This bold sci-fi 4X strategy. It will take hours of your life and in the name of just-one-more-turn. Again. And again. Until you realise bedtime has long gone and dawn is breaking on another glorious day across your galactic empire of... pacifists. Perhaps tomorrow you will be industrialists. There is a reason this game has to be better than merely good - this is Endless Space 2, the sequel to one of the 4X greats of recent times.
Living up to its name, Endless Space 2 provides a huge and amazingly rich, randomly generated universe each time you play. You choose one of eight very different races to begin your colonisation of the stars. Most games in this genre will differentiate a new race by tweaking a couple of the generic stats. One may be the combative race with +1 on space ship fighting but -1 on diplomacy. It all usually evens out though, often desperately trying not to unbalance the game.
Endless Space 2 is much braver than that. It builds in huge core differences for the races throughout the game, from the tongue-in-cheek intro movie across many of the core quests and storylines you are faced with, to the tech tree. It's as if Amplitude accepted it could never perfectly balance a game of this scale and leant headfirst into the idea that these races can offer you a challenge to play as and sometimes a challenge to play against. And it works great.
To expand on how this can play out; you may choose the robotic empire that's very strong in science, however, unbeknownst to you at this early stage, your starting galaxy is right next door to a war loving empire who happen to have started randomly in a solar system rich in resources and bonuses. You can push forward as fast as you want through your science perks, but when the enemy turns up they either want to beat you to a pulp or settle forcibly on your surrounding star systems, thus starving your own resource expansion. However this isn't frustrating, it's actually hugely enjoyable trying to work out how to deal with these challenges. Your superior science and tech development can allow you to leapfrog far beyond the military factions and their base level of negotiations, allowing you to turn up to the diplomacy table with options they haven't a clue about. Before you know it you are leeching their resources and passing through their star systems as you wish, leaving them to provide a protective belt around your home star systems.
Where most strategy games dare not tread is in the application of narrative. Endless Space 2 is colourful and rich in story. It pushes this area by triggering plentiful mini quests, offering bonus resources and tech. Giving the player something to aim for, instead of finding themselves with nothing to do but click the 'Next Turn' button. Wrapped around whichever wonderfully defined empire you choose to play as, is a personal empire story that unfolds in stages, and grants bonuses depending on how you choose to try and complete it. It's fairly simple but adds great amounts of depth with some interesting writing. Most people will probably skip the bulk of the text and just quickly select from one of the options that inform you what the impact may be, but even these are written to make the player stop and think.
As you would expect from a game like this, Endless Space 2, at first, can leave you bewildered from the array of detail you're expected to learn. But Amplitude seems to know this, and before long you'll be dancing confidently throughout its game. In particular, the folks behind the user interface need to be commended. Once you know what you're looking at you'll realise all this data is offered up via colours, pulsating blips, numbers, icons and tonnes upon tonnes of hover-over help tools. You rarely need to leave the main map screen other than to set up the development queue for a system. Add to this the incredible spectrum of worlds moving around their stars, each beautifully detailed and representative of its native climate, which translates into a real impact on the player when discovered, and you have a good looking and simple to navigate sci-fi strategy game.
The Endless Space 2 tech tree is presented as a dauntingly large circle of options. But again the User Interface Guru at Amplitude has woven logic throughout it. The circle of tech is split into four quadrants, with similar tech gathered in each. Then there are levels within each quadrant that unlock as you progress. You just have to take a moment to learn what colours and shapes you are looking for and before you know it, you can cast an eye around and guess where certain industrial planetary tech upgrades will lie, or alien influencing advancements are, or the next powerful rank of space torpedoes. And if that's still too tricky then the Amplitude UI Guru thought to add a search bar right there in the tech screen. Add the fact that every time in the main game screen that you're told you can't do something because you aren't technically evolved enough, the game also tells you exactly which tech you're missing and you can go and look it up with the search bar on the tech screen and then focus your tech efforts into unlocking it.
To add further depth, there are minor races scattered throughout Endless Space 2 that make a difference as you attempt to assimilate or destroy them. There are also internal politics within your own systems to consider as you take on these new species who start to push you further into a particular political mindset. The political state of your empire might begin as Science based, offering you science bonuses, but if you keep researching and developing your industrial tech across your systems while diluting your core race with species that have alternative political views, then your main science party may be ousted come the next 20 turn election cycle. And with that, some of the other benefits you had accrued during their leadership. Again, when these hiccups occur, your game doesn't break at turn 85 or make you think, “sod it, that's ruined it for me”, it just adds story and depth. In other games of the genre, it’s usually at this point in your game when it starts to look like you're playing a Spreadsheet Number Management Sim. As I said at the beginning, you may well start out as a race of Pacifists one day, but take your eye off the ball and the following day your leadership is 80% militarily driven.
Next up, you can discover the tech that unlocks the international marketplace. As you explore the galaxy, special resources are found on planets. These rare commodities have a market rate that fluctuates as you and the other major races discover and trade them. Some of the resources have social, industrial and military applications and can be consumed to better your Empire. If you're a bit short on one thing then perhaps there will be enough of that resource up for sale at a good price.
During the early parts of your game, you will occasionally see small pirate ships blockade your systems and shoot down automated cargo vessels moving between your new systems. But later on, you bump into the other key Empires. And over time these Empires start to get pretty heavy-handed in their demands on you until you'd better be able to pay up, or armed with heavy ships laden with futuristic weaponry. But again the pace of the game is great, where you can usually take your time to develop and prepare for encounters. Sometimes though, be prepared to realise you are the runt of the galaxy, waiting to be annihilated.
And how to win a match of Endless Space 2? End game usually ruins these sorts of titles. In Endless Space 2, you'll know your own victory conditions when you're playing a particular run through, as you'll choose them yourself as your empire spreads. Many other titles in this genre snatch a game away from you and say someone has won just when you feel you're really enjoying yourself. Or it loses its focus during the latter stages of play. However, Endless Space 2 balances this aspect of the game pretty well. Sure, you may sometimes get a randomly generated dud, but that's normally because you tweaked custom galaxy design sliders before you even began. But even that usually leads to an interesting game, even if the galaxy is a mess. Think Civilization in terms of your available Endless Space 2 victory conditions. You can dominate the Galaxy or you can take power through the economy, yet whichever you choose, you're not likely to feel short-changed by a weird game ending AI choice that happens off screen that you had little influence over at the time.
With all the gushing praise, at some point, we had to come to what Endless Space 2 does wrong. Well, the space and land battles 4X games can't hide from seem to be somewhat hollow. Endless Space 2 builds you up with pre-battle strategy screens. You review the units of both sides before the battle takes place, and you select and apply a bonus for your troops or space ships which are derived from tech you might have discovered or researched. And then you can watch the action take place. The ships jump into the battle sector and start firing their barrage of weaponry again and again. Then you realise its all time-wasting and irrelevant, and you just want to see a quick results screen as the 3D battle provides little informative feedback and nothing for you to influence.
Another problem area within Endless Space 2 comes at the cost of those easy political shifts I mentioned earlier. The game’s rich narrative helps paint an immersive picture that swiftly becomes disjointed from its reality when, for example, your peace loving pacifist Empire turns to a military leadership because you had to build some starships to defend your systems from the randomly spawned pirates.
These are minor negatives that you only really encounter when you play Endless Space 2 with a fully immersive mindset. Even then, it will take you a while to reach that stage of irritation. I personally can overlook those inconsistencies and wonder what great things the mods and DLC may bring to the game in the future when trying to tackle those sorts of minor issues.
The list of features and considerations within Endless Space 2 continues on, including creating your own customisable starting Empire. But now I must leave you, earthling, as the stars await. So I recommended strategy fans go and pick up this ambitiously wonderful game and explore.
If you're looking for a replayable sci-fi strategy game to grab a hold of your man hours, then Endless Space 2 will provide you with all you desire. Endless Space 2 sets a new and beautiful benchmark for the 4X genre, masterfully laid out and something future 4x developers will enjoy learning from.