Amplitude have released two games this year and either one would be deserving of a place in this bestest best December round-up. Dungeon of the Endless can slumber on in cryosleep for now though because it's time to sing the praises of Endless Legend, the finest 4X game of recent times.
Adam: Science fiction, fantastic factions.
Criticism often creates narratives. With Endless Legend, it's tempting to tell a story about plucky young studio Amplitude creating a 4x strategy game that outshines the latest in the venerable Civilization series. The ingredients are there - not only the proximity of release, but the fact that Endless Legend's factions seem to have drawn more inspiration from Alpha Centauri's approach than anything in Beyond Earth.
That's one narrative, but it's unfair to both of its subjects, particularly Endless Legend, which doesn't need to have its glory reflected back at it by another game. Amplitude have made the best 4x game of 2014 but it doesn't matter about the level of competition because Endless Legend would have been the best 4X game of almost any year in recent memory.
Amplitude's greatest achievement with their third release - following Endless Space and Dungeon of the Endless - is to have rewritten decades of accepted wisdom without slogging through an ugly transition period. Endless Legend doesn't require hours of tutorials or a three hundred page manual to unpick, and that combines with the familiar nature of the genre to place many of Amplitude's innovations under a bushel of sorts.
The factions are the core of the game, their distinctive goals and narrative filtering through into almost every part of a campaign. Whether you're exploring, expanding, exploiting or exterminating, the specific abilities and nuances of your people will force your hand, one way or another. Rather than a list of pros and cons, with occasional buffs and unique units, Endless Legend's factions are weird and fantastic cultural entities, with destinies to fulfil and rules to follow.
Take The Roving Clans as an example. An aversion to war limits your options for expansion and extermination - the Clans can fight but they can't declare war. That means other nations can hem the Clans in to a corner, occupying the regions around them and leaving no space for them to grow into. Fortunately, the weakness has a counterbalance - the Clans can move their cities. They rove.
That means a Clans player doesn't have to worry too much about which regions he/she is occupying, and can just grab the nearest available land, secure in the knowledge that a city can be packed up and moved where the grass is greener at a later date. Stick the Clans on the same world as the Necrophages, who require fresh cadavers to feed their cities and cannot sign peace treaties, and you have two factions that require completely different mindsets, as if plucked from different games.
The genius of Endless Legend is in the core ruleset, with the novelty of Regions somewhere at the base of that. Each random world is a thing to savour and gain an understanding of as you explore and exploit it rather than a pile of resources and blank spaces to plant your flag in. With all of its rules in place, Endless Legend then uses each faction to distort, break or defy those rules in some way.
It's a game constantly in the process of interrogating its own structures and as well as being a superb creation in its own right, it solidifies Amplitude's place as one of PC gaming's most exciting new studios.
Jim: The past couple of years' gaming have been odd for me because I've repeatedly found the games that dominate my time haven't been (at least not predominantly) multiplayer. While Endless Legend certainly caters for those all important battles with others, it's been its cloud saves - meaning I can play in the office and on the move with my laptop - and it's "I've got enough time for a few turns" that has allowed me to latch onto Endless Legend like a grateful leech. What a horrible simile.
Anyway, here's the thing: I usually, historically, fall out with 4X games before the love affair can begin. I never really got on with any of the Civ games, despite having tackled them on and off since I was a wee nipper. I struggled through a few campaigns of things like GalCiv, too, and more recently I leapt into Amplitude's own Endless Space, without finding what I was looking for (despite it having so much going for it.)
Endless Legend, then, somehow dissolves the barriers that put me the wrong side of this genre. The presentation helps: I love the esoteric races, with their weird characters and fantastical conditions, their stories which run through the game, and their deeply different needs from the game world. It tastes like a good fantasy world should: a square meal of escapism you can't exactly identify the ingredients of.
It goes without saying that I adore the sprawlingly beautiful map, with its wonderful hand-painted polygonal terrain. I defy anyone to be unmoved by that lovely collision of art and tech.
But what it gets right that's most important is, well, everything else. The UI just works. The feeling you get exploring ruins and encountering minor factions brings life to the world.
Okay, yes, the tutorial was a ham-fisted encyclopedia that completely failed to really articulate what was important and where I should be aiming my attention. But once those enigmas were undone I found myself utterly absorbed. I particularly like the clarity of the combat, and the way the battles manifest on the world map. I know lots of folks found combat insufficient and over simplistic, but it was just fine for me. Any more complex and I'd have written it off as a chore, I think.
Endless Legend, like Kentucky Route Zero, proved to me that a great game can still revive a genre that I'd assumed I would never be accessible to me again. I've loved it as much as anything else I've played this year, and it's completely and definitely on my short-list for game of the year.
Want to read more about Endless Legend? Check out Adam's review.
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