Endless Space 2
Endless Space 2 has joined a landscape rich with 4X space-strategy games, something that could not be said for the series’ debut in 2012. The rise of middleweight PC publishers has resulted in renewed support for, and interest in, genres that struggled in the previous decade. Sega’s investment in a portfolio of PC strategy developers – Endless creators Amplitude, Creative Assembly, Relic – is evidence of a genre entering a new golden age. But now it’s here, grand-strategy games face the challenge of modernising; of fixing long-standing problems that the genre has always had. In that regard, Endless Space 2 is a mixed success.
Amplitude’s strength remains its presentational flair. This is, by a considerable distance, the best-looking and sounding grand-strategy game around. Gorgeous handpainted and animated 2D art illustrates everything from diplomacy to planetary management to the moment when a new colony ship sets down on an alien world. The quality and consistency of the presentation is remarkable. The soundtrack is wonderful too, from the orchestral arrangements that accompany a galactic view to the atmospheric synths that kick in on the discovery of a mysterious new world. These superficial elements matter because this is a deep game. A 4X campaign map is a set of menus pretending to be a place – and the more pleasant that place is to spend time in, the more enjoyable the overall experience.
Diverse playable factions, now a staple of the Endless series, benefit from this excellent art as well as strong writing. While there is a default-feeling human faction, Endless Space 2 encourages you to think of each of its eight launch races as a different game. Humans are militaristic, monarchic industrialists prone to aggressive groupthink, and this is represented in their strengths and weaknesses on the galactic stage. The Sophon are diminutive inventors whose scientific nous allows them to peer in on other races’ research progress, useful for plotting a course to non-violent victory via Endless Space 2’ s extensive tech tree.
Other races change the way you play even more substantially. The Vodyani, fanatical energy beings trapped in ancient spacesuits, live in mobile ark ships and reproduce by draining energy from occupied but non-aligned systems. The Unfallen are sapient trees, drawn into the galaxy when a space battle rained debris down on their homeworld. They colonise other lands by extending root-like tendrils down interstellar pathways, rising to pacifistic dominance with the support of durable starships that look like sycamore seeds.
Endless Space 2’ s combat system sets it apart, too. When two opposing fleets meet, each commander invisibly picks a strategy and assigns their ships to flotillas. Strategies apply top-level bonuses (increased damage at long range, for example) as well as dictating the route taken by each of up to three flotillas. The strategies chosen dictate how ships in each flotilla will meet, where, and when. This is the extent of your involvement as player, but you can subsequently watch the encounter play out in a well-implemented battle viewer. The system has a lot of strategic depth, particularly when combined with the ability to refit ships to amplify different strengths. Unlike many other 4X games, battles between two similarly appointed forces can go one of several different ways depending on the strategic nous of the commander – it’s not just a matter of having the bigger fleet. Happily, the AI is capable of responding to your choices too: trounce them early and they’ll adapt their fleets to challenge you later.
There is much more to consider. Your research, development and foreign-policy decisions inform the popularity of political parties within your faction. The power of each of these waxes and wanes across regular elections, although exactly how this functions depends on your political model. Ruling parties, in turn, give you access to laws that angle your faction in a particular direction such as war, exploration or influence.
This is a complicated game, which unfortunately isn’t mitigated particularly well by Amplitude’s UI design. Endless Space 2’ s interface is consistently beautiful but inconsistently functional. Extensive use of symbolic shorthand makes it a pleasure to use when you’re familiar with everything that it needs to communicate, but early on it can be like trying to read hieroglyphics, despite the insistent assistance of a tutorial pop-up system that’s a good deal more annoying than it should be. Consider that this is a game where ‘manpower’ and ‘population’ are distinct concepts, but where each needs to be represented by a symbol that looks a bit like a person. It’s easy to make incorrect decisions early on because of simple misreading, and the trial-and-error learning process that this encourages is to the game’s detriment.
Endless Space 2 has also launched with a large number of bugs and rough edges. Interactions with the UI can be inconsistent, particularly the pop-up system: diplomatic missives and battle notifications appear at the wrong time, sometimes in duplicate or triplicate.
In that sense, Endless Space 2 adheres to a grand-strategy tradition: games in the genre are too often being released one major patch or expansion away from reaching their potential. This was true of Stellaris and recent Civilization games as well, but that doesn’t excuse Endless Space 2 – and it doesn’t help that those other games, particularly Stellaris, are by now more mature and further along in their own journey. There’s much to recommend in Endless Space 2, and its art and writing has the potential to open up a complex genre to a new audience, but there’s no escaping the fact it’ll be a better game in six months.
This is, by a considerable distance, the best-looking and sounding grand-strategy game around audience