I’m taking the position in this review that the reader is at least passingly familiar with–and interested in–Civilization and its cadre of similar games. If you’ve got some wild oats simmerin’ and want to jump in even if that assumption doesn’t apply to you, remember: stack food.
The question is, which empire do you want to govern:
- Dragonmen? They’re men (and ladies, the game’s relatively gender-progressive) with dragon bits. Get a boost in social development from the start, and excel at diplomacy. Essentially, races aren’t eager to blow off folks with dragon bits, so they listen to you.
- Baroque mannequins you might see in Silent Hill? They’re eager to spread the Good News of their kind-of-robot gods, and excel at the equivalent of Civ’s Social track (they’re better able to shape and guide the growth of their cities and overall empire, focusing every score or so turns on different approaches to gameplay). Homebodies, though, so once you establish a city it’s where you’ll be staying. In compensation, though, you’re so compelling that you can just talk enemy villages into joining you.
- The merchant at the beginning of Aladdin? The nomadic race excels at trade, cash money, and mobility; the brutality of an all-cavalry army is difficult to overstate. This crew also has the ability to uproot and move their cities–a la Terrans in Starcraft–and those cities are giant beetles. You can also keep other players from using the market, and any time a player does make a transaction (buying or selling), you get a cut.
- Fallout-style Vault Dwellers, but with capital-R Religion? In addition to some neat travel tricks, they can pick one particular resource (titanium, say, or hyperium) and declare it their holy…stuff. Their units gain special bonuses when wearing material crafted from the stuff, and their cities excel at exploiting it, letting them race ahead in scientific discovery.
I was going to do some teaser-style business and leave it at those factions, but they’re all so dope…
- The wizards are the other science-inclined faction, only their science is magic and it’s largely obtained through pain. They can employ a variety of magical semi-structures, capable of altering the map to boost resource generation or affect military units. Their primary units punch opponents to death with magical fire, which ultimately feels a bit like the Protoss.
- The ominous bug-men, which fill the same broad strokes as whatever other ominous bug-men you might be thinking of. These folks are extremely combat-oriented, and have the ability to sacrifice a citizen to increase that city’s happiness. They’re also inclined towards predation, so you take a hit on your farm-based food generation but repurpose slain enemies into imperial resources.
- Elves. Normally I’m opposed to elves in most things, but ranged weapons are really powerful in the game, and the elves are one of the few armies who get a ranged basic unit. They’re fragile, but excel at rapid population and industrial growth. Their bonuses primarily key off of forest terrain–luckily, the game has a wide variety of iterations on the general forest concept, like the trees that are on fire.
- Finally, there are the sentient clouds of dust encased in armor shells, which used to be people! So far, these guys are my favorites; they’re a slow-moving army but you get to skip a few systems in the game. They don’t eat–can’t even see food in tiles that would produce it–and that would normally cut them out of population growth. They don’t heal between battles either. Instead, you spend cash money (dust money, technically) to reconstitute your troops and buy new citizens. This makes them very good at extracting money from the environment, and as long as you have the cash their armies are top-end survivable because they can fight at full efficacy every turn.
I really enjoy distinct approaches to the same central goal, so Endless Legend appeals to me above a game like Civ V (which I’ve sunk so very, very many hours into). In addition to a variety of the win conditions one would expect in a game like this–kill everyone, be incredibly technologically advanced–and some further iterations on them. I’ve not played the other Endless games, so some of the other conditions are new to me but probably familiar to fans of the broader series (same with some of the factions in this game, which I see pop up elsewhere). I appreciate, for instance, that killing all of the other factions is not the same as being the capitol standing, which is also not the same as just expanding to settle the lion’s share of the map. That map piece took me a while to get accustomed to, because in addition to the hexes which you navigate the entire world is split into regions. Think the board for Risk. Each region can only host a single city, period, so settling in a region effectively boxes your opponents out of the same spot. That means there’s more nuance to city placement than just settling near the choicest cluster of resources; unless you’re playing the nomadic empire, you can’t move your city within a region, and expansion has serious limits on total city size.
Similarly, the diplomatic system is excellent, surfacing far more numbers than Civ V does. In that game, I usually avoid diplomacy entirely when playing against the AI, but in Endless Legend it’s basically another form of warfare. You expend your influence to complete maneuvers ranging from complimenting another nation to banning it from moving through your borders. Those actions shuffle the nation through different states–from alliance to open war–and it costs them social points to shift back. That means a social empire can downplay the need for a large army by simply beating their enemies into social submission. There’s probably a high school joke to be made at this point, so let’s pretend I did and move on!
Atop the many general victory conditions, each specific culture has their own questline. I’m not talking Mass Effect, but each questline is deeply immersed in the plot of the empire–yet the flavor is quickly skipped if you’re on your fifth attempt to get the Cultists to victory (Hint: Upgrade your units early and often). These quests are thoroughly unpredictable, often asking you to engage in seemingly nonsensical behavior like staying in lower-tier research for several projects longer than normal. However, in my experience the payoff–whether it be special equipment for your nation’s Heroes or unique technologies–is always worthwhile. Ruins you explore will occasionally give you similar quests, which can prove empire-defining if you get them early. I hit a ruin outside my first town in a game with the mannequin-Cultists, which demanded I explore another ruin…and another…and another…and so forth. While the game marked each ruin, and I was actually able to double-explore them (once for the quest and a subsequent exploration as a ruin), the end result was that I lost the game to the ravages of barbarians–rogue icewalruswolves who refused to accept that I’d subjugated their entire society–while still trying to run my army back home. Again, I love that kind of madness, but your mileage may vary.
One thing I don’t love, which is likely to engender frothing wrath in anyone playing the game, is how military action occasionally provides bad beat stories. You’re capable of being directly involved in the positioning, movement, and actions of your military units in a fight, and the game also provides reinforcements if additional armies or cities are in the same region as the conflict…all of this is good! Each empire excels at different styles of combat, and rely on different units in different ways. You can also recruit mercenary units from other factions in the game, or even produce them from your cities when you subjugate one of the barbarian “minor factions,” like the aforementioned icewalruswolves, centaurs, ogres, or about a dozen others. All of your base units, plus any unit you’ve subjugated into your empire, can be modified with superior equipment as either a replacement or alternate production version. One of the games I’ve played would have been lost to me if I hadn’t turned my Demon units into high-damage monsters. The Demons naturally hit every enemy touching their melee target, and every enemy touching them, so by boosting their damage I created board-clearers absolutely necessary for my ongoing conflict with the 6-unit armies of the S&M Wizards.
Again, though, the biggest frustration the game’s generated for me comes from these combats, because occasionally a fight–one you start or is started on you–puts you in the absolute worst scenario. It might be that you’re fighting near cliffs, and the spawnpoints put your entirely-ranged enemy two or three floors above you. That means they’ll get multiple rounds of pouring arrows into your head while your units attempt to navigate a path to them, and for many empires that’s a death sentence; you often have units who, sans upgrades, die in a single round of hits from more than one enemy unit.
You could also end up in a situation where your army’s spawn point is smaller than your army. I had one very memorable fight…with a nation I didn’t realize I was at war with and had just met…where my 4-unit, high-level army spawned onto the battlefield from a single hex, which happened to be at the nexus of four enemy-occupied squares. I lost all of my highest-level units and the hero who’d been with me from the start (heroes can come back over time, but lost units are gone forever and must be replaced). I needed to walk away from the computer during that game, which I’m glad my multiplayer friend was willing to accept. Granted, when I came back I was able to alter my army comp with the aforementioned Demons, change the engagement terrain, and push the enemy back. Still, I’m never angrier at the AI than during fights that spawn me in the worst or inexplicable place, so that’s the biggest red flag for folks of moderate blood pressure.
If you’ve been looking to get into a…fine, I’ll use the term…4x game, Endless Legend is candy-bright and entertaining enough to hold your attention. If you’ve spent the last couple years losing yourself in Civ V, and either didn’t love the new Civ or avoided it entirely due to GB’s review, this can fill that itch. If your’e an expert at this style of game, though, I can’t preach to you about its merits.
Finally, if you’re prone to rage-quittery and controller-crushing, the odds are that combat in this game will send you to a very, very bad place.