Squaddies by the Fireside: Endless Space

“Let’s talk a little about that battle system, since you brought it up; it’s rather unusual, isn’t it? Do you think it works?”

“It’s certainly polarising,” said Alex, looking over his shoulder at the combat unfolding somewhere behind his chair. “The hands-off, phase-based system seems to either get a hearty thumbs-up or a massive yawn, if we’re to go by the forums. I do think it could do with perhaps a little fleet management or pre-positioning on the player’s part — possibly when fleets are first created, but to be honest, I like it a hell of a lot.” He reached into his chest pocket and pulled out a playing card, flicking it towards one of the fleets in the distance. A swarm of small robotic drones emerged from the fleet of ships, patching up the damage done by the enemy’s weaponry. Alex smiled.

“The idea of playing combat cards or actions for each of the three phases is great,” he said, turning back to his companion. “And especially when the options grow when a levelled hero is applied to a fleet. I just have to give credit to the ship design team. There’s an alarming amount of love I have for each faction’s look when it comes to their spaceships.”

The battle was over quickly; the side on which Alex had played the card quickly overwhelmed its opponents, and the all-but-undamaged fleet continued majestically on its way. The hologram faded out again, this time to be replaced by a galactic map, as if Alex, Pete and the fireplace were floating high above the galaxy itself.

“Let’s get down to it, though,” said Alex, indicating the map apparently floating several thousand light years below their feet. “You’ve booted up the game, you’re soaking in the music and the first game has just kicked off. What did you initially think, especially in comparison to other titles like Civ?”

“Let’s see,” said Pete, taking another puff on the cigar and again coughing. “There was an honest sense of trepidation, that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to cope with all the things I’d be asked to do. The fact you’re suddenly and rapidly bombarded with tutorial information on your first play didn’t help that fact, either. However, as with most things, a little exploration and experimentation paid off. I didn’t initially know how similar some of the mechanics would be to Civ, but that became apparent pretty quickly, which put me somewhat more at ease.”

The galactic map zoomed in rapidly, flying down to reveal a row of diverse planets orbiting a sun.

“I’m not sure if those static tutorials are permanent,” said Alex. “I hope they do an interactive tutorial module for the full release, but even then, the genre is really quite bad when it comes to teaching players not only how to play, but how to react to situations.”

Pete nodded, but said nothing.

“A real balancing act,” continued Alex, “and few have done a decent job of surmounting the issue of providing a tutorial that can cater for both the new recruit and the seasoned veteran. Which does bring up the next observation and question, and one that’s very much tied into the UI: Tooltips! I cannot for the life of me remember a game that not only had as many hovering tooltips as Endless Space, but such informative ones. How did they affect your first couple of games? Better than a tutorial in many ways?”

“Yes,” said Pete. “Tutorials are all very well and good –”

The hologram flickered and died, and the Squad lounge returned. Recorderbot made a strange farting sound and the lights on his face went dead. Pete tutted to himself, stubbed out his cigar, stood and reached around for the robot’s “reset” button before continuing.

“Tutorials are all very well and good, and the option for an interactive one would be a welcome addition, but tooltips allow you to explore the game and learn for yourself.”

Recorderbot chimed with the distinctive Mac startup sound. Alex looked at him curiously, but said nothing.

“They’re well-written and clear, allowing you to find out what each of those mysterious icons does,” continued Pete. “It allows the interface to have the visually-striking look of an icon-based system while still conveying enough information to the player to prevent them having to continually refer to the manual.”

“I think the most surprising aspect right out of the gate was that, for a then-alpha version of a game, it was not only stable as hell, but outside of diplomacy, was firing on pretty much every cylinder in terms of gameplay facets,” said Alex as Pete typed in a code on Recorderbot’s shoulder-mounted keypad. Pete nodded at him to indicate that he was still listening. “Every preview article I’ve read across the Net has said as much, which also makes for a refreshing change from this recent wave of Kickstarter projects where an indie developer or otherwise has yet to produce anything but a video and, if you’re lucky, a downloadable tech demo.”

Recorderbot’s face lit up again. Pete tapped a button under the robot’s chin, who silently trundled back into the corner of the room to shut down again. Pete slumped back into his chair.