End­less Space 2

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PC

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

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