Review by foereaper
"A mixed bag but mostly fun"
Endless Space is a game similar to the first two Master of Orion games and other 4x space strategy games like Galactic Civ and Sins of a Solar Empire. It isn't perfect but it's better than it was at release and hopefully will get better based on feedback from players.
One thing to keep in mind is that there is a fair amount of micro-management needed if you want to succeed, you can automate colony production but it's not as effective as doing it yourself. It's turn-based so you choose what to do during your turn and then your choices are executed when you push the button, fleet movement, production, research and so on. There is one problem here and that is that AI fleets can move during your turn so it's sometimes hard to trap and destroy them. You can't move in the same situation so it's annoying.
To start a game you choose a race you want to play or make a custom race with positive and negative traits. You can also add some research in but it's all first-tier and can be researched with a few turns so I use those points elsewhere. Having advanced tech can let your small empire beat much larger ones over time so you can choose research buffs for your race or you can get discounts on social or military projects, boosts to fleet combat or heroes or you can make negative picks in most areas for additional points to spend wherever you like. Heroes can be hired as soon as you have the "funds" to do so, in the form of "Dust" you gather from your colonies in the form of taxes, in the same way many games use "gold". There are heroes to give boosts to colony in dust and research or food and manufacturing, as well as heroes for your fleets. You can level up any hero in a different role, to some extent, but it's best to pick a hero for the task you need filled the most. If you need a manufacturing boost (critical I think) and you don't get one from your initial 3 picks you can level another hero with some points in that field, then reassign him when he can be replaced. The best boosts for any given specialty are only available to a hero with that emphasis, i.e. Administrator - construction and food will get to pick better boosts than an admiral hero-type and a Pilot/Commander hero will not be very useful at construction or research. You can win without good colony heroes but they can make space combat much easier. One trick is to buy all three heroes (if they're good) ASAP if your economy allows, assign them to colonies at first and they get points every so often depending on colony construction, etc. Put those points into combat if that's the hero-type and by the time they see their first combat they'll already be pretty good.
There is a comprehensive research tree divided into four major areas, diplomacy & trade, weapons, construction and exploration (colony improvements, etc). Based on your race you also get some slightly unique research items but that is pretty minor so all races have nearly the same tech to research. You can specialize in a particular weapon type, guns/cannons (kinetic), missiles or beam weapons but you need to research defense against all three types and equip your ships accordingly as you never know what enemy fleets will use against you. Pirates almost always use guns/cannons. Missiles are weakest in that they only fire once every three rounds (or combat phase) while the other two types fire every round. A fleet of missile ships can destroy you even after they're destroyed though since the missiles still hit before battle ends but it's a costly strategy and it probably makes more sense to add missiles to your ships rather than specialize in them. Or to skip putting them in your ships at all.
Weapons also have effective ranges, missiles being longest ranged but with a delay of three rounds, the other two types fire at long-range but are less effective with guns being the least accurate. Beams are best at the middle range, guns at close combat range but by then many battles are already over. Combat cards - each combat phase you can select an overall stature for your fleet such as defensive, repair, offensive and so on based on tactics you have researched with some available at the start. The AI does the same which makes it a bit more effective overall than most AI's. If it picks a stature that counters yours it can cancel out your repairs for instance. Obviously at long range it makes more sense to counter missiles than guns if the AI has both equipped and save your boost to gun defense until closer range and this adds a nice level of tactical decision making. You can exploit this somewhat by researching guns or beams far in advance of your opponent and overwhelming his defenses but it's a gamble sometimes and the research tree only gives you missile defense with guns, gun defense with beams and beam defense is paired with invasion tech. So being advanced in guns means you're very weak against beams while strong beams means you're weak against missiles.
Strategy is confined to ship design and weapon payloads and which planets to colonize and how to specialize them. The second is key but sometimes the only available systems are not good and long delays are worse than less than ideal planets. Planets that seem to be terrible are often the very best for a particular specialty, such as Lava or Gas Methane, your colonists don't like them but they excel at construction. Keep in mind the only food that system gets is what it produces for itself, you can't import food but with research you can grow some food on most planets and you can always set the planet exploitation to food and you'll get some no matter what. At least one planet in a system with the food exploitation (preferably terran, ocean or jungle) is needed at the start. Pay attention and put your planets onto the best exploitation when you can since arid cranks out extra dust, barren does great on research and lava is best at construction. The more colonies and planets you have the lower your approval rating goes so be picky until you research ways to boost approval with buildings or luxury goods or empire-wide techs. Even moons are important as you can get tech that gives you extra dust or food based on how many explored moons are in that system and some have bonuses of their own to construction, research and so on.
Combat is colorful and interesting the first few times and each race gets different ship models which adds some interest but before too long you'll only play tactical combat so the AI doesn't forget to play a combat card to your advantage. You can't target specific ships for focused fire which is a poor design but the cards make up for that to some extent. It would be nice to target the missile ships first starting with the weakest so by the time Phase One ends they're all gone but you can't do that.
Ship types are also important as most give you extra space in one or more categories, extra weapons, more armor, more shields and so on. The largest ship has no bonuses but it packs in so much that a few of them with advanced weapons and defenses means you are probably winning or soon will. Initially you only have scouts which are weak but fast, you can improve them to fight pirates by dropping the scouting stuff or just adding weapons and defense but you'll soon want to move on to destroyers that can pack more weapons or cruisers that can carry extra armor and then get battleships for extra weapon space.
Eventually you come to planetary invasions, either you taking an opponent's or a pirate or opponent trying to take yours. The interface now shows you invasion power, the planet's defense power and percentages to let you know how long it will take to become your new system. Once you take it over the residents are unhappy but I haven't seen them rebel, you just have to wait until they come to your side and build as many approval boosting buildings as you can and of course defend the system. If the enemy comes back he'll retake it in one turn since they still favor him/her. Unless you can block access you need to leave a strong picket force to counter this. There are techs to increase invasion power and to increase planetary defense though nothing like missile bases or starbases, it's all done passively by the inhabitants once you control the skies.
When you finally win there is absolutely no reward, just a screen full of data about how well you did. No animation, no swelling music, nothing which is very anti-climactic if you've spent many hours to reach victory. This is probably my main gripe with ES and one that could be easily fixed but so far it's the same hum-drum as at release.
All in all, Endless Space is fun and replayable. Micro-management is reduced a lot compared to some similar games and there are some unique features that set it apart. Tactical combat is very nice to look at for awhile but before long it becomes tedious but necessary as left on it's own your fleet seems to make bad decisions. Patches have improved the game and hopefully that will continue. The learning curve is pretty steep but not as bad as some other 4x games. It's not half as inventive or fun as MOO 2 but it is better-looking with nice combat FX. Until someone just updates MOO 2 with better graphics and autobuild queues I think this is well worth the price.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 08/24/12
Game Release: Endless Space (US, 07/04/12)
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