on (gas planets, barren worlds, and asteroid belts), which leads to low approval ratings until the appropriate structures are built. The AI shortcomings are really evident when you join an online game and replace a computer opponent: you spend the first handful of turns just cleaning up their mess, selling back unnecessary structures and managing their poor economy because of a large military it doesn't use. I suspect that, on higher difficulty levels, the AI players are given significant bonuses to compensate for some of their poor decisions. No amount of economic bonus, though, will make up for poor tactics. While the AI can play well on occasion, there are several deficiencies that add up to less than satisfactory overall performance.

Endless Space is very successful at bringing streamlined gameplay and user friendliness to turn-based strategy. It starts with the almost perfect (just missing a couple of small notifications) interface, which provides an accessible game, always important in the strategy genre; the sorted empire display and technology search feature are just two of the highlights. The economy is easy to grasp and provides flexibility as you choose your colonies and improvements; while the most prudent strategy is to focus on food first, industry second, and research last, choices can be made to nudge your empire in the desired direction. The research tree is extensive and provides many options: I never repeated the same path twice, always adapting to the current game situation. Leaders can be recruited and attached to any colony or ship, providing significant bonuses to either assignment and allow for further customization. The diplomatic options are fairly routine (although the initial state of “cold war” is unique) but allow for trade and alliances. When peace talks fail, it’s time to roll out the hardware, and simple but important ship design utilizes a classic rock-paper-scissors format for weapons and defenses, as each gun has one counter. You do not interact directly during combat (which, honestly, is fine with me), but do choose cards to enhance your abilities or counter enemy actions. The AI, the biggest issue with the game, is all over the place in terms of competency: it starts out well, but eventually implodes by building large, expensive fleets, making poor colony choices, exhibiting ineffective tactics, and investing in unnecessary system improvements. Game options provide for customization, and multiplayer matches allow you to join during a game and replace AI nations. In the end, Endless Space is a very notable entry in the 4X genre, and should be earmarked by all strategy gamers, if you can forgive the occasionally wonky AI.