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The Endless Space Alpha Preview – We Won’t Keep You Guessing: It’s Amazing

by on May 5, 2012
 

Endless Space is still in testing, but it’s already one of the best 4X games I’ve played in a long, long time.  You owe it to yourself to try this out if you’re a fan of the genre, and soon.

Endless Space is using an interesting method of development, where you can give direct feedback on specific items such as art, or gameplay, or what have you via polls.  The idea is to allow players to help shape the content as it’s being created.  Endless Space has only been available for a few days, so while it’s still too early to see how it works out in the end, I can say that I’m confident in the team to make a game that feels right.
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Since we’re on the topic of the game’s feeling, let’s dive in deeper.  Right from the beginning, the game looks clean, futuristic and simply amazing.  Seriously, these graphics are top notch.  I could stare at them for hours (and I did).  You’re given quite a range of options that decide what shape the galaxy you play in is (leading to different pathway options between systems) as well as the size, age, and amount of races in your galaxy.  Currently there are five races in the game to choose from, but more are coming.  The races are fairly standard.  We’ve got our humans (United Empire), the amazing scientists in the Siphon race, the proud, warrior-like people called the Hissho, a tyranid race called Cravers who want nothing but to feed and can’t ever be at peace, and the Horatio who are clones of one very, very vain man.  Each race has its own win conditions as well, which mixes things up nicely for replayability. The art is well done and the aesthetics are very nice.  You can also set the difficulty and game speed and how many different empires there are in your galaxy.

Once you load a galaxy, you start with a base system that contains a few planets, but only one of which is colonized.  You’ll also start with a scout ship and a colony ship to begin dipping your toe in the waters of exploration with, and you can travel along space lines from system to system.  One of my favorite parts so far is, perhaps unsurprisingly, combat, and eventually you’re more than likely going to have to do it.  In fact, I’ve never played a combat system like Endless Space‘s in a video game before.  It was refreshing.  Unlike, say, Homeworld, you don’t control your units directly, maneuvering them into the best position and keeping them close to their support ships, etc. Instead, every combat sequence is broken down into three stages, long range, medium range, and melee.  Each phase has a weapon type that does more damage if used during this stage.  Furthermore, there is a prologue phase before your attack phases, and an epilogue phase which lets you stare at the victor for a few seconds before combat is exited.  You’re required to choose your battle card before the phase begins (so choose your long range card in the prologue, for instance).  The enemy fleet does the same, and the cards are compared for each phase, which last for about 10 seconds or so.  Depending on the combination, both side’s cards can be applied, or one side can counter the other sides.  It’s basically a glorified rock, paper, scissors game, but as you unlock more research and level up heroes (I’ll get to that in a moment), you have more to choose from.

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You can also create unique ships in the game that are tailored to your specific gameplay.  By doing a bit of research in the Expansion and Exploration research tree, you can unlock basic ship hulls. Then, by putting research into the Galactic Warfare tree, you can unlock offensive, defensive, or support modules that you can fit onto your ship.  The ship customization is loads of fun, and I could spend hours just trying to make the best possible ship type.  You can even use Dust to retrofit ships that have already been created.  The options are pretty varied here, because not only can you use the auto upgrade feature to let the game give you a standard loadout for whatever hull you’re working with, but you can also create multiple copies of the same hull, but with varying loadouts.  You don’t have to use the auto upgrade feature, though, if you really like to customize your ship classes.  I seemed to spend the most time trying to think of the best name for each new ship type I created!
The game’s economy is called Dust, which is used to both fund things such as rushing a ship into production rather than waiting five turns, healing a hero, paying a hero his salary (subtracted from your account at the end of each turn), or using special abilities in combat.  Once you’ve gained enough, you can recruit a hero from the academy and assign them to a fleet or a system, depending on their natural bonuses.  If you’ve played Master of Orion, you’ll feel right at home. Heroes will level up as you use them, and perks will branch out as you begin to specialize.  They get more and more expensive as they level up though, so they can be a hard pill to swallow at times.

Each system has a couple of planets that can be exploited individually, but the act of exploitation takes a number of turns and is put into the system-wide queue.  That means that you don’t have to micromanage individual planets, but you still have a degree of customizability depending on what type of planets you have.  For instance, there is a perk that will increase population on small and tiny planets, and if you have a system that contains a tiny planet and a large one, you’d want the perk on the planet it works for.  Going into the single planet menu allows you to drop that upgrade into the system queue and it automatically takes effect once it’s finished.  There are also system advantages that will give a bonus to your entire system, and they also are ‘constructed’ via the system queue.

The research tree in Endless Space is massive.  And I mean massive. There are four branches, Galactic Warfare, Diplomacy and Trading, Exploration and Expansion, and Applied Sciences.  You’ll need to spread out your research to really maximize your chance at success, but some races will use one tree more than others.  There’s a ton of stuff in there, and I spent a long time just reading over the bonuses that you could learn.  One thing I really liked is that if you absolutely knew that you wanted, but it’s deeper into the tree, you can just click it and it will queue up all the necessary research to get you there.  That way you don’t have to keep going back to the research tree every few turns to continually it.
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If there’s one thing that 4X games have trouble with, it’s presentation and ease of use.  I honestly have never used such well thought out menus and interface in a 4X game before.  Amplitude Studios really put some thought behind the game in this regard, and it seriously pays off.  You can assign heroes directly from the system menu, or you can do it while in the hero menu.  You can get a glance at what’s being developed in a system just by hovering your mouse over it.  When something finishes, whether it’s construction, development, or research, you’re given the option to click one button and go into the correct menu to build the next ship or research the next technology.  It’s seriously well done.

The only fault I can find with Endless Space is that the benefits you gain from researching specific things aren’t always very well described.  It took me quite a while to figure out that what I needed to research to have any diplomacy options, and I only found out by accident.  I could’t think of anything else that I saw that wasn’t well done.  This game is only in alpha, and I’m blown away.  The music is top notch and sounds like a sci-fi soundtrack should.  It’s electronic, but not annoying.  It’s got some synth, but it’s not repetitive.  When you’re in the main galaxy screen, the music is calm and soothing.  When you go into combat, the music ramps up the intensity.  It feels right.  If I could critique the game in one place, it’s that I feel like you spend too long advancing your turn rather than actually DOING anything sometimes.  According to the development cycle, one of the things Amplitude Studios is planning to do is fine tune the first 50 turns, so hopefully that will help.
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The game is for sale on right now at a reduced price.  Amplitude Studios have done an amazing job, and they’re not even done yet.  Multiplayer and more races are definitely coming, plus who knows what else?  These guys deserve your money if you enjoy 4X.  If you’ve never played one before, I can’t think of a better game to start with.