Those who know me are aware of my love for the Civilization game series. At a later date, I’ll go into detail about what about the long-running Sid Meier franchise makes it the model empire sim.
I also love science fiction. In particular, the kind of far-future, galaxy-spanning sci-fi that examines how human culture will evolve when we populate planets orbiting distant stars and encounter alien species vastly different from our own (in appearance and behavior).
While Civilization does a superb job of modeling the evolution of human culture from the late Neolithic era to the present, its forays into the future—1999’s Alpha Centauri and Civilization: Beyond Earth from earlier this year—have been limited in scale to human colonists on a single, distant world. Instead of exploring the interactions within a network of systems, the games are planetbound. They duplicate the model of earlier Civilization games and update the terrain and technologies. Aliens critters are substituted for barbarians. And it’s not that this can’t make for an interesting challenge; Alpha Centauri is one of my all-time favorite games as well because the human factions and planet they colonize are so unique and well realized. But it has been disappointing that, other than a mildly interesting third party mod for Civ IV, there have been no attempts to do a space empire-scale 4X Civilization.
Déjà vu all over again
The 4X formula was established long ago in games like the original Civilization (published back in 1991, itself based loosely upon a board game from 1980). You begin with minimal population, military and technology and start conquering territory and developing your empire. While population centers in Civilization are cities, in Endless Space are star systems. Instead of exploiting map tiles, you choose planets based on what resources they provide and which surface types you can currently colonize. (Harsher climates, such as frozen or lava, require special technologies.)
Just like in Civ, your planets provide food, production, research and money. Just like in Civ, food piles up until the population grows; production piles up until whatever you’re building (units or improvements) is finished; research piles up until you make a new discovery; and money just piles up.
Just like in Civ, certain technologies reveal strategic and luxury resources on the map. Strategic resources are needed for certain units (ship modules, in the case of ES), and luxury resources keep your population happy. Both are useful for trading with other empires. Happy populations make more stuff, unhappy ones make less.
Part of me wished there were unique resources that are found on only a single planet, and not just because Frank Herbert’s Dune is my favorite book. The potential for interesting conflicts—military, diplomatic or economic—over control of such a resource is just too great to leave it out. There are random discovery events in the game, as well as wonders to discover (another detail borrowed straight from Civ), but they’re not quite as interesting as, say, the spice melange. In the Dune universe, spice isn’t simply a valuable commodity, and it’s not a symbol of power … it is power itself.
The tech tree is slightly more complex in ES, branching out in four directions, but there don’t appear to be any dependencies like in Civ: if you want to research straight to A-Entropic Weaponry or Sustainable Supercities, you can do that. It’s a little unrealistic, but as all the technologies range from speculative to completely made up, I can forgive.
Diplomacy is also nearly identical to Civ: you can declare war or offer peace, and trade resources with other factions. The interface isn’t nearly as charming as Civilization V‘s animated leaders, though. I’m not deep enough into the game to tell, but it doesn’t seem like the diplomatic options are as robust; something like Civ V‘s World Congress, with vote-buying and haggling over resolutions, would be cool.
Endless Space is not simply a re-skinned Civ clone. If it was, I probably wouldn’t still be playing after a week. The game adds some features that take advantage of the deep space setting, and improves on most sci-fi 4X games’ cluttered interfaces. These qualities are enough, in my opinion, to make the game’s borrowed (oh, let’s not lie—shamelessly stolen) gameplay an advantage: any Civilization fan can easily pick up the game and learn it in ten minutes. Think of it as an expert Civ V mod and everything’s fine.
While Civilization has Great People who spawn periodically and give your empire advantages, they’re little more than highly specialized units who, more often than not, get spent building wonders or obtaining technologies. Endless Space goes a step further and provides heroes with specific attributes who can be assigned to fleets or star systems. Using experience points, the player can “level up” heroes and add skills to their repertoire, making them more valuable (and expensive), but also adding a welcome roleplaying element to the game.
ES also borrows a page from Alpha Centauri‘s book by integrating unit design. Where the units in SMAC (Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri) were a selection of infantry, ground, naval and air vehicles, in ES you can build custom spacecraft to suit your navy’s style of combat. New technologies open up larger hulls, bigger weapons, and tougher defenses, as well as fun special systems like fighters, bombers and shock troops. Sadly, there aren’t much beyond military modules (except the colonization mod, which is enabled at the start), so fleets are limited to military roles only. It would have been interesting to be able to build commercial vessels, exploration craft, generation ships or other types of units.
But, luckily, because the developers made combat the sole focus of fleets in Endless Space, they also rewarded players with an expanded battle simulation. Nothing too elaborate, mind you: you choose three tactics for long, medium and short range combat, and then watch was your ships duke it out with the enemy in a nicely cinematic fashion. It’s not Homeworld, but it’ll do.
Close enough for jazz
In the end, I’m playing the game and enjoying it. It fits right into the Civilization-shaped groove in my gamer brain, and scratches the sci-fi space empire itch. Sadly, the game suffers from the same problems seen in most 4X games, such as the difficulty of obtaining reliable intelligence on other factions. This is especially a problem in space empire sims; you build your infrastructure and construct a well oiled economy only to have a giant space fleet appear seemingly out of nowhere and blow all your carefully designed stuff to hell. The AI is absurdly aggressive at times, so one is forced to air on the side of hawkish caution and maintain a strong fleet. This is something of a divergence from Civ V where it’s possible (though certainly not easy) to overpower your rivals economically.
Endless Space will serve my interstellar conquest needs until my own 4X space empire sim, Transgalactic, gets off the ground. I may even take some design hints from the game … and not feel too terrible about it, given its own reliance upon older, grander game franchises. There’s plenty of sharing going on in games these days, and it’s usually the designer who can put together the best mechanics in the most efficient and innovative ways who sees the most success.
Anyway, back to my empire: I’ve got star systems to conquer and space pirates to crush.