So, as I mentioned might happen in my post about Warlock, I broke down and bought Endless Space.
For the unaware, Endless Space is the first game from Amplitude. Amplitude is a new, independent PC game developer focused on increasing customer-developer relationships through the GAMES2GETHER initiative. Endless Space is, itself, a 4x strategy game that generally models itself on the Master of Orion family of 4x games. If you know your space 4x, then Endless Space plays most like Galactic Civilizations II, from Stardock. Endless Space also has multiplayer support (yay!), but I'll get back to that....
For those less familiar with the sub-genre, basically, you develop your first planet or solar system. Colonize new planets/solar systems. Research new technologies. Raise and spend taxes. Engage in diplomacy with other powers. Fight those powers militarily. And, hopefully, you conquer them all and win the game.
To tell the truth, Endless Space doesn't do a lot to revolutionize this formula. Almost every major mechanic of the game has been in the other mainstays of the genre. In terms of combat and war, Endless Space plays a lot like GalCiv 2, in particular. You design your ships through a similar process. You research three different kinds of weapons and three, parallel, kinds of armors, and you use these weapons as necessary, depending on the threats you face. Also like GalCiv 2, combat is more or less automatic. You watch it unfold through a short quasi-cinematic cutscene, with the results depending on the decisions you made prior to combat.
However, unlike GalCiv 2, you can have -some- impact on the outcome. Each battle is split into three "phases." During each phase, one of the three weapon types is uniquely effective. Additionally, once per phase, you are given the choice of using a "card." Cards basically represent strategic plays you can make. For example, you can play cards that will, for the length of a phase, increase your accuracy, decrease your opponents shields, increase repairs, etc. etc., while your opponent receives the same opportunity. Also, each card has a type, with certain types being capable of blocking other types. It basically adds a layer of rock, paper, scissors dynamic on top of the card system. Although cards are not enough to change lopsided battles, they can spell life or death for more balance battles.
Outside of combat, the major contribution Endless Space makes to the genre is its interface. That may seem absurd.. but only until you play Endless Space. Seriously, -everything- feels right. Smooth. Comfortable. Intuitive. Like Butter. Even little things demonstrate the investment put into this. I'd find it hard to go back to older space 4x games after this. Also, if you're not sure what some sort of number or statistic refers to.. hover over it. Almost everything has a concise, helpful hint. If you're still confused, the tutorials do a great job of covering all the necessary concepts with minimal discomfort. You can basically master the interface and the basic mechanics in 5 minutes. It's very impressive.
There's also a "hero" system. Basically, your heroes function a lot like heroes in Distant Worlds Legends and the newer Total War games. You put them in charge of fleets or solar systems (depending on their capabilities), and they yield a number of bonuses for the object of their command. Military heroes buff your fleets' offensive and defensive power and open up new cards to employ during battle. Administrative heroes buff output of the four major resources (dust, which is basically gold, science, food, and labor), reduce unrest, and can increase the defensive capabilities of your solar systems. These heroes come equipped with different starting statistics and abilities, and they gain experience and levels as they are used, which allows you to add new abilities as necessary. Overall, it's adds a little spice and variety to events, but the hero system doesn't play a -huge- role in the game.
The game, other than the systems outlined above, is pretty much standard space 4x fare. The main unit of your empire is the "solar system," although planets have -some- micromanagement within solar systems. However, your solar system has a single production queue, through which even planet-specific advancements are built, a single labor value, a single food value, etc. etc. Planets are more akin to the resource tiles of Civilization than to cities themselves.
Different planets have different basic capabilities, based on your techs, advancements built, bonuses and maluses, the presence of special resources (or the lack thereof), planet type, planet size, etc. etc. There are a number of different planet types, although many require more advanced technologies to settle. Towards the late game, you'll also be capable of terraforming planets into different planet types. Eventually, you'll also be able to survey any moons as well, which may contain bonus features or allow for new kinds of exploitation.
Solar systems are connected to each other through space lanes, sort of like Sins of a Solar Empire. You cannot fly outside of these lanes until you research later techs. Even then, you travel much more slowly outside of the lanes. As a result, despite taking place in "Endless Space," spatial tactics tend to involve the seizure and protection of central solar systems. It definitely adds a neat tactical flourish although, as noted, this is hardly unique for the genre.
So, now that I've talked about it for a while, what do I think? Endless Space is good. Really good. And it has the room to grow into greatness.
I do have my complaints. As noted above, it feels a little generic at times. It doesn't do a lot to set itself apart. Also, the ending is pretty underwhelming. Every 4x developer (including Firaxis!) should play Civ 4 and see how a 4x game -should- end. There should be stats galore, a chronological, animated map of history, charts, etc. etc. Make it memorable. Endless Space, sadly, gives a very short (mostly unexplained) summary of your "points" and gives you an option to go back to the main menu.
On top of these, the rock, papers, scissors element of the card system seems a little unnecessary. I'm not sure why the strategy of the cards isn't enough. Also, since the computer seems to pick cards at random, it renders the card system.. rather random overall. I've taken to just quickly clicking a base selection of cards and hoping for the best. The card system could be more than this.
Also, the game just feels.. sort of empty at times. There's little character. The diplomacy, which isn't entirely implemented as of yet, feels too mathematical. None of it feels like characters are interactive.
Probably most damning, however, is that it's sort of a shallow game. None of the mechanics are incredibly deep or unique. None of it has been simplified or dumbed down, per se, but, still, the game just feels light at times. This could likely change during the months ahead, but it's something to consider for those interested.
However, for all of the negatives, it's very fun and dangerously addictive in its current -beta- state. The UI is fantastic, the graphics are good, and the game feels rather coherent and feature complete. Overall, it's quite impressive, even if it was being sold as a full release. It's a little simplistic and generic, sure, but it's also well-polished, addictive, and fun.
This is all ignoring the multiplayer components, which I have yet to sample. In any case, the fact that this game has multiplayer support is.. well.. very impressive. The game's UI, the simple mechanics, and the whole structure all feel well designed for multiplayer. I have no doubt that Endless Space's multiplayer could become very popular.
So, yeah. If you LOVE 4x games (especially ones set in space), consider trying the beta as it is. Even now, it's in a better state than Sword of the Stars 2 or Elemental. If you enjoy strategy more generally, maybe wait and see how it develops as it gets closer to full release. Amplitude is doing a great job of updating and supporting ES thus far, and I have a feeling this game is just going to get better and better. However, if you've played too many space 4x games in your life or if you just don't like the genre, skip this. It doesn't do anything revolutionary, and I doubt it will change any minds.