The turn-based strategy genre has long counted sci-fi galactic settings among its repertoire. The Masters of Orion series and the Galactic Civilizations series are both excellent (not to mention the masterful Alpha Centauri), and for faster-paced real-time play Sins of a Solar Empire has in recent years been at the top of the heap. So what does Endless Space bring to the table? Primarily this: since Galactic Civilizations, there has yet to be a killer turn-based space faring game. Second, Endless Space innovates in the genre in interesting ways by combining gameplay aspects successful elsewhere but as of yet not introduced into this specific medium. Third, no other contemporary 4X strategy game in space feels as authentically sci-fi compared to this. Endlessly interesting technologies, beautifully rendered planets with diverse bonus phenomena, a synth-heavy score; rather than add a coat of paint, the science fiction universe laid out in Endless Space is aesthetically superb and imbedded into just about every aspect of play.
Endless Space is a sci-fi geek's wet dream - which is not to say is without its blemishes, far from it. Despite the incredibly useful and clear UI (User Interface: menus, etc) some important parts of play feel surprisingly under-communicated. For instance, there are a variety of different ways to win (most all of them traditional), but you'll have no idea what goes into it or what these ways are; only a percentage on that victory's likelihood - a tab for victory conditions would be quite useful. Also, there's no encyclopedia, which would've been especially helpful in a game world which is almost entirely fictional yet incredibly deep and complex. See a wormhole you want to pass through? You need the right tech, but sadly that involves visually looking at each of the over-100 individually to find it, hoping you might recognize it. Finally, even on the easy settings, the early hours of play including perhaps the first few entire games, will feel as confusing as exhilerating precisely because of the complexity and lack of hand-holding. If you can't do experimentation and trial and error, Endless Space is not for you. However, for those bold enough to brave the outer reaches, and are intrigued by the freedom the game offers, Endless Space is just what you've been waiting for.
It's rare to laud a game initially based on UI, but in this case Endless Space deserves special recognition. This game was built for your computer; that means that mouse right and left clicking and hovering are the prime modes of interaction with the screen, and moving through charts, planets, maps, etc is slick and intuitive. Hitting the Esc key or Enter is never a requirement, and the controls are so intuitive that you'll wonder why just about every other PC strategy game doesn't flow as well - it just works, an astounding accomplishment in its own right. Zooming around the galactic map is therefore surprisingly enjoyable rather than a chore, with information boxes popping up under solar systems as you near them, expanding as you approach to reveal even more. Upon clicking on a star, you move to the Solar System map which is a better and more appealing version of what you'd see in Galactic Civ or MoO3. Even better, you can zoom to any planet and get your sci-fi senses buzzing with planet-art that makes Mass Effect planets look like stone-age 8-bit bowling balls. A wide variety of planet types can be found, each with the possibility of positive or negative bonuses (not unlike the effects of 'moral dilemnas' in Galactic Civ) and resource bonuses, which are revealed given proper research.
Each of the currently eight playable races has an intriguing mixture of strengths and weaknesses (each of which can be adjusted) and moral alignments appear as well, though the depth of them does seem illusory. Diplomacy and trading options require research, but feel responsive, balanced, and intelligent once explored. Moving an armada to your border planet alongside a neutral empire will cause suspicion immediately, trades for techs and resources is intuitive, and each race feels interesting to play with. Heroes also join your empire (as in MoO), are upgradable, and can support either solar systems or fleets, depending on your interests. In either case, heroes provide massive bonuses and are crucial to success.
Then there's the technology tree, a feast for your imagination but likely a bit more frustrating for your reasoning. There are many innovations here, but primarily they consist in a Witcher 2-esque branching system with four main poles. This means that making strides in one area does not require advancement in another, something quite different than your typical Fraxis tree. Furthermore, advancements on different core paths are linked, such that one must reveal a resource in one area before one can use that resource for a military, industrial, or terraforming upgrade elsewhere: webs within webs. Furthermore, each technology feels significant and presents its details with a simple mouse-over, with zooming in and out working precisely the same as with the map. However, the lack of an encyclopedia here, and the creativity of the technologies (part of the game's strength), also means you'll definitely feel like you're in the dark at first, presented with a wall of very interesting but deep material to work through, which can be intimidating and frustrating without patience. The depth here is worth the patience, but the superb UI ought to be have extended to this area as well, or perhaps the tutorial ought to have done more to flesh out a first game concretely.
Combat in Endless Space is quite interesting and innovative as well, with less of the drawbacks the tech tree has. Ships are customizable (in content, not appearance aside from initial form - so no Galactic Civ crazy constructions) and doing so is, again, quite intuitive and clear. Fleets can be created and expanded and lead by heroes, can combat enemy ships and invade solar systems, and rely on the principle of strategic skill over statistics alone. In the first place, combat consists of six periods with three main phases (long, medium, and short range), during which a different weapon type will be more effective (there are three main types in the game) and the same holds for defense - a little paper rock scissors, except for the card system. Each phase requires you to pick a card from a growing list, each of which presents a maneuver and counters a different maneuver (for instance: sabotage, engineering, defense, retreat, etc). The variety is great enough, and the perks and drawbacks of each are intriguing enough, that rather than feel flat, combat feels much more alive than any other turn-based game, where a bit of skill and luck might turn the tide, or sink you. The battles themselves take place in that system's space, displaying grand vistas highly reminiscent of Star Wars (but with less ships etc.), blowing Sins of a Solar Empire out of the water.
Endless Space is a fantastic real-time strategy space faring game, standing tall alongside the genre's greats, and besting them in more ways than one. Endless Space isn't an indie throwback, it's a forward-looking game built to stand on the shoulders of its predecessors. While the complexity is mitigated in most ways by an exceptionally well-thought UI, it's staggering in other ways, meaning Endless Space is long-form, requires failure and replay to learn, and could be intimidating to those new to the genre. For veterans, however, Endless Space feels timely, and perhaps a little timeless.