by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
A recipe for war
Amplitude Studios are the Heston Blumenthal of gaming, creating inspiring games by reconstructing and twisting classic gameplay into something entirely new. For Endless Legend, the recipe goes something like this:
Take a large helping of Civilization, add a dash of Heroes of Might & Magic, a spoonful of Warlords and sprinkle it with some Endless Space dust. Shake or stir - whatever your preference or occupation - and presto! Out comes Endless Legend.
The result is an interesting blend between turn-based strategy and empire building that takes elements of familiar gameplay but employs it in such a way that it is not quite like anything youíve seen before. Does it work? The early preview build certainly leans towards a yes, but not all the gameplay has been implemented so it is hard to be sure. Still, it has my curiosity piqued.
Only the best ingredients
Letís have a look at that recipe shall we?
The tiled map and most of the city building elements are provided by the helping of Civilization. Tiles have various degrees of elevation and clumps of them together form individual regions that the player can control by building a city within its borders. Regions have a number of special tiles that make them more or less unique. To work these tiles, you have to research the corresponding technology and construct a production facility to make the income, production or special resource available.
Upgrading cities goes pretty much as you would expect, with one little twist: your city will slowly expand to occupy more tiles as it grows - you even get to choose in which direction it goes. Interesting? Interesting!
Heroes of Might & Magic (sorry Ubi, your new naming convention for the franchise will simply not stick) adds turn based combat. Once two armies engage, the camera zooms in on the combat stage and the two sides duke it out until only one remains standing. Recent HoMMís have started using features campaign map features to Ďdrawí the combat stage in an effort to maintain a visual link between the campaign and combat maps. Endless Legend takes that one step further: the campaign map - is - the combat stage. Armies unfold on a zoomed in part of the map, keeping every tile exactly the way it is and applying elevation bonuses in the process. If that intrigues you, then consider the impact it has on army movement on the campaign map: you will want to end your unitís turn on a defensible tile. Cool? Cool!
Combat is also where Endless Space comes to the fore. Youíre not fully in control of your units during the battle but rather set the stage and push a button to see the resolution. You get to give new orders at every other turn but what your units do in between can be utterly gut-wrenching as they operate without any input from the player. Thatís going to take some getting used to.
For those of you who remember Warlords 1 or 2 (3 was that shameful disaster trying to piggyback on the RTS trend), I am sure you will remember the quests that had you traverse the entire map for gold, goodies and special units. Endless Legend employs a very similar system that Iíve thoroughly enjoyed in the preview build. And if you cannot find the goodies you like, you can buy them or craft them.
Bringing it all together
Iím really excited about the empire building side of Endless Legend. There is a lot to be said for building sprawling cities that slowly take over the countryside, expanding to such an extent that they - become - the countryside. Setting up production facilities on specialist tiles makes every city feel different and few games instill the same sense of loss when an enemy army takes over a large, productive town.
In contrast, the combat leaves me a little hesitant. Having battles resolve automatically felt like a natural extension to Endless Spaceís gameplay. Iíd have preferred turn-based, but it worked well and the dramatic combat sequences stayed fresh for much longer than you would expect. Endless Legendís combat is a little more involved and replaces Endless Spaceís card system with the ability to give new commands every other turn before pressing Ďplayí. Things go a little sideways when you see units die at the hands of the enemy in situations that you - know - you would have handled better yourself. Obviously the AI is still very much a work in progress but it is unrealistic to expect an AI controlled unit to outsmart a human player when it comes to the order of movement for each unit, taking future rounds into consideration and finding the optimum location. It is doubtful that we will see severely damaged units tactically withdraw to the back of the combat zone when they are not required to win the battle but can run away to live to fight another day - an action a human player would choose with certain regularity.
That said, it is still early days and the preview build is already a few months old. Amplitude showed their prowess with Endless Space, proving that fully manual combat isnít necessary to create an absolutely great strategy gaming experience. I for one am keen to see how it all comes together.