Amplitude’s Strategic Spectacles

Strategy games tend to foster a sense of deliberate control over everything that’s going on, and the 4X genre (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) is especially emblematic of this. Though the 4X player is often ostensibly a head of state, the amount of control in their megalomaniacal little paws verges on hilarious. Players hop between commanding vast military campaigns on distant continents, making civilization-defining decisions about policy and science funding, commissioning small municipal libraries, and pinning promotion badges on individual soldiers. It’s a genre all about having your fingers in as many pies as possible.

So it’s somewhat remarkable that French developer Amplitude Studio’s forays into the 4X genre have transformed battlefield combat, so often one of the deepest systems in a strategy game, into a kind of spectacle. 2012’s space opera Endless Space and 2014’s science fantasy Endless Legend both force the player to sit back and watch tactical battles play out with no direct input in terms of unit behavior. This is unusual in a genre that usually allows a huge amount of micromanagement, so what effect does transforming combat into a spectacle have on the overall 4X experience?

Yup; this is a cerebral, slow-paced strategy game.

Battle as Spectacle

First, an overview of the games in question. The combat mechanics in Amplitude’s space opera 4X, Endless Space, are fairly straightforward. When your space fleet and an enemy space fleet meet in the same star system and pick a fight, you’re able to pick three tactics cards that buff or debuff ships in various ways — one for long range combat, one for mid-range, and one up close.

Then you, with your fingers in so many other pies, must sit back and watch the battle play out on its own. And I must agree with reviewers at the game’s release — the results are usually great fun to watch. There are even a variety of spectator options built-in, allowing you to follow different ships from different angles as they fight, or hide the UI entirely to enjoy the show.

In the words of PC Gamer’s Endless Space review, extermination is “everyone’s favourite” X, and this is not an inaccurate assessment — combat is usually one of the most fleshed-out systems in this genre. Military unit control plays a key role in Sins of a Solar Empire; Age of Wonders; Heroes of Might and Magic; and even in Civilization. This is a genre that usually only forces the player into a spectator role while waiting for other players to finish their turns. Amplitude’s choice of instead transforming combat into something explicitly framed as a spectacle is interesting and, in the context of the Endless games’ other systems, perhaps a bit subversive.

Endless Legend, Amplitude’s follow-up 4X game, does provide players with a bit more influence over combat, but even here we’re not afforded the typical micromanaging power of moving units exactly and choosing their actions in a direct and predictable way. Instead you give all your units priorities at the start of a round — attack this, go there, support them — and they figure things out on their own.

Go, icy blue, go!

And the vast majority of your time in the battle screen is again spent… spectating. Watching, with the UI turned off if you so please. And the thing is, as each unit tries to act on its orders, the board changes, and the orders you gave at the start of the round end up causing behaviors further and further from what you anticipated. Soon enough, I find myself cheering my army on as though it were a sports team, with precious little clue what’s going to happen next.

Spectacle as Distance

I said earlier that this divorcing of battlefield command from the player’s role as political leader feels a bit subversive. Why? Within the context of the 4X genre, where military tactics and strategy often form the core of a game’s engaging moments, Amplitude decided to recenter the player’s control over warfare around economic and logistical concerns and high-level planning. Battle isn’t about clever tactics to the degree it so often is in other games.

Two things about this interest me. First, by treating battle as a spectacle rather than a space of action, the game creates a distance between a state’s political ruler (the player) and is military might. This is unusual for the 4X genre, which often tacitly assumed a union of political and military power — a union we would generally look upon with trepidation in real-world politics. It’s not a great distance, to be sure, but it’s more than I’ve experienced in other games of the genre.

Second, battles as a spectacle interlock more broadly with other mechanics in Amplitude’s strategy games to subvert the genre’s supposed pillar of extermination. This is especially true in Endless Legend, where the hands-off battles tie into a larger attempt by Amplitude to situate the player’s role in the realm of governance and leadership, rather than conquest and bloodshed. Endless Legend often penalizes expansion more harshly than other flagship 4X titles; it has several interlocking mechanics that incentivize peaceful and multicultural inclusion of non-colonial peoples into a player’s state; and it lavishes narrative attention on the precarious state of the natural world, and frame’s the player’s mission as one of survival against the elements. Battle as spectacle reinforces the same message as many of the game’s other features: you’re not here just to stomp all over everything. You have other things to think about.

Even the cannibalistic insect-folk agree that war isn’t always a great thing.

These subversions of the centrality of military might and warfare to the genre, even if they’re fairly modest, have me excited for the studio’s next foray into the strategy space. Others might disagree, though; this battle-as-spectacle system disappoints or frustrates some strategy fans, who view direct control over combat as a key pillar of the genre.

Spectacle and Drama

One last thought on this curious mechanic. I think there’s an argument to be made that the Endless combat-as-spectacle mechanic also helps create a sense of dramatic tension that’s different to the usual strategic tension of a 4X game.

Again, this works in tandem with other mechanics, in this case the ones deciding what units get brought into a battle. Endless Space and Endless Legend both limit the size of the armies that can enter into conflict, which somewhat helps equalize individual battles in terms of outcome. And those battles between roughly evenly-matched forces then play out under a system where the player has no direct control — that is, no ability to mathematically optimize the effectiveness of their military. Reinforcements aside (and Amplitude restricts reinforcements more stringently than genre competitors, like Age of Wonders III), the result is that individual battles often feel more evenly-matched than you’d see in other 4X games.

The combination of systems that promote fights between evenly-matched armies, and systems that remove minute player control from combat, means that Amplitude’s battles have a distinctly dramatic tension and uncertainty to them. Again, this deviates from the genre norm, as many other 4X games feature combat that lends itself to more exact optimization, where the tension is less about watching something dramatic and more about making the right decisions. And funnily enough, uncertainty and tension can be pretty powerful things to have in spectacle — and I’m sure Amplitude knew this, too, when designing their combat system.

Battle begins, everyone starts shooting, and you hope for the best.

Watching Amplitude’s Next Battle

I don’t know how much of the experiences I described above are key parts of Amplitude’s vision, and how much is the result of the studio prioritizing its development resources. Because Endless Legend features somewhat more control over combat than Endless Space, it could be that Amplitude is slowly pushing its combat systems closer to what 4X players typically expect. Endless Space 2 is due to arrive later this year, and I’m eagerly watching Amplitude’s next steps on the path to being a strategy game powerhouse. Will they further explore having their players watch battles unfold as spectacles, thus distancing warfare from the business of politics? Or will they try their hand at as more traditional approach?

I don’t know, but I’m eager to find out — and clearly I’m not alone. Sega just acquired Amplitude this July, meaning Amplitude has now joined ranks with the industry’s other strategy powerhouses, Relic and Creative Assembly. The folks at Amplitude must be onto something interesting.

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Guerric Haché

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I develop games, write sci-fi & fantasy, learn languages, volunteer, make food, and squee at cats.