Since X-Com was such a great remake of the original turn based strategy game, it got me looking into other often overlooked genres of my youth. In my early teens, I played a lot of 4x games – explore, expand, exploit, exterminate. Those that grew up in the same era as I did will recall great titles, such as Master of Orion and Ascendancy. Thinking about those games makes one wonder – if Firaxis can take a niche and somewhat antiquated genre and modernize it into a critical darling, winning game of the year awards left and right, then surely someone can or has actually done so with the 4x genre.
The concept of Endless Space is simple enough. The player is in charge of a star empire and needs to explore the universe, claim territory, research technology, and win the game. The best way to describe the game is to liken it to one of the Civilization franchise, only in space. However, each modern or even relatively modern 4X game is very heavily patterned after the original Master of Orion.The genre has a number of hallmarks that are common to the genre. First is the fact that the game is in space. Games can and usually start with the player in control of a single planet in a star system, and the beginning of the game is spent sending scout ships to neighboring systems in search of planets that can support life. Once these planets are found, the home system needs to construct a colony ship, load a number of citizens onboard, and sending it off to the new system, all the while building improvements in your home system to better the economy and your rate of research.
However, it is the middle of the game where things really take off and start to get interesting. One of the most enjoyable parts of these games is designing the ships that belong to your space fleets. The process of choosing a weapons and technology mix to go on a ship derived from the technology you’ve chosen to research is incredibly satisfying. Seeing ships you design trounce opponents in combat is incredibly awesome, and heartbreaking when they get destroyed. Though it does not build the level of attachment that one gets in X-Com, it does exist. The biggest and most interesting part is the mid-game where the player has to decide, based on his or her position in the game. Does one go for a technological victory, racing up the tech tree? Or is the player in the best position for a diplomatic victory, having befriended all of his or her neighbors?
The important, simple, question here is, “Well, how does Endless Space stack up?” The answer is decidedly less so. First, Endless Space is an independent game, and is a great accomplishment. However, there is something that is just missing from the game that is ever so difficult to put a finger on. The game meets all of the requirements of the 4x genre – almost all of the checkboxes are checked. The only real mechanical change is that of combat, where it has an interesting collectible card game aspect. Combat has three phases, where each side chooses a card that may convey friendly bonuses or enemy penalties – making the selection of cards a strategic, five option version of rock, paper, scissors.
When it comes down to the wire, Endless Space is a good time sink. A large number of hours can and will be spent learning the nuances of the game, and what optimal strategies will look like. The problem is that for some reason, the game feels more sterile than its predecessors. In the original Master of Orion, each race had a distinct feel to them, whereas in Endless Space they all feel sort of the same, with only some characteristic bonuses. The technology tree also suffers and feels like a checklist rather than a journey of discovery and the evolution of a race’s technology. Though Endless Space does have some faults, it fills the need of a modern title for 4x fans. It is a title that fans of the genre will get some enjoyment out of, but not a title everyone will want to play, especially when the first two Master of Orion titles are available on Good Old Games for six dollars for the pair.
Endless Space is available via steam for PC and Mac.