Developer: Amplitude Studios
Genre: 4X Strategy
Release Date: N/A
The 4X genre is a personal favorite, despite my not being very good at them and their general scarcity these days. Their mixture of exploration, territorial expansion, resource exploitation, and extermination puts as much emphasis on the exhilaration of discovering unspoiled land or scientific breakthrough as it does on crushing heedless foes with a massive well-trained army. Their dimmed presence on the gaming stage is a shame as it limits the number and scale of the virtual domains to which I can lay claim, and my megalomania chafes under the Earth’s troposphere when there is an entire universe out there to conquer. Fortunately, some studios are still testing their mettle to see what wilds they can come up with for gamers to discover—and destroy. Well, maybe not destroy, maybe out-research, or outpace, or simply win everyone over with a charming smile backed by euphoria-inducing pills and machines that generate whatever their hearts desire.
It’s that variety that makes the games so compelling. The subgenre’s pedigree speaks volumes, home as it is to such classics as Civilization and Master of Orion, and more recently, to a splendid real-time variation from Ironclad Studios, Sins of a Solar Empire. It’s not only the sense of wonder that the titles engender that makes them so addictive, but the feeling of being the omnipotent ruler whose decisions will be what leads their people to glorious victory or utter ruin. How else can one feel when they get to tell an entire civilization what religion they must adhere to, or that it’s time for an entire planet’s population to suck it up and live with the fact that their new home is going to be terraformed into a ball of flames with streams of lava flowing around their shrinking domain. (Complaints be damned: I need that production perk.)
In Amplitude Studios’ debut title Endless Space, players get to take on the role of one of eight factions vying for galactic supremacy in just such a universe. Each faction is in search of artifacts left behind by the most powerful of the ancient civilizations, the Endless. It’s amidst the ruins of the Endless that a new matter known as Dust is discovered. Dust quickly becomes the universal currency as its ability to shape itself to whatever the user imagines makes it the most prized resource of all the species. Collecting the most Dust is only one way to victory, though. There are seven victory conditions in total, and those who opt out of the mercantilism route can go for a win through diplomacy, expansion, science, supremacy, wonders, and/or by having the highest score. As of the Alpha build, all of the conditions are optional, allowing for players to opt out in or out of any number of conditions. Choice is great, but there’s nothing quite like letting it all ride and see where the dice fall; plus, it’s what leads to getting emails from friends cursing at how the damned pacifist beat them by being the first into outer space (see: Depoter Nick, Gandhi, Civilization IV).
What’s most exciting about Endless Space isn’t just its potential but how well it’s already coming along. The Alpha build made available for this article was already bursting with promise. Even at this stage, the game has a lot to offer. The first two items that immediately impressed me were the concise tutorial—though this might well change into something fancier than screenshots—and the slick interface. The screenshots with numbered descriptions are simple enough to understand after the first read, and the menus fall into place as naturally as one would hope. Some streamlining is undoubtedly in the cards, but as it stands now, the multitude of options are never more than a click or two away, which is a fine start considering how esoteric nature of some of the more recent interfaces.
Only five of the eight races are present in the current build, and only one of those, the United Empire, is playable. The Empire is a militaristic faction, and their utilitarian ship designs and hardnosed faction perks serve as a good introduction to the myriad systems. As 4X titles go, the game is all about exploring the galaxy, finding and colonizing planets, researching the proper technology and techniques to settle down and harvest the planets’ resources, and then swatting back any greedy scaled hands or wandering tentacles that get too close.
The starting position tends to be a suitable system for a fledgling empire. To help get things going, a colony ship and a recon ship sit in orbit at the ready to populate a nearby planet or to seek out better fortunes. The planets come in a variety of types, and during my 15-some-odd hours, I ran across eight: arctic, arid, desert, jungle, lava, ocean, terran, and tundra. They can also have additional attributes that affect a variety of factors, such as acid rain and geothermic activity upsetting the population and slowing down production. Planets not only vary in type and size, but also in how many colonists they can support. If the player finds that their starting planet is filling up, or if there are better ways to make use of their labor within the system, shifting colonists to another planet is as simple as dragging and dropping a small icon into an available slot.
There are four primary resources to make note of whenever looking to set down roots in a new location: food, production, research, and money. Planets can also house luxurious exotic goods, some of which are necessary for certain craft modules and can be quite valuable. Even better, if the player happens upon the only planet with a certain resource and can hold on to it, they will receive a pre-turn cash bonus that increases every few turns. A final determination, at least initially, as to whether a planet is worth settling is if its exploitative action will benefit the empire; one of the four main resources can be harvested based on the planet’s type, allowing a starving faction to set itself right by farming on a terran world or increase research by setting up base on an arctic one. As more research items are unlocked, even more factors come into play, such as terraforming, discovering new resources, and manufacturing and policy upgrades.
The player doesn’t specify what is built on each planet but instead guides production for the entire system. For example, a supermarket can be built at a per-turn cost, but its happiness benefits might mean the difference between a content, taxed population and one on strike. These system unlocks cover a variety of areas, from opening up extra trade routes to increasing defense capabilities. Systems can also have their entire production focus reshifted to focus on a primary resource, though this is mainly for emergencies or quick projects since there is a heavy cost tradeoff and it holds up that system’s production queue, which means no upgrades or new ships during that time. Planets, and any moons orbiting them, might also house some of the Endless’ artifacts, which add a nice bit of mystery since they aren’t easy to come by.
Securing the colonies will become increasingly important as the other factions start eying well-running colonies near their border. At this stage, the AI is pretty erratic, leaning towards the aggressive side, so it could be tough going. According to some of the developer comments, the framework is in place, but they will be doing a good deal more work in the near future to get it more in line with their expectations. Diplomacy is available but not very helpful, so I look forward to seeing how Amplitude tackles a facet so many other studios have struggled with. But until then, it’s up to the military to save the day.
Combat takes the form of fleet duels in non-interactive cinematic battles. Victory is determined by fleet composition, any admiral traits at play, and any chosen Battle Actions. Battles are broken up into three different phases that are determined by range (close, medium, and long), and at the beginning of each phase the player’s chosen strategy Battle Action is matched against their opponent’s. Battle Actions, displayed as cards, are available in several categories and offer a variety of perks and tradeoffs, such as 20% HP repair or +40% kinetic damage, -20% antimissile interception. Choosing the right weapon type to focus on is also important because each combat phase corresponds to one of three weapon types: rockets (long), beam (middle), and kinetic (melee). The types will fire regardless of phase, but they are most effective when launched at the appropriate distance. Playing a strategy too soon will negate much of its benefits, such as setting up a beam-centric defense at long range. The Battle Action categories also check one another, allowing for such instances as a player’s Offense action to best their opponent’s Engineering action and so reap the benefit of enhanced effects.
Admirals can also play a decisive role. From time to time, heroes become available to recruit from the Academy. Each hero has their own backstory and traits, and will eventually have access to purchasable and especially potent Battle Actions. A hero can either be sent to administer a system or to command a fleet. What’s especially nice about heroes is how flexible they are; they have proficiencies that make them natural fits for each field, but they also have access to traits for either, allowing for an administrator to have some combat perks and vice versa. The traits that become available vary from increasing happiness and productivity to lowering an opponent’s accuracy. These additional traits become available as heroes attain higher levels. As with the ships, they gain experience with service, but in their case, leveling comes with points that can be spent to attain one of the unique perks. Heroes are limited in number and are very important, as their presence can turn a fledgling system into a thriving powerhouse just as effectively as they can fend off an advanced armada. Only three heroes can be hired at this stage, but the interface looks to accommodate more, and I’m eager to see if their personalities play a greater role in the faction interactions.
As fleets engage, the game turns into a scene not unlike those from the recent Battlestar Galactica revision, with a (somewhat less) shaky cam following the action from multiple angles as kinetic weapons pound hulls and torpedoes rip apart smaller ships. I was initially skeptical about such a hands-off approach, but I ended up watching dozens of battles, rooting for my fleet as Battle Action gambles paid off. Combat can be auto-resolved as well, but that also means not being able to select a Battle Action, which is a risk I rarely took.
Making sure the fleet is up to the task is also important—especially so in the Alpha, given that there isn’t a retreat option. Each faction starts out with a colony ship and a scout ship, as well as the ability to create corvette class vessels. As progress is made in the various research fields, new vessels types come online. Their differences come not only in the expected stats, such as speed and hit points, but in their tonnage capacity and modifiers. Corvettes have a -20% modifier for defense and support modules while destroyers offer a -20% modifier to weapon modules. Each vessel type has a weight limit that acts as a limit to the number of modifiers that it can utilize, which makes for a direct and easy-to-use system of optimization by mixing and matching.
New designs can be renamed so that multiple designs of the class can be kept for future use. There is also a handy ‘retrofit’ option to upgrade every ship in a fleet to the new design, as well as an auto-upgrade option for those who want to update a design across the board. Multiple design types will also be necessary because of the scarcity of some of the resources that can lead to a faction cornering the market, which might bring operations to a grinding halt if a backup design hasn’t been prepared in advance. It’s not a nuts-and-bolts, nitty-gritty operation, but it’s simple and effective.
Unlike Galactic Civilization or Sins of a Solar Empire, invasion doesn’t involve up-close bombardment or sending in the troops (or at least not at this point); instead, a fleet is sent to dock in the orbit of an enemy’s system and blockades until ordered to invade. Once the invasion begins, a meter indicating ownership begins to shift as the invader’s forces take their toll. This might be fairly easy when taking remote outposts as new settlements don’t confer system ownership to the colonizer; claiming a stake in a system is only the first step to having a full-fledged, influence-spreading colony.
Of course, conquering the elements or other species will require a hefty amount of research. Endless Space offers plenty of chances to outpace rivals in a variety of scientific fields: Galactic Warfare, Applied Sciences, Exploration and Expansion, and Diplomacy and Trading. Each has branching paths of dependent technologies that represent nodes that lead to other nodes, representing more advanced breakthroughs. Research has several nice features, including an auto-queue that will select any prerequisites whenever a more advanced item is desired. There’s also a text box for a handy search function, allowing for such broad topics as ‘mining’ to be entered, with results offering quick access to that item’s spot on the chart. Despite the specific branches, the research goals are often related to other categories by nature of the game’s mechanics; for example, a certain drive will be needed to access a planet whose resources can only be properly exploited by a method learned elsewhere.
Even at this early stage, there’s a lot to do. I haven’t even touched on some of the side features, such as the events that pop out of nowhere to shake things up, including the time when my forces were crippled after some radicals bombed my fleets. Progress seems to be going well all around, and I can’t wait to see how everything shakes out, from system defenses, to the cinematic combat camera, to the other races (about which very little is known at this point). But in the meantime, Amplitude Studios is running an interesting program that will allow players an early chance to have their voices heard by voting on ideas (with greater participation giving greater weight to votes) and track the game’s progress. Fans of 4X titles will want to bookmark their page—I have.
Official Site: Endless-space.Amplitude-Studios.com