One of the advantages of gaming's increasingly fragmented digital landscape is that the cracks allow niche titles to poke out into the spotlight, and so it proves with Endless Space. An entry in the under-served 4X strategy genre, it asks you to explore, expand, exploit and exterminate as you build up a galactic empire, seeking domination through scientific knowledge, military might or financial success.
If you've played any of the Civilization games then you know what to expect, as Sid Meier's long-running classic series remains the most popular example of 4X strategy. With its sci-fi setting, Endless Space sets its sights on less well-known inspirations such as Master of Orion and Sword of the Stars, though. In the early going, this dedication proves fruitful and fans of the genre will be satisfied. Over the long haul, however, there are just enough hiccups to keep it from attaining true greatness.
Right from the start, Endless Space defines itself by a willingness to bend to accommodate the player. Not only can you tweak the expected parameters such as difficulty and game length, but you can dictate the size and shape of the galaxy you'll be playing in. This in turn dictates the sort of stars, and by extension the kind of planets available for your conquest.
There's a pleasing layer of cosmological truth to the game as well. An old galaxy, filled with red giants and white dwarves, is a tougher proposition than a younger galaxy filled with healthy yellow suns in the prime of their life.
There are eight factions to choose from, offering the expected range of specialisms. The United Empire is your default option, an expansionist human race with corporate aspirations and a nod in the direction of Frank Herbert's Dune, while the Pilgrims provide a more spiritual, religious motivation. The Sophons are scientifically minded robots, while the Sowers are more geared towards infrastructure.
"It's all horribly addictive. You're compelled to keep clicking that "end turn" button one more time, inching closer to an interlocking web of different goals, watching your domain grow and spread."
The Borg-like Cravers fulfil the role of ruthless military conquerors, with the honour-obsessed Hissho mapping neatly onto the Klingon archetype. There are stranger options too. The Amoeba are a gelatinous race of high-minded explorers while Horatio is a species made up entirely of cloned copies of a vain megalomaniac. Each comes with their own strengths, weaknesses and head starts in various areas, and if none appeal then you can customise them yourself, drawing on over 90 traits to skew the game to your exact tastes.
From there, things unfold much as you'd expect. You start off with just one star system to your name, and a handful of spaceships. Use the scout ship to explore nearby stars, and colony ships to spread your empire to the planets orbiting them. Military ships can be combined into fleets of up to seven craft, and assigned to defend any system from attack.
Production works at a system level, rather than planet by planet, as you amass more ships and improvements for local environment and income. Certain planets play host to mineral deposits, rare flora or ancient artefacts from the Endless, the forerunner race that drives what thin back-story the game has to offer. Diplomacy comes into play once you encounter other species, and you can trade knowledge and resources in exchange for useful alliances. All bring you closer to realising your aspirations for universal supremacy.
It's all horribly addictive. You're compelled to keep clicking that "end turn" button one more time, inching closer to an interlocking web of different goals, watching your domain grow and spread, star systems turning from neutral grey to your chosen faction colour as you go. If you've played and loved any previous 4X strategy game, it's a familiar kind of joy and one that Endless Space indulges quite shamelessly. In the early going, at least, the hours will fly past.
Things are different in a few key areas, however. The research tree is split into four rather than following a single flow. Military improvements sprawl in one direction, while technologies that help with colonising, diplomacy and commerce have their own off-shoots.
It's an interesting idea, if not always successful. Partly this is down to the science fiction setting, which can make a lot of your progress rather abstract. The Civilization games endure because there's an intuitive progression. We instinctively understand how the use of alphabet leads to education which leads to social improvement. It's harder to understand how and why "Directed Plasma" will grant access to something called "magnetic pulsion", let alone how that is a prerequisite for mastering "Evolved Construction", which somehow allows you to get your hands on "decay shells".
Brief text descriptions do little to explain what the benefits are in real terms, so you're often left guessing at what will be most useful, and the four-way research split means that it's hard not to neglect whole swathes of the potential technologies on offer. Specialising in any single area leaves you dangerously exposed, and so the game tugs you towards a less satisfying jack-of-all-trades route to power.
Combat is another area where a fresh idea stumbles in the execution. When military action rears its bloody head - either through your actions, or those of your rivals - you can opt to have the battle play out automatically, in which case you skip to the results, or manually. Manual combat control breaks down into three phases. You can assign a card to each phase - long range, medium range and close range - which will determine how your fleet behaves.
It's an interesting idea, but it doesn't really change the fundamental rock, paper, scissors nature of combat in 4X strategy games, and instead lends proceedings a somewhat random feel. The influence of these decisions is so small that it really only impacts encounters where the combatants are evenly matched, and that almost never happens.
Also complicating matters is the fact that the game's admirable customisation options mean that there are no distinct unit types. You can research and construct new ship designs, but you have complete freedom to kit them out with whatever armaments and defences you want. Of course, so can your enemies, which means that you'll never be entirely sure of what you're going up against. The only way to guarantee victory is to pour the majority of your resources into constantly improving your weapons technology and retrofitting your fleets at considerable expense to ensure they don't get obliterated by a sudden influx of suspiciously well-armed pirates - the game's barbarian equivalent.
And while the game goes out of its way to offer pop-up windows explaining most functions and icons, there are too many moments where things aren't working the way they should, and the game offers no explanation. Why can you colonise one Arctic planet but not another? Why are certain star systems inaccessible? The answers are there, but working them out yourself distracts from the core gameplay and encourages an unfortunate detachment from a game already lacking in personality.
This opacity begins to dominate the game as you reach turn 200 and beyond, with the AI often acting in inexplicable ways as the need to keep track of dozens of star systems and fleets tangles up with the juggling act required to get the most out of your research. The game is streamlined enough that micromanagement is never a chore, but there's a creeping sense that you're increasingly reliant on luck to prosper.
4X strategy thrives in the long term, so it's a real shame that it's deep into the game that the minor flaws in Endless Space's mechanisms make themselves most keenly felt. Strategy fans shouldn't be too discouraged though. The foundations laid here certainly don't lack for depth or entertainment, and it's perfectly possible that a few tweaks and balances in the right places - either from the developer or the mod community - will elevate Endless Space into the genre great it deserves to be.