Puttering in Endless SpaceCategory: Strategy
So, one thought is dominating my mind at the moment. It's pernicious, but in a good way. Sounds strange? Not as strange as the thought “Wait, this is an alpha?” This about sums up my experience so far with Amplitude's “alpha” build of their upcoming 4X game, Endless Space. Although certain features, on reflection, are missing (what the heck is a Locust count, and where do I find it? Not implemented yet, but I can guess), it's distinctly not obvious, and the game is already playable, although somewhat tough and a little unbalanced. But still... this is an alpha?
It's perhaps not surprising, as the Amplitude team have some pretty interesting names attached. Romain De Waubert, Creative Director, has been in the business for 15 years, with some pretty nifty titles under his belt as either a lead or a producer, such as Battlefield 1942 and Call of Juarez. The staff also includes names like Mathieu Girard (GRAW, RUSE), Corinne Billon (Rayman), or Jeff Spock (Heroes of Might and Magic V), so it's a team that's already got quite a pedigree behind it. So, what's Endless Space like at the moment?
Considering the team thinks this is an alpha, it's going to have high expectations. Already, it's a solid space 4x title, with a distinct Master of Orion feel to it. Five of the eight proposed races are already implemented, and the differences in playstyle are already apparent. In one case, the Cravers, an entire path of victory is closed off, as they can't make peace with anybody. Another race, the Sophons, are obviously skewed towards a research victory, and there's also a bit of subtle humour and shoutouts in the game's lore. For example, I'm pretty sure the lore writer's a fan of Red Dwarf, because the Horatio race is a blatant shout to the episode “Rimmerworld”. Except, somehow, it doesn't feel out of place, because the artwork in the game sets a fantastical tone that allows such crazy concepts to appear normal, even acceptable. The closest comparison I have? Neal Asher's Polity. It's a crazy universe, with some silly things in it, but it all seems to make sense while you're playing it.
Trade and diplomacy aren't quite in yet, but the research tree is already fairly meaty (four branches of about 20 projects each), and the combat system is quite fun. Choose auto-resolve, and you get the standard “You lost/killed this many ships” screen you'd normally see in 4x games of this style. Choose to manually fight? It's a whole different kettle of fish. You get to watch your ships warp in, and can choose tactics for each of the three engagement ranges (long, medium, melee). Different weapons do better in different ranges, and similarly, picking the right tactic can have an enhanced effect on the battle. Again, it's not fully fleshed out, and the animations could use some work, but, good lord, it's still fun as all heck to play, especially with a hero in the battle. It's not too interactive, but it still has depth, and to be honest, I'd rather be watching the ships than flinging them through combat myself. It's relaxing... well, until my immaturely named “Deathbarge” destroyers get destroyed. Then I'm angry. The UI is spot on, and the heroes are at least vaguely interesting to me, which is a rarity in 4x games with them.
Oh, heroes? They're, in a way, the most limited at the moment of the game's features. Heroes can have a pair of classes, like Adventurer (sneaky git) or Pilot (works well with individual ships), and can be hired, paid, levelled up over time, then placed into either a fleet or a planetary position. Doing either gives their benefits to the fleet or planet in question, but at the moment, you can only have 3 at any one time, and there's little incentive to change heroes from the first 3 you settle on, especially since, as noted, they level up over time as well as through combat. Still, this is pretty much the weakest part of an already strong package, and it's definitely going to be interesting, seeing where the game goes by the time of release!
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I was, and on some level, still am a bit cynical about whether this can succeed. We've already had one depressing failure in Sword of the Stars 2, but there's something about Amplitude's excitement that's contagious. Take, for example, this from Romain de Waubert.
"We want the players to live an experience that goes beyond just strategy. You will live you own story of space conquest, with your own sandbox full of empires, technologies and unknown worlds for you to conquer.
The goal for the game to offer endless possibilities in how you play the game. You will be able to create your own faction from over 100 traits, and test it against other ones… a bit like a mad scientist trying to create the perfect being to rule the universe."
The logical, sensible part of my brain is yelling “not do-able”, but the remainder, the bit that wasn't just calculating strategy while playing this “alpha”? Wishes them the best of luck in climbing this metaphorical Mount Olympus, and bringing back a beautiful game that, while not revolutionising 4x games, definitely keeps the bar high. Amplitude is definitely a studio to look out for, and Endless Space is already looking good.