The market for turn-based strategy games is surprisingly broad. Beyond the varying levels of quality, there is always concern about the gameplay presentation. Many games tout fantastic features and deep gameplay, only to bury them under an unintelligible UI. We recently checked out an alpha build of an upcoming turn-based game, Endless Space.
Even in its current state, we must give credit to the developers for having put some thought into Endless Space before trying to cram in all of the rules and content. The game takes place in a randomly generated galaxy in which you play as a particular race of beings, with each race having strengths and weaknesses. Much as in other games of the genre, your goal is complete victory, whether it's through diplomatic channels, scientific discovery or sheer military might.
Importantly, the UI does a good job of conveying all the information that you need while at the same time not becoming lost in the minutiae. The overall game map shows the galaxy, essentially little more than travel routes connecting different star systems. You can double-click on a system to bring up a screen listing the system's planets, and you can also double-click on a planet to see its characteristics. For any systems that you own or planets that you have colonized, you also get management information on the pertinent screens.
Information is spread out into the spaces where it is pertinent, with easily accessibly summary screens available if you want to get a more universal body of information. Practically every piece of information in the UI has an accompanying tooltip that explains the item in question. The only missing tooltip was such that it took an e-mail to the developers to figure out that the wispy link between systems signified a wormhole that required research to unlock. It's hard to fault an alpha build for missing a tooltip here and there, though.
There is still a ton of information to be gathered on any screen, despite the polished presentation. Each planet produces an amount of dust, food, industry and science. Dust is sort of a miracle resource, an element so capable and valued that it has taken over as the galactic currency. Every planet is also of a particular type, such as lava or terran, has a particular size, and could have a hidden cache of valuable materials or a strange phenomenon affecting it. For example, some planets have great soil, which makes food production higher, and others have psychotropic chemicals in the atmosphere, so your scientists are far slower in their research.
The science tech tree is broken up into four branches. The research trees allow you to research ship advancements, new modes of planetary exploitation, techniques to subdue a planet's anomalies, and colonize increasingly harsh types of planets. Research operates very similarly to other games, with your overall science output going toward the selected research goal, and the division dictates how many turns it takes to unlock.
At the outset of Endless Space, you only have your home planet in your home system to call your own, and the system may or may not be composed of multiple planets. To expand to additional planets in a system, you need to have more than one population unit on all current planets and know how to colonize the target planet. By clicking on the "Colonize" button, it queues up the act of taking that extra population unit and sending it to the new planet, and that can take a few turns. To colonize a different system altogether, you need a colony ship, which comes packed with a population unit of its own, so you can use it to get a foothold in the system.
The planetary exploitation functionality lets you set a planet's mode, so to speak, which boils down to gearing it toward the production of one of the four resource types. At the start of the game, you have a basic mode for each, but further research makes them more effective both in terms of their bonus amounts as well as where the bonuses are effective. There are also system-level modes that can be turned on, such as turning half of a system's production into wealth. These allow you to fine-tune the operation of the entire system, and though the planets have individual outputs, it only begins to matter at the system level when they are tallied up.
Each system has a production queue that contains any changes made to a planet or system as well as ship production. Much as is the case with research, your production speed is based on the system's industrial output; some systems can churn out a ship in two turns, but another might take significantly longer. In the current build, you cannot reorder a queue, and that can be problematic at times, but with many items taking a significant amount of turns, you usually don't need to have more than two or three items queued.
Ships and everything involving them are some of the more interesting things about Endless Space. Each faction starts off with a trio of ships that it can produce: a colony ship, a well-rounded combat vessel and a scout. While these were initially good enough, they quickly become outclassed as additional technology is researched — especially since hostile empires do the same. You can modify existing templates or create your own through an interface that feels like something akin to MechWarrior 4 if you ignore the lack of particular slots. Each ship template has a tonnage limit, and each module that you can put on a ship has a weight limit. Some ship types, such as destroyers, provide for weapon modules taking up 20 percent less tonnage when used, but generally, ship design is pretty similar between ships.
You essentially pick a "chassis," for lack of a better term, and then bulk it up to your liking. You could mount a ton of kinetic weaponry or some missiles and leave just enough room for an engine and some armor. You could also elect to make a juggernaut that has multiple layers of protection but minimal weaponry in a bid to outlast the opponent or make a really fast ship that can scout the stars and look for enemy positions. Though systems are linked by simple lines, their relative distance is important, as different ships can travel different amounts and may not always end their turn within a system.
Ship combat is another interesting aspect of Endless Space, with the combat displayed in a 3-D battle comprised of five phases. The arrival phase shows both fleets closing in on each other, giving each time to square off and make its first move. The middle three phases are the outer, middle and melee sections, which contain the actual combat. Missile weapons work best in the outer phase, as both ships are pretty far apart; beam weapons work best in the middle phase, and kinetic weapons reign supreme once the distance has been closed in the melee phase. Watching the ships square off is pretty entertaining, though in the alpha build, ships lacked damage effects, and it was sometimes difficult to tell what was occurring.
These battles are not solely automated, however. For each of the three combat phases, you must choose an action card for your fleet. These cards are sorted into different categories, such as sabotage and engineering, with different types countering others. Each card also has a series of effects, such as increasing damage output of a particular weapon type or reducing the enemy fleet's accuracy. Even without knowing their fleet makeup, you may want to debuff their accuracy in the outer or middle phases if your fleet has nothing but kinetic weaponry, but alternatively, if you have the numerical advantage, you might fire during all three phases to take them out — even if you aren't as accurate. Your ship construction is still important, and there's often not much a single ship can do against a full fleet of five, but it is nice to have the ability to automatically resolve a fight or have some input in how a skirmish plays out.
Though the game has an included tutorial, it amounts to little more than a full screen of information dumped on you at once. For conventional actions, this makes learning somewhat difficult, as you can't try anything until you've closed the screen, so you just have to hope you've absorbed it all. It could benefit from breaking it up a bit, if not highlighting pertinent areas in the active UI. It's not that the tutorial isn't informative, but its delivery is a non-interactive information overlay, not a proper means of assistance.
The alpha build certainly had an expected level of rough edges and bugs, but despite them, it is easy to see that the developers of Endless Space have a pretty clear goal in mind. The game has enough depth to allow for countless strategies and methods of play, and there are nearly as many options for designing your own ships. More importantly, the game already has a level of polish that makes it easily approachable because it presents just the right amount of information. The game contains a few interesting features that make it worthy of keeping it on your radar, and it is impressive in how coherently it all works together. For a turn-based strategy game — and an alpha build to boot — that's no small feat.
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