Ok, even though I've played a fair amount of Diablo 3 this week, and have had a few really good Hero Academy games - there is only one game I want to talk about today:
Endless Space has a few things going for it:
1 - Absolutely breathtaking UI and overall presentation. Finding information about your space empire is totally effortless, and beautiful at every moment.
2 - An innovative (though, ultimately, not very effective) system of early alpha releases and community feedback.
Let's talk about the UI - because it's not just about beautiful art direction - the presentation design goes all the way into the bones of the project.
To begin with - the universe is displayed as a rendered galaxy of stars. The stars you use are all in a 2D plane, but the game fills in around that to create a full breathtaking galaxy. You zoom in and out of this with the mouse wheel, and the amount of information you see is determined by your zoom level. At minimum zoom, you see just the Galaxy. Come in a bit, and you'll see the network of star lanes connecting the important planets. Come in closer, and you'll see empire borders, and the presence of fleets. Come in closer, and you'll see breakdowns of how many planets are in each system, whether or not they are colonized, and which special resources are present.
Zooming in and out is so natural - and the information is laid out so well - that this really is the key innovation of the product. In most cases starting with praise for the UI would indicate that most of the game is poorly realized - but in this case the UI really is fantastic enough to warrant it.
If you click on a star, you zoom in even further - to see the planets orbiting. This view shows you the centerpiece of the economy - each planet has 6 essential stats: Food, Income, Dust, Science, Size, and atmosphere type (which also encompasses things like gas giants). Size is the maximum population, and each of the FIDS production numbers are multiplied by that planet's population - so population is often the key resource to maximize.
Guts of the Economy
The economic core of the game is very similar to Civilization, as I've already said. One cool innovation is that the smallest unit of your economy is the system, not individual planets. This is awesome from a UI and management perspective, but it makes system combat non-existent, which makes military actions a bit broad - none of the planet-by-planet battles or minefields of Stars! Food production fills up a supply bar, and when it is filled the system gains 1 population. Building a colony ship costs the system 1 population. Increasing population (as well as the tax slider) decreases "happiness" - which acts as a multiplier to your FIDS income.
You build system-wide enhancements, which have an upkeep cost in Dust. This is all very, very familiar to anyone who spent much time in Civilization IV. That's not much of a complaint however - since I'm of the opinion that Civ IV was pretty much the best PC game ever created.
The first thing that caught my eye about Endess Space was not the game itself - but rather the "community design" system under which it was built. I myself am planning a project which uses a community-driven model, so I was interested to do some research into such a system already in action.
Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much community involvement. There are forums where people discuss the game, but it's very much the same sort of "buff this nerf that" balance noise you can find on any game forum. I don't see any careful or thoughtful analysis. There is a system in place similar to Gaia online - where people can agree or disagree with your statements - and gaining more agreements makes your suggestions carry more theoretical weight. I haven't seen this in action much - mostly because there just isn't much reasonable discussion in the first place.
Ship and fleet building are decent, though the UI selection is oddly poor for "systems" - you select them from a scrolling horizontal box, even though you quickly have 20 -30 systems to choose from, so there is rather more scrolling than is healthy. There are only 3 weapon types, and the theory is that each is effective in one phase of combat - missiles at long range, beams at medium, and kinetic weapons up close. There are also three defense types - one for each weapon type.
Your empire has a command point limit - which affects the number of ships you can use in battle at once. Initially you may have only 5 ships in a fleet - so you can build 20 ships, but they will organize into 4 fleets, and battles are a 1-fleet to 1-fleet affair. The problem with the combat design right now is that kinetic weapons are quite effective even at long-range, so masses of kinetic weapons are effective against pretty much everything. There might be some technologies deep in the tech tree which adjust that balance - but I haven't seen them yet.
I haven't quite figured out how to push fleets or colonies out of a system - the game seems to be mostly a race to colonize contested systems ASAP, since even new systems seem to defend themselves pretty well, and as they grow they become very strong contributors to your empire.
A Long Road
The real question is - how much more effort will be put into Endless Space before it is considered final? Will the thin diplomacy selections be fleshed out? Will the combat be adjusted to favor kinetic weapons less? Endless Space has the best foundation for a 4x game I've ever seen, so I hope the developers will be improving it for years to come yet.