And you thought it had to be a game that hadn't featured previously on the list.
Adam: Cor. It's a strategy game!
Endless Legend takes up the baton handed down from one Civilization to the next, the stick of 4X that has passed through the hands of the Masters of Magic and Orion. It takes up that baton and finds it wanting.
Amplitude haven't set out to fix something that's broken in their intelligent reconfiguration of the 4X strategy game, they've looked to expand on certain ideas and found it necessary to scrap certain elements of the accepted wisdom. It's an immediately recognisable type of game, as John discovered to his horror and reports below, but while it may be from the same stock as its ancestors, it's far more knowledgeable and well-travelled. The uncle from that curious branch of the family tree who only visits once a decade because he's off having adventures in parts of the world you've never even heard of.
Almost every rule in the game seems to have been designed around the idea that it might need to be broken at some point. That's what the factions do, in a way - they overturn the conventional thinking about aspects of the 4X routine, which means the entire structure of the game has to be built around flexibility of approach.
In a year that contained new Civilization and new Age of Wonders, for Endless Legend to come out on top of the 4X pile is quite an achievement. To do so by stripping the genre down and discarding or retooling many of the inherited parts was bold, and that's as good a word for Amplitude's year as any. A Bold Year.
Their two projects released in 2014 - Endless Legend and Dungeon of the Endless - show a studio approaching genres with confidence and flair. The art in both games, but particularly in Legend, is equal to the inventiveness of the ideas, and with this stellar year, Amplitude have confirmed their status at the forefront of PC development. Long may they continue.
Over to John.
John: Okay, look, everything that’s a problem with strategy games is made clear within the first few seconds of Endless Legend’s tutorial. The words,
“Your army is currently composed of only a single unit, a Settler, represented by several pawns on a hexagon.”
A single unit, one chap, is represented by three individual people? That encapsulates strategy gaming for me better than any other example I can think of. It’s so laboured, so buried in rules, that all sense is abandoned in favour of information for graphs.
It’s work! It’s hard work! There’s nothing worse on Earth than doing taxes, and the strategy genre seems to be about trying to recreate that sensation in gaming form. “Balance this with this. Ensure you’ve put this in the right column. Worry about your resources not being able to pay for your needs…” Why do people, so SO many people, want to put themselves through this?
But like taxes, not only is it hard work, it’s obfuscated, confusing work. “A single unit represented by several pawns on a hexagon,” might as well be, “Form 46B.2 must be completed before Form 46B.1, but not until Form 46.1 has been filed online.”
“Terrain resources are Food, Industry, Science and Dust.”
Columns for graphs! Within moments the screen is a mass of data, forms, charts… I don’t understand how anyone has the will to continue. I don’t need this in my playtime! I want to shoot the guns, or talk to the lady about the missing dragons, or solve the ethical dilemma!
“Per working production, resources from Tiles, and potential modifiers (positive or negative) all have an impact on the Total Production you can expect from your city in the next turn.”
I’m genuinely very pleased that so many of RPS, and its readers, have had such a great time with this game. I’m also utterly mystified by the lot of you.
Alec: Bye John! OK, so: Endless Legend. 'Fresh' is a bloody odd word to apply to something that's so much to do with hexagons and graphs, but it's what I think every time I fire up Amplitude's game. The familiar is in there, right down at the bottom, but for layers above that we have both this gorgeous, clear, crisp, hyper-modern look - right down to the UI, which is usually something that strategy games leave to wallow in unpretty archaism - and massive, fundamental changes to the Civ formula.
Where Beyond Earth proved ultimately slavish to a tried and tested design, Endless Legends is a true rethink. I'm not complacent when I play it, I've got so much left to figure out, and every new attempt feels like settling on a new frontier. I expect to be going back to Endless Legend many times over the coming months.
I'm pretending not to be superficial, but honestly, I really can't get past the prettiness of Endless Legend. Turn-based strategy games aren't supposed to look like this, right? They're supposed to have ugly, faux-vintage serif fonts and fake scroll effects on the corners of their menus, to have maps that look like a maths textbook. Not Endless Legend. It confounds aesthetic expectations.
Just look at the cleanness of the interface, the bold colours, the quietly inventive unit types, the intricate but unfussy tactility of the terrain, the weather effects that make my body temperate drop by 20 degrees whenever Winter arrives, the seamless switch from world view to map view, even down to the way it all loads back in in tiers when you alt-tab back to it, as though some god is laying out the world for you. Strategy games aren't supposed to look like this.
Best of all, it feels like it came from nowhere. It defies the rule that often only publisher-owned mega-studios can create the most remarkable strategy games, reminds us that there are no gatekeepers to this most PC of genres.
Jim: When Amplitude were the studio that had made Endless Space, they were notable. Now that they have both Endless Legend and Dungeon Of The Endless chalked up on their scoreboard, well, they're an enormously important developer. In some ways this award to Endless Legend for Best Game should also be an acknowledgement of the huge achievement the Paris-based gang have made - and the use it has made of a pool of talent drawn from major studios that worked on major games across the world. Amplitude have to now be regarded as one of the most interesting (and potentially one of the most important) European developers.
As for Endless Legend itself, well, we've already said enough about it, I think. A formidable strategy that encompasses thoughtful decision-making, esoteric world-building, and even a worth story. It's full of ideas, and feels like the strategy genre woke up from a deep dream to express some fabulous inspiration.
Yes, it's flawed. And that's fine. So is almost everything in every end of year list you might mention.
On a personal note: I certainly played more Planetside 2 in 2014, and I might have had fun in Far Cry 4. But neither time nor mere fun and quite enough anymore. I've played decades of games. I've had my fun, and when a game like this offers me more than either a time sink or simply a playful escape, then I pay attention. This is such a game. It is our game of the year.
Back to the complete bestest best PC games of 2014.