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Opinion – Endless Space 2 Early Access

Master of Endless Space

Turn-based strategy games are enjoying a small renaissance due to the efforts of Amplitude Studios and their “Endless” series.  Endless Space kicked it off with a host of smart additions to the standard Master of Orion formula.  Endless Legend confined the series to a single planet, but added a collection of unique factions who played in radically different ways.  Amplitude Studios is now heading back to the stars with Endless Space 2 and, thankfully, I can say that the early access version shows considerable promise.

The basics of the game are familiar to anyone who has played a 4x space game.  The player starts with a planet and a small fleet which become the seeds of a galaxy spanning empire forged through exploration, research, and conquest.  Endless Space 2 doesn’t radically change that formula, but it includes some nice tweaks.  The first is a carryover from Endless Legend: races with distinct playstyles.  While most 4x games include a variety of factions, they usually emphasize a particular strategy rather than represent new ways to play the game.  Even with just five races available, it’s clear that Endless Space 2 wants several of its races to radically alter the player’s experience.  For example, the Vodyani don’t build colonies.  This race of space particles travels the stars in enormous arks which hover over planets to claim their resources.  Furthermore, the Vodyani population primarily increases by abducting colonists turning other civilizations into resources for this race.  The trade based Lumeris and warlike Cravers round out the available nontraditional races.  This new focus on distinct races should add much needed variety to this venerable genre.

Companies and culture victories are other interesting additions.  In companies, Amplitude fleshes out the economic victory by allowing players to set up powerful corporations to invest in and trade with.  The player establishes corporations on a colony and then gets additional money and resources from that planet.  Given the increased need for luxury resources, companies should provide players with the means they’ll need to advance in the game.  Culture victories are another stand out change.  While other games include culture victories, they are generally treated as passive games of lining up the right buildings and hitting end turn.  Endless Space 2 adds a bit more to it by speeding up the process and allowing players to “buy” systems outright through spending their influence.  This turns culture victories into an active strategy rather than a boring slog.

With all this said, Endless Space 2 is still very much a game in alpha.  While the foundation is solid, plenty of features are missing.  Only military and score victories work (culture victories turn into de facto military victories) and the game abruptly ends at turn 200.  Three of the promised races are missing along with the final technologies and a competent AI.  In short, the game has a way to go.  That being said, there’s enough there to be worth a purchase if you also want to support the developer.  I’ve had fun with Endless Space 2, even if I can’t recommend the game purely on its merits right now.

The original Endless Space reconstituted the then moribund genre’s best hits through refined gameplay, customizable factions, and varied win conditions with a few neat features such as quests, and slick interface design (no seriously, it’s awesome enough to mention).  While serving as a fine return to form for 4x games, Endless Space never felt like the innovation needed to move on to the next step.  Endless Space 2 doesn’t yet feel like that step either, yet it undoubtedly represents the greatest change in 4x gaming in some time.  If you’re not interested in support the studio, wait and keep an eye out for this game.  It looks like it’ll be a lot of fun.


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Review – Sonic: The Lost World – PC

This is why you pay your level designers the big bucks.

Sonic: The Lost World is a mess. From the terrible tutorial, to the idiotic lives system, to the, yes, terrible level design, it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying this game. While some of this is the inevitable result of attempting to incorporate a sense of speed into a 3D platformer, much more of it a product of unforced errors committed by the developers. This is one of those few scenarios where Sega’s every design decision seems to make things worse.

The trouble begins with Sonic: The Lost World’s total inability to communicate its controls. At no point does the game run the player through the basic controls or the more advanced maneuvers. Many of the moves (run, spin, jump, lock on, etc) are familiar, but some are not. Messing around in the early stages gives the player enough information to get by, but understanding the finer points of the game requires additional guidance. I was half way through the game before I realized that some enemies had to be kicked rather than spin-dashed and that only struck me when I had to kick enemies to progress. Despite having played most of the game, I’m still unaware of how some of the powerups work. The Lost World includes little tooltips, but, like the mechanics of the rest of the game, their purpose is initially unclear and the means to access them is never stated. In addition to the poor tutorial, the game never develops its own visual language. The player rarely understands the unique mechanics of each level until they happen and they’re rarely intuitive. In one case, platforms in a level are periodically destroyed by a dragon’s shout. Rather than demonstrate this first in a safer environment, The Lost World rolls the mechanic out while the player stands on a destructible platform suspended over a ravine. Mario, this isn’t.

Given the terrible communication, it should come as no surprise that The Lost World hosts a number of other questionable design decisions. Premier among them is the lives system. While most modern platformers either design the level to be completed in one shot or ditch lives altogether, Sonic: The Lost World does neither. Instead, it has progressively longer levels with a limited number of lives. The player can bank lives across levels, but should they lose them all, they start at the beginning of the level with just four. Levels get longer and longer culminating in one level which incorporates three platforming sections and three boss fights. Tackling that on just four lives is an exercise in frustration and is the reason why I’m writing this review without finishing the game. Another poor design decision of note is the requirement of animals to progress to the boss. When defeated, each enemy gives up an animal which Sonic automatically collects. The final level of each section requires that the player collect a certain number of animals to unlock the level. The end result is that I had to grind a Sonic game. That’s right, I had to replay levels to get enough animals to move on. There is no value in locking content away like this. The decision to do so is just mind-boggling.

All of these terrible choices pile on to already weak level design. Sega copies the mini planet idea from Super Mario Galaxy, yet never seems to understand that it makes Sonic’s traditional speed focused gameplay even harder. If you thought operating in 3D space was difficult, try doing it with gravity shifting. The Lost World’s 2D levels improve the controls, but the jumps and challenges aren’t particularly impressive. Nor is the decision to block flow. Sega regularly places enemies and obstacles along paths to prevent the player from gaining any speed. Just as the player gets into a flow, they run into an enemy and must start over. I could go on, but there’s really too much to cover. The level design stinks.

The common conclusion to a terrible Sonic game used to be to talk about how far the series has fallen from it’s heyday. Given the long stream of poor titles, even those memories are gone. The Sonic franchise is a worn out husk. Stay away from it and Sonic: The Lost World.

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