The 90′s were a gold mine for turn-based strategy games, giving us everything from Civilization to X-Com on the PC, and gems like Final Fantasy Tactics on the Playstation. One of my personal favorite franchises from that era was the science-fiction “4X” (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) epic, Master of Orion. Instead of marching bronze-armored phalanxes across the grassy plains of yore, you were guiding fleets of custom-designed battle cruisers through the cosmos, seeking out new life, new civilizations, and boldly CRUSHING THEM as no one had crushed before! The sequel was even better than the first, no minor feat that, and set the bar high for all strategy games that came afterwards.
But perhaps Master of Orion 2 did too good of a job, because quite frankly, nothing else since has come even close. Master of Orion 3 was a anger-frothed disappointment on every possible level, and the various other space 4x strategy games over the last decade or so have just failed to grab my attention.
This brings us to Endless Space by Amplitude Studios, which has thankfully broken this trend of failure. This game has grabbed my attention with a hypnotic grip stronger than titanium steel.
Even in the beta version, this game was getting nearly everything right, and once it was officially released, the final polish gave it an absolutely perfect shine. Where to begin? Should I talk about the interesting lore surrounding the playable races? The lush visuals, where you can see how a fully-developed colony looks from space? The elegant UI, where everything I need is easily at hand? Everything about this game not only works, but comes together like a seamless jigsaw puzzle.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to me is how the game approaches space combat. If you want, you can just have the numbers for your ships crunch against the enemy’s numbers with instant results, and for contests where the outcome is a forgone conclusion (say, one scout versus five Dreadnoughts), this is quick, easy, and very useful. But if you want to play out the combat, there’s a quick way to do it that gives you a nice graphical space combat while keeping things smooth and fun.
Space combat is divided into three phases: long range, where missles are most effective, medium range, where lasers dominate, and close range, where kinetic weapons are king. Before each phase starts, each side plays a “card” from their hand, representing their strategy for that phase. These strategies represent various buffs to your own fleet and/or debuffs to the enemy, such as “EMP Pulse” to debuff the enemy’s missle accuracy, or a card that overclock your laser array’s damage. But the real kicker is that cards can be cancelled out, depending on what the enemy plays, rather like a rock/paper/scissors game. If you happen to pick a card that cancels out the enemy’s, not only do you get the benefit of your card, but it’s even stronger than normal, and the enemy gets no benefit from their card at all. This way, tactics and luck can sometimes overcome numerical or technological superiority. As you advance through the tech tree, new tactics open up, and high-level heroes running your armada have access to even more powerful tactics cards.
I called this game “hypnotic” above, and I stand by that. Every veteran of turn-based 4x strategy is all too familiar with “one more turn” disease, where you find it impossible to pull yourself away from the computer, muttering “just one more turn and I’ll quit for the night” as you click Next Turn again… and again… and again. Endless Space must somehow be dusting my computer controls with Essence Of Addiction, because once you get started playing this game, you will find it very, VERY difficult to stop, and you’ll be having far too much fun to care. Even if you do manage to finish a game in galaxy-ruling triumph, the ability to customize your alien races and galaxy layouts adds nigh-infinite replay options, and you’ll find yourself diving in again. The good news is that games of Endless Space are relatively quick compared to other 4X games, especially because of the streamlined-without-sacrificing-epic-fun space combat.
If you like science fiction, if you like strategy, and especially if you’ve been gnashing your teeth over the lack of a decent Master of Orion sequel — your wait is over. This game is an incredible value at $29.99, a genuine Threat To Your Wallet And Spare Time, and I can’t wait to get back to my home computer to finish my current game.