Endless Legend , the fantasy 4X strategy game from Endless Space developer Amplitude Studios, is a month away from hitting Steam Early Access. Endless Legend will be Amplitude's second game to launch on Early Access— Dungeon of the Endless , its roguelike-meets-tower defense experiment, has been playable in an evolving alpha state since late 2013. And the developer has now built its Games2Gether business model around getting player feedback during development.
Last time we saw Endless Legend, Amplitude wasn't ready to show off its combat system, the vital "exterminate" slice of the 4X experience. Now, a few weeks out from Early Access, creative director Romain de Waubert gives me a tour of Legend's strange real-time turn-based battles. Combat in Endless Legend is like knocking over a series of dominoes, if the dominoes were hulking orcs and squads of elven swordsmen and archers placed upon a hex grid that looks an awful lot like Civilization V.
Warfare in Endless Legend plays out in turn-based phases on a macro level. When a battle begins, the game quickly wipes away the details of its vibrant tilt-shifted hex landscape in favor of a cleaned-up battlefield.
"We don't want to go down to micromanagement," de Waubert says. "We want you to stay a general, and while this battle occurs, you can do something else. So we want to make sure you are only at the high levels and giving big directions—like I want to keep that high ground, I want to tactically process the terrain and put the right units in front."
Elevation plays a major role on the map—if one hex is a few levels higher than surrounding hexes, its sides will be blocked off by impassable cliff faces. A height advantage also gives units like archers an expected combat bonus.
de Waubert says that intelligently using those elevation differences is key in combat, since there's no micromanagement. You give each unit a simple order—where to move and then who to attack—and then end your turn and watch combat play out. Each unit in the battle takes its turn in a sequence that's displayed at the top of the screen.
"Now the battle is happening in real time, but it's turn after turn based on [unit] initiatives," de Waubert explains after giving his units orders and ending his turn. "The faster initiatives play first. The whole trick is to make sure the other guy's units with fast initiatives are being killed first or stopped first. So in a way you can combo and only have your guys play."
By paying attention to that sequence, you can target the enemy units that are moving first and potentially wipe them out before they get to attack. Dominoes.
Long battles can play out over three phases, with multiple turns in each, though the skirmish I watched de Waubert manage ended in only two turns. He lost.
"I should not have lost that battle," he says laughing. "It's all about how you place your troops and which you place first. It's high strategy: more about the big decisions and not the extreme details that, in a way, I think are the same [in many 4X games]. I think it's more interesting to have to play on the initiatives and have a combo where the others can never play."
While you're making turn-based combat choices, other players in a multiplayer game can wander into range of a skirmish and watch the elves and trolls and other fantasy warriors take their turns in real time. It's a strange hybrid, and I didn't get a chance to see how smoothly everything will mesh together in a real game.
Legends' fantasy world ties into Amplitude's other games, Endless Space and Dungeon of the Endless, and some of its races are even ancestors of the ones that explored the stars in Endless Space. To de Wabuert, that's one of the key things that separates Endless Legend from other fantasy—or Civ-like— strategy games.
"We definitely are a Civilization type of game," he admits. "There are two main elements we focus on that I think we do a pretty good job at. One, the accessibility. The interface. Everything is very clear, very easy to explain...Also, we make sure everything [on the interface] is needed. We prefer to reduce the choices to the very meaningful ones, rather than many choices that don't mean anything or have any real gameplay behind them."
More importantly, he says, the team focuses heavily on worldbuilding. Endless Space was rich in lore for its factions and hero units and the mysterious backstory of the Endless, though all of that information was presented in simple text boxes and static art. Endless Legend already looks far more lush and detailed, which is what Amplitude is shooting for.
"We pay a lot of attention to the mood, atmosphere, universe, world. We want to be really sucked in by the ambiance and the atmosphere of the game, the visuals and graphics, the lore and the writing. And again, I think that's something that, personally, I don't see enough in 4X games. They're more about game mechanics than the experience the player is going to live. Sometimes [a 4X] game is about what happens in your mind, and you live an epic story, but what you see on the screen is not that epic. So we want to fill that in a bit more."
de Waubert also emphasizes how differently Endless Legend will play based on your faction. The final game will include eight factions, four of which he calls "advanced" factions. The Roving Clans, for example, can't declare war on other factions. "That's a basic part of the game that's kind of broken," he says. "It's not easy to handle. But you have others that are more classic and have a bonus to building or have more armies."
And the Roving Clans simply present a challenge to overcome. Instead of declaring war, Roving Clans players can, for example, manipulate the market to starve opponents of resources. Shrewd players will be able to force their enemies into declaring war on them.
Another advanced faction, the Broken Lords, doesn't use food. Instead, their food resource is Dust, the Endless universe's stand-in for money. Broken Lord players will have to approach resource mining and trade differently.
We barely touched on building or trading or politics or customizing units for combat. And some of those systems are still unbalanced, which de Waubert is happy about. That's what the alpha release on Steam is for, in his opinion—getting players into Endless Legend, getting them to explore the technology progression and combat and market and find out what works and what doesn't.
"For me, I wouldn't work another way," he says. "I hope I will never have to work another way. It's funny, sometimes when I talk with developers they say it's a good way to make money before the building of the game. That's wrong! Early Access is to get feedback to tune your game before its release, because there's nothing worse than finishing your game and getting feedback about what you should have fixed."