There’s an episode of The Pinky and The Brain where, completely drained of ideas after endless nights of attempting and failing to conquer the world, Pinky inspires Brain to build a paper-mache replica of the world, lure people onto that fake planet with free t-shirts and… well, I won’t spoil the rest. The two mice toil to create this new planet, which looks like ours, but is matted down with newspapers. It’s not until Brain concocts a special seed that the illusion is complete and this new ChiaWorld (this was the mid-nineties, forgive them) becomes a spitting image of our planet, at least from the surface up.
It’s bizarre to me that after twenty years, with all of the insight, technology, and money we have, no one has been able to replicate the charm and presentation of Master of Orion, the greatest galactic conquest simulator ever built. Oh, people have made larger and prettier galaxies, they’ve ramped up the simulations, they’ve added multi-player, but no one can replicate what really made that game tick. Despite simplifying the approach, Endless Space sadly joins a vast belt of ChiaWorlds that are close in appearance, but don’t adequately replicate the experience.
The Ghost Inside…
It seems unfair to compare Endless Space to an old series of strategy games, but with so few entries in this genre, it’s both a pleasure that a game like this is being made and for the most part, it’s a solid title, but it’s also a torment that it falls short. If you’ve played other 4X games, this will make complete sense: you start off with a single colony and through exploration, research, and militaristic means, you seek to conquer the galaxy. The pacing is turn-based, so while it seems exasperating early on, as your empire grows you’ll cherish the time to make the ever-growing lot of decisions. Unlike similar titles, Endless Space attempts to keep things on the easy side, something that matches the original Orion, with plenty of features from the Orion sequels that old fans will pick out quickly. You play one of eight races (including a custom slot for hardcore players who want to attempt every permutation) and play in galaxies of a variety of shapes and sizes against a variable number of foes. Each star has planets you can colonize and each colony can be sculpted to suit your needs.
Endless Space works pretty hard to reduce the learning curve, something that even long-time players will need a little help with from time to time. As you make it through each new interface screen, the game tries its best to hold your hand and explain how the game works, but the point-by-point breakdowns can quickly tire as you’re tempted to blow through it all and try to figure it out on your own. The real issue comes in what the game doesn’t explain. In the games I played, my progress was halted by wormholes, which in other games are easy shortcuts to other distant portions of space, but serve as arbitrary barriers here. The game doesn’t explain that you can’t go through them, it doesn’t explain why you can’t go through them, and when you’re granted access to visit the worlds on the other side, it’s through a random event you have no control over.
Expansion is easy enough: you build colony ships and send them to systems with habitable worlds (which expands as you research more hostile environments) and then plop down outposts that, over time, grow to become full colonies with their own sphere of influence. Solar systems share a single production queue, influenced by the colonies in the system. Much like the original Orion, colonization and troop transport (especially important for invasions) are handled through additional modules to your ships, which the game (even with tutorial assistance) doesn’t explain either. I had to alt+tab out of the game to figure out how to invade an enemy colony early on. Ship design can bewilder, but upgrading designs (aided by an Auto-Upgrade tool) is a cinch, allowing you to retrofit old designs quickly. Solar systems are connected by transit lines, which allows for easy choke point-based strategies, but restrict your expansion. In a bizarre move, transit lines to unexplored stars fade out before they reach the destination, making it irritatingly difficult to explore as you try to pick out those new stars from the decorative particles of the galaxy.
It’s super easy to move in and out of the game’s interface. Right-clicking anywhere brings you out of every panel so you’re always on the move, like the rush of restarting in Geometry Wars. The graphics are snappy and the art direction tasteful, but you’ll spend so long looking at space art and standard gray interface boxes that you’ll pine for moments where the game can put up some original artwork. If I must nitpick, the Aqua-ish sheen on many panels (like that in Galactic Civilizations II) and the constantly-twisting solar system view are extremely irritating. But, again, nitpicks.