For years, every 4X game I've come across has met with the same exact response: "Yeah, yeah, it's good but it's no Civilization." Warlock, Age of Wonders, Endless Space — all good, but not good enough to keep me around. After all, if I were going to put hours into an endlessly replayable 4X game, why not just play the best?
And the best has been Civilization for years and years. It waxes and wanes depending on where each version is in the eternal Civ cycle of "base game/first expansion/second expansion," but it's the series I look to when I think of the genre as a whole.
Until now. Because Endless Legend just stole Civilization's lunch money.
A new contender
Endless Legend is a fantasy-themed 4X game that plays out fundamentally similar to Civilization V, which is to say it plays out fundamentally similar to every other modern 4X game — eXpand, eXploit, eXplore, eXterminate. And if it were just a polished Civilization V clone that'd probably be enough to get it some sort of notoriety this year regardless, since Civilization: Beyond Earth is at the beginning of the base game/first expansion/second expansion cycle.
There are undoubtedly a lot of similarities — luxury and strategic resources, hexagonal tiles, et cetera — but Endless Legend makes four key tweaks to the formula that dramatically change how the game plays, and mostly for the better.
1) Factions actually play differently
The differences between Civilization's various factions are more apparent from an AI standpoint than a player standpoint. Oh sure, each has an individual unit or two and perhaps an individual building, and each has a bias towards a certain style of play. But in many ways playing as the English isn't too dissimilar from playing as the Chinese.
Endless Legend's factions are intimidating for a first-timer. There are eight of them, each heavily favors a specific style of play, and coming into the game you have no idea what a Necrophage or a Wild Walker means for you.
The lore for the Necrophage faction, for instance, says "A hive people that survive by ingesting or converting others as they infect them with their plague, the Necrophage are scavengers and survivors. Always hungry and always hostile, they are viewed as a scourge by other peoples." What does this mean to you as the player? You get zero diplomatic technologies, and once you declare war on a faction you can never arrange for peace. Ever. No other faction plays this way. It's entirely unique to the Necrophage.
On top of that, each faction has a specific main questline to progress through. These aren't too complicated really — go here, capture this, scan that — but the bits of flavor text in between give some great world-building context to Endless Legend's universe and help further delineate the various factions.
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