Have you ever leaned back in your chair at a laser light show, the music swelling as the Crab Nebula forms above you and thought, “man, if only I could play a video game on this thing?” Well, Amplitude Studios has a game for you. Endless Space combines the aesthetic of a planetarium with the addictive gameplay of controlling the galaxy, one click at a time.
An appreciation for astronomy aside, what really matters for enjoying Endless Space is a passion for turn-based games like Civilization, Alpha Centauri or Age of Wonders, 4X titles based on the principles of “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.” While any gamer will drop their jaw at Endless Space’s nebula-gazing aesthetic, it takes the right kind of player to sift through the game’s winding tech trees and occasionally numbing pace.
In strategy titles where sessions last hundreds of turns, campaign modes are often formalities. Endless Space agrees, and eschews story mode in favor of customizable skirmishes and online multiplayer. Game settings can be tweaked to an obsessive degree, and you can even customize your own race and save it for later use. This approach certainly makes good on the endlessness the promised by the title, but the eight disparate races and their intriguing descriptions had us wishing we could learn more about them.
One problem with Endless Space is that most of its variety, and personality, is found on stat sheets. Until you become intimately familiar with the nuances of the different Space races, you could honestly forget who you’re controlling. The United Empire, a race of capitalistic Terrans, and the Amoeba, a race of giant, surprisingly diplomatic unicellular organisms, both look the same when traveling amongst the stars. They may have different victory conditions, but the closest you’ll ever get to one of their colonies is hovering above the ionosphere. It made us feel rather cut off from our people.
Perhaps this is the way a calculating space ruler should feel, but it makes for a somewhat dry, “just-click-next-turn” experience. Space battles are essentially a complex version of rock-paper-scissors, but bring you close enough to the action to watch in eager anticipation as fleets deploy chaff and broadside each other with sprays of ballistics, then move in close to exchange explosive charges. It smacks of Battlestar Galactica mixed with a WWII naval battle, and while it’s fun to watch at first, soon we were content to let them play out on autopilot without spectating.
Of course, it’s possible to conquer the galaxy without launching a single ion torpedo, and the game’s true excitement comes from finding new ways to optimize your empire. Different types of planets make for unique advantages, provided you’ve unlocked the technology to exploit them. We found an addictive and satisfying strategy in aggressively expanding our empire by building up our population with surplus food. Pumping out the ships to ferry our people, our colonies soon dotted the galaxy. And having maintained friendly relations with our interstellar neighbors, we soon opened our borders for a bustling xenotourism business.
Still, Endless Space is a game you’ll only like if you’re really into strategy games, and its woefully dry tutorial isn’t going to produce any converts. First-time players are treated to long-winded, text-only explanations of the game’s every facet. Simply walking the player through a few turns would’ve been much more effective, and far less painful. While the game features some nice voice-over introducing each species, not making the player read so much “how-to” should have been a higher priority, especially since the species backstories are ultimately just window dressing, due to the lack of a campaign.
Still, audio is definitely a strong suit for Endless Space. Getting back to the planetarium aesthetic we discussed, the soundtrack would go perfectly with an electric light show. It’s synthy and soothing, but upbeat enough to keep you alert. The writing is equally charming. Sci-fi fans will spot the occasional Kurt Vonnegut or Dr. Who reference, and the game expresses its difficulty settings with a wit that will make any history buff smile – describing Easy mode, the game says “If this was Wellington, we’d all be speaking French.”
As a turn-based space sim, Endless Space is essentially preaching to the choir. Its pacing, minimal story and lack of ground-level interaction isn’t going to bring any new gamers to the fold (lightning-fingered StarCraft fans, stay far away). Luckily, the game gets big charm out of its aesthetics and what little writing it does have, and the core gameplay is balanced and nuanced. If you still have Alpha Centaurai on your hard drive, or keep yourself up at night with “just one more turn” in Civilization V, prepare to lose some sleep with this pretty space sim.