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I enjoy learning new things — just as I imagine (and hope) most of the rest of us do, too. But, also as I believe the opinions of most others to be, I don’t particularly enjoy mundane tasks. I don't want to study text bubbles or cross reference data spreadsheets. Discovery should be intuitive, right? I think we can all get behind that. So, I want to like Endless Space. I do, honestly. But Endless Space feels like homework sometimes.
The 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) PC game set in distant and randomly generated star systems is dense enough on the surface that it defaults to tutorial mode when you begin your first match. This means that whenever you click on something for the first time, a static pop-up will appear on screen, which fills with little blue circles with even smaller numbers inside them that point to explanatory text on the right side of the window.
This teaching method inevitably slows down your initial momentum, and the immediacy that a video game demands nags at your side. One part of you just wants to screech forward and start playing around while the other knows you should be a good kid and learn about the different systems. Endless Space needs something like this, to be sure, but I wish developer Amplitude Studios had found a better way.
I've always found this to be an issue with getting friends and family to play a new board game. Like whenever I ask about finally breaking out Space Hulk, I get the confused-puppy look. They’re just not interested in putting forth the effort to understand the multitude of minutiae in the rules set. Sitting down for however long it takes to pore over pages and pages of text isn't appealing. The payoff is just too far away.
Space combat takes a cinematic approach.
If you can make it through the Endless tutorials, I congratulate you. Yes, I read through the first one. But by the second, I was skimming. For the third, I was just clicking through them, not even reading. At the next one, I just shut them off. I couldn't be bothered anymore, and it was way too much information to absorb in 20 or 30 minutes, anyway. Unfortunately, this need to study doesn't end there.
The tech tree is arguably the cornerstone of any 4X game. Without progressing your understanding of science, you'll inevitably fall behind your opponents. It doesn't matter how quickly you can pump out military units if your adversaries can cut them to shreds with more advanced weaponry. And the more intuitively that the developer lays out this web of branching knowledge, the more clearly you'll be able to make important decisions that shape of the course of play.
But the alien nature of tech progression is the primary stumbling block that these space-themed 4X games (of which we’ve seen several recently, including Sword of the Stars II and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion) must overcome. Endless Space suffers from a need to study available options at length, which just slows down the experience.
When I mouseover Concrete Artifacts, a luxury resource, I see that I need Personal Shields to harvest them. What sense does that make? Looking at the tech tree, I'm not immediately sure where the required knowledge rests.
This continues with the names for everything researchable. N-way Fusion Plants lead to Neural Robotics, which leads to Nonbaryonic Particles and then Rudimentary Telepathics. I'm sure this is all laid out logically, but I feel like I need a Ph.D in astrophysics to understand how these concepts are related. At least I can mouseover each one to see the effects. I have to do this. I have to take time out from playing the game to study. Otherwise, I'm just blinding selecting new things to discover.
While the implementation of splitting the tech tree into four distinct branches is a rather novel concept, in practice this means I have more knowledge I need to cram. Applied Sciences, Galactic Warfare, Diplomacy and Trading, and Exploration and Expansion — each is its own, independent journey, making such necessary progression feel like four times the work.
The tech tree.
Endless Space should interest me. I’m a Civilization junky, and even though I think the latest entry in that series, Civ V and its expansion Gods and Kings, is a bit of crap, I might fire up a game and play through the ancient era. You know, when you still have some interesting decisions to make.
Civilization works because it’s so thematically familiar. Teching to Writing in order to establish embassies in other nations’ capitals makes sense without the need for further explanation. I intuitively understand that hooking up my iron resrouce is necessary to build Swordsmen. Researching Mathematics to build Catapults to lay siege to an enemy city is obviously a good option because I know how past empires have used such weapons to conquer the known world.
I'm not arguing that Endless Space is needlessly complex, only that these types of 4X games set in the cosmos have a huge hurdle to overcome in the lack of inherent understanding of concepts and relationships of systems. When playing feels too much like mundane work, it starts losing its appeal.
And Endless Space has a lot of really good ideas. Ship management and construction is clear and concise. Heroes, whom you can assign to fleets or galaxies, add a little flavor. So do the battle cards that you can play while in combat, making this portion of the 4X more than just watching numbers dwindle down. And vital information about your faction is easily visible and reachable (Firaxis, take note!). But unfamiliarity still plagues this entry in the subgenre, and unfortunately, you're seemingly left on your own with a thick stack of books to rummage through.