I'll admit-- I gave Endless Space a pass. At least, I never moved it out of my shamefully large Steam backlog. There's a few reasons for this-- mostly it's the usual. Nobody plays the vast majority of their Steam backlog, no matter how good they hear any given game is. But the other big reason is that for me, any space-based 4x gets compared in my mind to GalCiv 2. And for reasons unrelated to the game itself, thinking of GalCiv just annoys me. So I never picked up Endless Space.
However, I never really imprinted on any of the various fantasy 4x games out there-- couldn't tell you why. But when I heard about Endless Legend, I thought, well, now this should be my chance. I first picked up the game pretty early in its Early Access period, but didn't have anything substantive to say about it at the time. The lack of tutorials alone made the game pretty impenetrable to me as someone without any familiarity with their UI. While that would be a critical flaw in a full release, I don't object to an early access version largely catering to fans and enthusiasts. It did leave me unable to say much of anything at all about the game.
But with the game moving into full release at last, it's time to go in and take a proper look at Endless Legend. Fortunately, the game now has a full tutorial mode that covers the necessary basics. Beyond the particulars of the UI (which relies a bit much on small icons for my tastes), the trappings of the game should be pretty familiar to anyone who's played a land-based 4x before. Build a city, collect resources within that city's sphere of influence, et cetera. The hex map makes it most easily comparable to Civ 5, but it holds to the standards of the genre-- most of Endless Legend's innovations are refinements, rather than new ground.
The tech tree is somewhat novel. Rather than a strict heirarchy of technologies, Endless Legend clusters technologies into eras, and you gain acess to them one era at a time. You can only move on to the next era after you've learned nine of the technologies from your current era, which helps deal with the old Civ problem of gating that sort of thing to specific techs. You can still specialize-- nine is generally a little over half the available techs in an era, but this pretty well ensures you're not wholly neglecting an entire aspect of your society.
One of the most interesting features to me was actually the ability to physically expand settlements by adding new districts to them. In fact, this is how you grow a city's sphere of influence rather than it being an automatic. To some extent this could seem like needless micromanagement, but I like being able to tailor the shape of your own borders this way, and I like this feeling of urban growth more than Civ's improvements.
Minor civilizations play a role in Endless Legend, too. Interestingly, in addition to the usual wiping them out of existence, you can also undertake a quest for them to gain their goodwill. Doing this provides a net benefit-- these minor civilizations can have villages of their own, and if you pacify them, they'll send workers from each village for you to micromanage to the good of your empire. I don't mind having these little goals come up as you play, but other playes might find themselves constrained by this. Of course, you can always attack the civilization's villages, and get their workers that way once you pick up the pieces.
So let's talk about attacking, because it does something pretty novel here. You stack units onto a single tile, Civ-like, but when you engage with the enemy, battles take place on a map cut away from the actual world map terrain. From there, you engage in a tactical turn-based battle like something out of Heroes of Might and Magic or King's Bounty. You can auto-battle instead if you're sure of victory or just don't feel like handling the micro, but it's one of the few times I've actually enjoyed a 4x's attempt at making unit engagements more interesting. I find the distortions of the map for the combat field a bit disorienting, though.
Unit customization is robust enough to please-- it's handled via re-equipping an extant unit, so it's no Alpha Centauri that way, but what is? In addition, there are special hero units who have skill trees and individual equipment of their own. You can either use them on the battlefield, or assign them to cities, where they have a nice raft of bonuses they can offer (or, they can automate your city management for you. Do people actually do that?). Each one too has a nice chunk of flavour text, which is something I always appreciate.
In fact, Endless Legend is loaded to the gills with flavour text. This is always a bit tricky in a 4x game given you're building the world that the flavour is based on, and it's rare to find one that really feels like there's a story there other than the one you create through play (which is not to disparage those in the slightest). Alpha Centauri, still the best, gets around all this by starting with people rooted in Earth cultures, and gives some very strong personalities in the leaders. Endless Legend instead discards all standard fantasy species and creates some fairly unique designs. This has been tried before to little success (Hi, GalCiv!) but dedication to creating base flavour text here ensures that everyone does have a unique 'feel'.
This alone wouldn't be enough, however-- so that unusual quality is thoroughly baked into each civilization's mechanics. The Roving Clans will literally let you pack up your cities and move, or set up trade embargos. The Necrophages are literally unable to be in a state of peace, and, well, the name is quite accurate. Every playable species has a raft of unique abilities and restrictions that ensures you're never 'just' playing a tech faction or a diplomacy faction.
So the components are all solid enough to give the game a lot of appeal. But how does the whole come together? It's pretty good. The early game feels a bit slow; some turns I just didn't feel like I was doing enough, though a lot of that could be due to not having a great feel for the game as yet. Once I got moving and got a better feel for the way the game needs to be played, things came together nicely. Exploration feels pretty rewarding, too; the game is filled with ruins to explore, and the way the map is subdivided into regions helps make a certain sense of the map to me.
Turn resolution is kind of strange. You keep full control even after hitting 'end turn' and as I would go about my business I would have focus stolen by popups of, say, city improvement completion, or attacks by wandering units. Sometimes it's just an annoyance, but others, it pulls me out of something I'm in the middle of doing.
One thing Endless Legend does that I think is interesting is actually having two distinct seasons. Winter will make pretty much everything you do harder, or at least more inconvenient. Reduced production, movement, and thicker fog of war means you may well be better off just turtling up for a while until the thaw.
The AI seems reasonable-- I couldn't tell you how it holds up at the top end, but at a more basic level of play, it kept me challenged.
There's a lot that isn't hugely intuitive though-- it really wasn't clear to me at first how to build extractors for the various map resources (I'd learned the wrong tech for the resources I was trying to exploit), and some information about advancing your city is tucked in out-of-the-way tooltips. Neither do I enjoy the UI in the slightest, and I can't put my finger on exactly why-- maybe it's the size. Your mileage will definitely vary on that account, consequently.
Wrapping up odds and ends: A significant proportion of the hero units appear to be female, and while I didn't go looking, I didn't notice any of the usual excesses of character design, so I very much appreciate that. The regular onslaught of quests will probably irritate Civ fans, but again-- I don't mind having that measure of direction.
In conclusion, I can't find myself loving the game, but it's over minor enough quibbles that neither can I mark it down too hard for them. I like a lot of the things it does do-- particularly the extent to which the game differentiates playstyles between factions. I can't speak for the longevity of the game as yet, but for now, it will do very nicely. Recommended, more or less.