From the Oxford English Dictionary entry for “epic”:
adj. 2 Heroic or grand in scale or character:
- his epic journey around the world
- a tragedy of epic proportions
adj. 2.1 informal Particularly impressive or remarkable:
- That gig last night was epic
“Epic” is an adjective that gets bandied about with irksome regularity these days; just this morning I overheard a colleague rhapsodising that the fish and chips he had last night were “epic”. So it’s a nice change of pace to actually be able to use it appropriately.
Endless Legend is a 4X strategy game (of the ilk of the Civilization series) made by a firm called Amplitude Studios, and set in a science-fantasy universe, with asymmetrical victory conditions and unique player factions. It is, quite frankly, epic, both in the sense that it is grand in scale, and in the sense that it’s really quite impressive.
So, those of you who aren’t familiar with the term “4X” when applied to strategy games, it stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate. The basic gameplay, as in the genre’s illustrious grand-daddy Civilization, puts the player in charge of a tribe of people building their first city and exploring the world. Now what makes Endless Legend unusual is its setting. At first glance the planet Auriga is a fantasy setting, with the standard fantasy races, a smattering of wizards and magic swords, etc. However, look a little deeper (as you must to win the game) and it turns out that the “magic” in Endless Legend is fossil technology, made up of the lost relics of a departed space-faring civilization called the Endless. This ties the game into Amplitude’s other games Endless Space and Dungeon of the Endless…
The first decision a leader makes (after building a world to play on) is to choose what type of empire they will be leading, and Endless Legend has some really cool choices.
The Vaulters are humans who start off in a city built around a shrine built around a crashed spaceship. Playing as the Vaulters favours investing heavily in research, winning battles with superior technology, and careful housekeeping your stock of Strategic Resources. All their cities and buildings are sunk into the ground and connected by tunnels. The Vaulters favour the play-style often derided as “turtling” — slow expansion and perfectionist defensive construction.
The Ardent Mages are S&M wizards, who inflict extreme pain on themselves, and each other, as a meditation practice. They’re good at research, as are the Vaulters, and an Ardent Mages player can cast spells which influence the development of their cities and alter the conditions during battles. They live in cities that resemble huge Buddhist temples, and almost all their military units cast spells of some sort.
The Roving Clans are nomadic merchants travelling on cities on the back of gigantic insects. Their “settlements” are collections of tents surrounding wherever the insect has chosen to rest, that move when the bug does. They are forbidden from declaring war (and a lot of their military units suck a little bit), so they are forced to seek victory by other means, however, they are straight-up awesome at trade.
The Wild Walkers are elves who like building (predictably) beautiful verdant cities, and are the closest that Endless Legend comes to having a “generic” faction with no unusual traits. They start off with the best archers, and later on add shamanic mages and giant tree-men to their armies.
The Broken Lords (my favourites) are chivalrous and heroic undead knights, who angst about the fact that they have to drain the life-force of sentient beings to continue their own existence. They’re awesome at fighting, and have an affinity for the Dust resource. Their cities exhibit Gothic architecture, and contain many statues and plazas.
The Drakken are a race of dragon-like creatures who revere the memory of the long-gone interstellar civilization who uplifted them into sentience. They build vast columnar towers, with aeries atop them them to land on. They are the masters of language and diplomacy, but their military isn’t bad: they have relatively few units, but those units are very powerful.
The Necrophages are insectile monsters, and are good only at breeding and fighting, and win battles by swarming over their enemies. They build gigantic city-hives that strongly resemble the nests of wasps. Actually, they’re quite wasp-like in a lot of ways. They suck at diplomacy, research and trade, and have to rely on their superior combat abilities to win the game.
Finally, the Cultists of the Eternal End are religious robots who excel at recruiting members of Auriga’s minor factions. AddAltModeR thinks they look much cooler than the other factions, because, apparently, she’s obsessed with robots… who knew? They’re better at city-building than the other factions, but can only build one huge city in their home region, rather than one in each region they control. This makes the experience of playing as them remarkably different from the normal 4X experience.
There are also “minor factions” small tribes and civilisations who live in villages scattered around the map. They can be hostile and dangerous, but if they are pacified — by force, or by doing quests for them — then they will add their population to the workforce of the nearest city. Pacify villages in regions controlled by your cities, and you can assimilate that faction into your culture – providing you with a unique new unit type for your armies, and some sort of global economic benefit.
Assimilated minor factions can patch holes in your tactical capabilities — if you feel that you really need some archers in your Broken Lords army, then get pally with some orcs or other bow-users. However, in my experience of playing this game, I find that it’s better to adapt your tactics to what your faction is good at, and use the minor factions for their economic benefits.
Cities and Resources
The city-development in this game is very satisfying: you can put one city in each of the Regions into which the map is (arbitrarily) divided. As the city’s population grows, it’s governor can choose to have it expand into neighbouring hexes of the map. Cities can exploit all the resources generated by land within one hex of their boundary, to obtain Food (necessary to keep the people fed), Industry (an abstract measure of material and energy usable for making things), Dust (this is both the money resource and the resource used by wizards to cast spells.), Science (necessary to advance along the various paths of the technology tree) and Influence (which is spent to make diplomatic actions). City development can be automated, and you can tell your AI city governors what you want them to prioritize. As far as I can tell, AI governors don’t make any real howlers, so they’re reasonably trustworthy.
There are some really nice things about the ways that the resource system works in Endless Legend: firstly, Dust is both the money-analogue resource and the magic resource, meaning that spending money to “buy out” construction projects faster doesn’t have such a jarring disconnect between game-strategy and real-world economics. It always mildly annoyed me when playing Civ II as a teenager that a sufficiently rich civilization could instantly buy-out buildings – making things takes time, regardless of how much money you can throw into the project, because money isn’t magic. However, in Endless Legend money is magic, or more to the point, magic-stuff is money. Of course, since in the world of Endless Legend, how much magic you can do is limited by how much Dust you have available for your use, it makes perfect sense that it would be the best analogue for money: the peoples of Auriga can’t make Dust, just harvest it from their environment, it’s distinctive and hard to fake — what else can cultures who start at Iron-age levels of technology make that looks like glowing golden glitter? Dust can be used for just about anything with the right spells to control it, so it’s precious in and of itself. It makes an ideal currency. When you “buy out” a construction to have something built instantly? A Wizard did it!
There are a couple of other types of resources that can be found in the game: Strategic Resources and Luxury Resources. The former are rare metals that can be mined to forge improved weapons and armour for your troops. The latter are hard-to-obtain natural products that add to your citizens’ happiness, as well as providing small boosts to aspects of your cities’ economies.
Research and Development
With all games of this type, it’s possible to move your society up the technology tree and advance from living in caves and thinking that fire is magic, to living in orbital habitats and becoming an Arthur C. Clarke quote about the nature of magic. I take issue with the idea that Hollywood has that technological development is some sort of linear path that starts with fire, and ends with ascending to become a being of pure thought, untethered by mortal concerns such as yadda yadda yadda. Big digression here, but I like the way that the Mass Effect series plays with this trope: all of the galaxy’s big civilizations got their success from finding and using mass-effect relays left in or near their home systems, and reverse-engineering the technology they found there. This means that “novel” science has atrophied as they race along the technological paths left among the ruins… paths deliberately left there by the Reapers who are at least as nasty as their name implies.
However, I find the way that technology progresses in 4X games in general to be a little bit annoying. For purposes of making the game playable, the head of state (i.e. the player) chooses which technology they would like their scientists to invent next, from a list that depends on what pre-requisite research has already been done, then the scientists gather science-resource until they’ve got enough to pay for that technology. Seriously, what? Also, in most of these games, all civilizations develop along the same (Western) lines, unless you push down one branch of the technology tree ahead of the other, leading to a mess of anachronistic weirdness. (In Civilization II, Polytheism is a less advanced “social technology” than Monotheism… Western cultural chauvinism much?) I recall playing Civ II, or possibly FreeCiv… or another game of this type… and putting a man on the moon before having developed electricity, powered flight or steel. Again, seriously, what?
In Endless Legend, this works mostly the same way, except that the planet Auriga is littered with highly advanced technology in a state of ruin. This makes the anachronism stew that Civ-type games tend to serve up taste a little less bitter. It’s highly possible that advancing your society’s technology will be done by a mixture of engineering research and archaeological exploration. Therefore, anachronisms abound: it’s possible to get Tier 3 weapons of a given type before Tier 1 (successive tiers are superior but more expensive), but things cost a lot more to produce if you don’t have the pre-requisites.
This makes sense to me: you don’t necessarily need to know how a thing works to copy it if you have the tools and materials, but having the underlying understanding makes your copies so much better — and easier to produce. Of course, technologies found in the ruins can set your society on a wild new course, and even result in a surprise victory. Of course, each of the playable factions has some proprietary technologies that only they can develop, which might be researchable, or might be obtainable only through performing a quest.
Faction Quests and Side Quests
Quests are a big part of Endless Legend, and they are the thing that makes it stand out from similar games. Each faction has a big storyline quest, and they are also little quests that can be done on the side, and medium-length “Lore” quests that feature the minor factions. The quests are one of Endless Legend‘s real strengths; most of its features are simply well-done examples of 4X-game tropes, but the quests feel really different from everything else in the genre.
Inevitably, the player won’t always see eye-to-eye with computer-controlled or human-controlled competitors. This means that battles will occur. Endless Legend‘s turn-based battle engine is quite detailed, with units slogging it out on the same map that the cities etc. are built on, which is quite nice. Terrain type and elevation is satisfyingly relevant; clever use of an isthmus can bring smaller armies victory over larger ones.
Units gain or lose morale (and thus effectiveness) depending on various dynamic events. This isn’t the most impressive part of Endless Legend, and sometimes the AI could use a bit of work, but it’s certainly adequate. You can set your generals to fight any particular battle for you if you don’t feel like fighting it, and choose to watch the battle or just see the result. This is quite nice for when your 8-strong army of dragons encounter a single injured Vaulter marine, and you’re 100% certain what way the battle is going to go.
When units are given orders and those orders are no longer possible, (for example, targeting a unit that dies in between the order being given and executed), the AI tries to figure out what to do. Ranged-combat units usually do something reasonably sensible, i.e. shooting another nearby target, but mêlée specialists can choose their targets strangely, and might run back and forth all battle achieving nothing without careful guidance.
To Sum It All Up
Endless Legend is huge; there’s enough content to last ages, and a lot of it is squirrelled-away to reward exploration. It’s quite quirky, with a lot of features that I haven’t seen in other games of its type. The varied factions and minor races that populate Auriga all add a little something that makes the game more special. I can whole-heartedly recommend it to people who enjoy 4X games. If you enjoy these games primarily for the battles, though, you might find the combat AI slightly annoying, particularly when targeted enemies die unexpectedly, and your units waste their turns. All in all, this is a minor gripe, and I’m vastly enjoying Endless Legend.
Next week sometime I’ll follow this post up with a review of Shifters, the latest Endless Legend DLC, and a quick précis of the game’s other DLC.