Squaddies by the Fireside: Endless Space

“I’ll bounce that one back at you,” continued Pete. “As someone who has played more of this type of game than me over the years, what were you expecting when you booted it up for the first time?”

Now it was Alex’s turn to reach for the iPhone and control Recorderbot. The projector flicked on once again, this time showing a picture of Endless Space itself. Alex stood and gazed at the image.

“Honestly, the most intriguing part of the package was seeing if the UI wasn’t too good to be true,” he said, turning to Pete and pointing to the image on the wall. “While we’ve seen some solid utilitarian user interfaces, I hadn’t seen a 4X game with such an elegant interface before. It’s just gorgeous and restrained and so very well-conceived. There’s an intoxicating holistic aesthetic on show here with Endless Space. It’s pretty special. I hope I don’t sound like too much of a shill when I say this is a real coup for the 4X subset.”

“I felt the same way, actually,” said Pete, laying his glass down on the small table next to the chair. “‘Elegant’ is a good word to describe the UI. It’s simple and straightforward to use, and gives you access to all the information you need rapidly. My only problem is the fact I’m typically playing at 1920×1080 on a 40-inch TV, so some of the text is very, very tiny! A UI scale option would be nice.”

Pete nodded at Recorderbot and tapped another icon on his iPhone. The panel covering the projector slid back into place, and a pair of speakers emerged from the sides of the robot’s body. Majestic drums and distinctive-sounding ethnic instruments filled the lounge. A thumping from upstairs indicated that the sound had disturbed someone, so Pete rapidly fumbled with his phone to reduce the volume to little effect. Eventually he resorted to kicking Recorderbot, who fell silent.

“One thing that struck me quite early on was the Battlestar Galactica-esque aesthetic,” said Pete, composing himself after the interruption. “Particularly with regard to the music. Do you know if that was deliberate or not?”

Alex laughed. “I’m pretty sure cues were taken, and why not?” Here he sat back down in the chair. “We’ve probably got Paul Ruskay to thank for that, by way of Bear McCreary, in effectively evoking the grandeur of the cosmos via exotic instrumentation and luscious synths.”

Alex closed his eyes for a moment, as if pondering, picturing things in his head.

“But it’s not just the music,” he continued. “Manual fleet battles have that trademark ‘quick cut and zoom’ cinematography that we saw in BSG, and it works rather well in spicing up what is ostensibly fleets broadsiding each other.”

Alex tapped yet another icon on his phone. Recorderbot put his speakers away, and a mysterious black-and-yellow antenna-like device emerged from the top of his head. Shortly afterwards, the darkened Squad lounge had disappeared entirely, to be replaced by what looked like the endless depths of space. In one direction, a colourful nebula; another, a barren-looking planet. In the distance, two fleets of ships drew inexorably closer to one another; the image shifted and moved towards them, even as Pete and Alex remained seated in their chairs by the fire — the only still-visible remnants of the Squad’s lounge. The pair of them watched the unfolding battle as one side took a clear advantage and eventual victory.

“I think one of the failings of the 4X genre is that, more often than not, we simply don’t get a well-defined or particularly strong infusion of ambience,” said Alex eventually, turning away from the smouldering wreckage and back to his companion. “The last 4X to wow me in that respect was Imperium Galactica 2: Alliances, a decade ago. It was a different kind of propagated atmosphere to that in Endless Space, but it fostered the same sense of quiet rumination amidst claiming slivers of the cosmos.”

Pete nodded. “Ambience is an important part of the experience for me,” he said. “4X games are by their very nature quite abstract and have a fairly high barrier of entry; to be well-presented in the audio-visual department helps make you want to scale that wall.”

He drained the last of his gin and fumbled in his pocket for a cigar. He offered one to Alex, who politely declined with a wave of the hand.

“This is one thing the Civilization series has done well over the years, actually,” said Pete, attempting to light the cigar, his clumsy movements betraying the fact that he didn’t do this very often and was more lighting it for show than anything. “While Civ IV‘s graphics weren’t that impressive, for example, the period-appropriate music certainly gave you a feel for the era you were in.”

He puffed on the now-lit cigar, coughed out a perfect ring of smoke, then continued. The hologram image surrounding them faded out for a moment, leaving the pair in almost total darkness, then faded in again to show another battle — this time around a cracked, chaotic-looking lava planet.