Saying Goodbye to a Legend: Endless Legend & the Future of 4X20 Feb 2020 0
I first picked up Endless Legend during a Steam free weekend, a little over a year after its initial September 2014 release. I fell in love, and kept coming back for more with each expansion. Not one element of Endless Legend feels like a miss, even whilst bringing new ideas into the 4X formula. As developers Amplitude focus on future titles, this sci-fi-fantasy strategy gem received its final update in early 2020. Writing this feels in some ways like a farewell letter, yet something tells me I'll still be playing Endless Legend many years in the future, and its impact on the 4X genre will be even longer lasting.
The most immediate attraction of Endless Legend is its world-building, a task Amplitude took on literally. The game opens with a soft female voice: "I am many things, I have been many things." These words became etched in my mind as I realised that the following speech was from the planet itself - Auriga - hinting at this world's mysterious past. Dropped into a game, pre-defined and pre-named regions hint that you aren't the first to call these lands home, while huge ruins and deserted temples left behind by some ancient species add to the mystery. Endless Legend's lore is a wonderful mix of sci-fi and fantasy, overlapping with Amplitude's Endless Space and Dungeon of the Endless titles, and is a joy to explore and unravel during gameplay.
Of course, with one eye on Auriga's past, you must work to secure your place in its future. In some ways the gameplay is standard 4X stuff: survey your surroundings, gather resources, construct cities, raise armies, rinse and repeat. Yet Auriga, like our own planet, is ever changing, and her seasons cannot be ignored. With each prosperous summer, a punishing winter is around the corner, each longer and harsher than the last. Later fleshed out by the excellent Shifters expansion, this was Endless Legend's flagship mechanic. This seasonal split, asking players to adapt as much to their environment as to their opponents, is truly engaging and a brilliant twist to the 4X formula.
In truth, I can’t help but wonder if this could have been exploited even more, dialling the seasonal model up to eleven to be constantly opening and closing strategic doors. The flow of seasons is already excellently executed, adding layers of strategic depth, and it is to Amplitude's credit that I can't help but want more of this in the future.
Undoubtedly Endless Legend's greatest achievement is the 14 major (i.e. playable) factions. Each race is dripping with character, none feel like the result of cookie-cutter design, and they are a masterclass in interweaving lore with gameplay. While I could write a mini-thesis on Amplitude's faction design (I'll spare you), the secret to Amplitude's success is that they're unafraid to tinker with core systems. From shady survivalists that cannot research but instead purchase and steal technologies, to an insectoid race that relies on food harvested from corpses created in battle, each faction is carefully but heavily asymmetrical. As a result, no two factions can be played the same, and your choice of faction must guide your strategy, bringing huge depth and replay value.
Scatter in some beautiful graphics (a careful balance between realism and a stylised, almost fairy-tale, aesthetic) plus a stunning soundtrack, and it’s no wonder Endless Legend has become a staple of mine. Endless Legend did more than win a few fans like me, though – its impact on strategy and 4X games is undeniable. Endless Legend inevitably draws many comparisons with the Civilization series. Sid Meier’s franchise is, after all, the touchstone for 4X gaming. Endless Legend came out during the height of Civilization V, and at the simplest level their gameplay loops are indeed very similar. With the 2016 release of Civilization VI, on the other hand, the roles are somewhat reversed. I haven’t played all that much Civ VI, much to my shame, but borrowed it from a friend for this article. Endless-like elements were apparent immediately, from assigning governors to oversee cities, to choosing empire-wide boosts through policies. Amplitude’s fingerprints revealing themselves from behind the scenes, perhaps?
The most remarkable achievement of Endless Legend was to be so similar, and yet so undeniably different, to Civilization. Other 4X names occupy their respective niches, but never dared to challenge Civilization at its own game (pun intended). By introducing new ideas at every turn, and using a non-historical setting, Amplitude managed to compete with Civilization but entirely avoid accusations of creating a clone. Endless Legend’s strongest elements are those which depart from familiar tropes.
The note of setting is also an interesting point. Endless Legend is the closest that Civilization has to a competitor yet. This will soon change – Amplitude recently announced their next title, and magnum opus: Humankind. A historically-set 4X game, in which you re-write the entire narrative of humankind as you forge your unique civilization from the dust. Sound familiar? Civilization will face its most direct competition yet, and many eyes will be on Amplitude’s upcoming game.
As I consider the future of 4X gaming, I can’t help but be optimistic. Competition is always a good thing, and Amplitude have already proven themselves as accomplished and creative designers in 4X gaming. Endless Legend itself, meanwhile, is better than ever.