Well, there goes my productivity.
Other games? Couldn’t care less. My girlfriend? Thankfully, she digs the game soundtrack, so that’s a plus. My Cat?
Crap – really should feed my cat. But one more turn...
To say that Endless Space is addictive is an understatement that’s almost geological in terms of how big an understatement it would be. It’s a sneaky little bastard, too; I hadn’t heard word one about it until a random email offering me a Steam code and early press access, but man, am I glad I know about it now.
All the Xs
Endless Space is cut from the classic 4X space sim mould. In fact, when pressed, it’s hard to list the truly new and unique stuff that it does – you start with a planet, research tech-trees, build up fleets, explore new worlds, expands your empire, rinse, and, repeat. Above all, though, it’s the amazing polish of the game that makes it something special; from the gentle humour and nods to space opera and hard SF that are liberally sprinkled through the reams of text in the game, to the incredibly smooth UI, to even the music, which I think I’m now starting to get a Pavlovian response to, it’s just so damn slick.
One of the reasons the game’s coming along so swimmingly is the way the developers took the game from Alpha through Beta and final release. Essentially, the game’s being developed almost as an experiment into democratic game making; you can already buy into the Alpha phase, and as you comment and suggest changes or new features, you earn points. These points can even level you up, as a commenter, so that your thoughts and votes on game development decisions get more weight.
It’s some kind of meta-gamification of game development. Think too hard about it and you might get a headache. But that’s okay, the game’s soundtrack is rather relaxing.
From little things...
A typical game starts with setting the parameters of your galaxy, from its size, AI opponents (in singleplayer), age, and even shape. I’m playing in a small galaxy and my game’s into its 200th turn and doesn’t look like finishing any time soon – I suspect the larger sizes will deliver a game for life. Literally.
At this stage you also choose your faction from eight available species/polities, with a range of backstories and abilities and diplomatic standings. There are some really interesting alien races, and one human race based on a lone man deciding that his clones should rule the stars; there’s good hard SF here, but there are some laughs, too. With your faction chosen, it’s into a game, and your first planet. Impressively, even in the early game, there are always decisions to be made, based on the fact that any one star system can only ever have one construction project. So, do you expand your colony, or build more Scout vessels? Similarly, you can only research one technology at a time, from a vast web of tech grouped into four broad fields; again, choice is everything. Do you unlock military tech, or start in on environmental research that will let you colonise different planetary types; do you aim for tech-based win and research to Soul Uplift from the get-go, or work on seeding your home systems with enough satellites and sensing gear to help your empire grow?
All of this is before you even find another faction, and if you want to be able to talk to them you better look into some xeno-research...
There’s a lot to take in, especially at first, as you discover the interesting inter-relationships of a lot of the tech-tree. Thankfully, there’s mouse-over text for pretty much everything in the game. You might be in the System view, looking at all the planets in that system, and all you need to do is mouse over an anomaly, or planet type, or anything else, and a window will pop up explaining it all. Nonetheless, your first game or two will inevitably feel like a trial run, so we recommend keeping that first one small.
You can hire heroes to govern colonies or lead fleets, and these can be levelled up to learn all kinds of enhancing abilities, from boosting a system’s scientific output (and thus improving your ability to research) to learning special attacks in combat.
In fact, the military side of the game is just as immense. As you research new military tech and hulls, you can modify ship classes or create new ones out of whole cloth. Want a fleet that uses massed torpedo fire? Easy. Heavily armoured ships that boast big guns for close range fights? Done. When two fleets meet, combat’s handled in fights that take three stages, each covering long, medium, and close range. In each of these phases, you can choose a tactic or weapon, too, which effectively works like a card game; some abilities trump others, meaning if you work out a given faction’s strengths, you can start to research new tech to counter them.
Of course, they’ll do that to you, too.
Otherwise, you don’t control individual ships or even their targeting – just the tactics they’re using. It’s simple, but very effective, and the cinematic 3D view of ship combat is inspiring.
I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface on this game, but it’s shaping up to be something really special. I don’t like to bandy about terms like Strategy Game of the Year, but even with work still to go on music, AI balancing, multiplayer, and more, this is one seriously fine effort, one that any strategy fan should invest in – even if the game’s not even final yet. That’s why we’re slapping a full review on the game before it’s even released. We think it's worth buying right now (and it's only $32 for the Emperor Edition on Steam), just so you can be a part of the final shaping; even without that, it already plays better than a lot of full-release games.