by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
After last year’s revival of Master of Orion went south, it was up to Endless Space 2 to defend the honour of the turn-based 4X genre. The Early Access version showed enormous promise but the game’s release is not quite as smooth as Amplitude had hoped it to be. Does this sequel live up to the high expectations? It does and it doesn’t.
Let me start by saying that while my review may seem to swerve a bit and I feel it is necessary to manage expectations beforehand. All tallied up, Endless Space 2 is a wonderfully deep game that is pushing the boundaries for the genre but there are issues. Two days into playing the game, Matt asked me how it was. I said “It’s good, but not as new and fresh as the first one”. The thing is, I was wrong but I did not know that at the time. Most of Endless Space’s’s brilliance stays hidden - in plain sight - until you have enough experience to recognise what it is you’ve been missing and would like to know. There are some serious bugs though, and this makes reviewing the game a little complicated.
As with any good 4X game that is set in space, you send out scouts to explore your surroundings and colonise planets as quickly as possible. Your goal is to establish an empire that can compete at the galactic stage, all the while being in a mad dash for one or more predetermined victory conditions. If you like these kind of things, Endless Space 2 offers a variety of play styles that are tied to its major factions. Almost every faction has something truly unique to offer that set it apart from all the others. The Riftborn do not eat and manipulate star system output by slowing or speeding up time. The Lumeris colonise planets by buying them, bypassing the dangers and time involved with sending ships to other systems. The other 6 are every bit as interesting and their differences are as pronounced as I have seen in any 4X.
The galaxy is full of wonders and exploration can be incredibly satisfying but dangerous as well. Early on, spotting curiosities on planets provides a nice little boost in research, resources and income. New curiosities become available through technological progress, meaning it’s still worthwhile exploring even when you’re close to winning. The dangers consist of running into pirates and unfriendly factions whose fleets usually make short work of explorers.
There’s a lot of emphasis on keeping things relevant throughout the game. One of those hidden aspects I mentioned earlier was the spaceport. It’s not available straight away but when it opens up it allows you to set a destination and drag and drop population to the port so that they can be shipped off and boost the target population. That brings me to yet another hidden aspect, and that is the race bonuses. It is unlikely that your empire will consist only of colonists of your starting race and that’s a good thing. I loved assimilating a minor race and finding out that it provided a happiness bonus. I shipped them off to some of my more troublesome systems and got them to breed like rabbits to produce more of them. There are research, production and other bonuses too and while you don’t need to take these into account, it does pay off to do so and truly celebrate the mix.
The resource game
Being a production powerhouse gets you far, but special resources are usually what gives you the extra oomph you require to compete. Ship hulls can be upgraded to include additional weapon, defensive or utility slots through additional research. These slots are only available if you have the right resource at your disposal. The same is true for upgraded weaponry. More than once my decision to go to war with a specific race was influenced by a system with a rare resource located close to my borders. Luxury resources are more plentiful and can be used to create trade companies. Once active in a system, the luxuries bring bonuses to output, happiness and the like. I cannot recall having had such a great time fiddling around with trade in a 4X – this is a very well done aspect of the game.
Diplomacy is good but not as stellar as the trade mechanic. Friendships rise and fall and the major factions will tell you whenever they change their opinion of you. The diplomatic options are varied enough, at least when you’ve researched trade and alliance treaties. Unfortunately the factions aren’t always very clear on what their grievances are. Do they have a right to get pissy when a lonely exploration ship nears their space? And why are they always telling me they are interested in a trade or research treating or even an alliance but never offer one? I know why, it means they do not have to spend the all too important influence points. They’ll even do it when you do not have the tech yet, ad nauseam. The voice acting is of good quality – with only the Sophons feeling completely out of context for the game – but there is precious little of it. At some point I yelled at Horatio representative that I’d strangle him with my bare hands if he’d start a sentence with “Tell me” one more time.
Local politics fare a lot better. Different government types give additional bonuses that can be augmented by passing laws. The influence points I mentioned above are so important because the laws is where you spend most of them. Need a research boost? Pass a law. Is your fleet to expensive? There’s a law to reduce its upkeep. The laws provide a good bit of fun and their impact can usually be felt instantly without being too overpowering.
And to swerve a bit again, combat is… well it’s there. The combat strategy card system of the original Endless Space has been transformed a bit. When two fleets lock into battle, players select a card to buff their fleet, say shields or weapon power, and split their fleet into 1, 2 or 3 flotillas. The choice of card influences the flotillas position in the front, middle or back of the battle as well. The actual combat plays out automagically without any further player input. The battles are as beautiful as they were in the original game but after you’ve seen a few you’re almost certain to have the game resolve the battles without doing anything other than select the card.
There be bugs
Unfortunately Endless Space 2 may well go down as Amplitude’s buggiest release to date. The game was woefully unstable in the week before release which did not bode well. A launch-day patch solved the vast majority of the issues, to the point where I was able to play several games without noticing any problems whatsoever beyond a handful of performance issues that are still there today. A more recent patch destabilized things again and my latest game refuses to resolve its battles and progress to the next turn, even when loading save games that I made several turns ago. This bug has been around for a while and should have been fixed in Early Access.
The game also does not adjust for late game quests and diplomatic actions. Rewards simply do not increase along with your progress - when you own a third of the galaxy, being forced to accept a truce where the other party pays 20 gold per turn for a while is particularly frustrating.
Downright maddening is how hard it is to deal with revolts due to over-colonization during the later stages of the game. Sooner or later, planets will revolt and rebel fleets start to attack your planets – often en masse. In one game that I played as the pacifist trader Lumeris faction, I put my entire focus on whatever happiness upgrade I could get my hands on, offered bribes to populations and even got to the point that I was vacating entire systems - and - had a happiness bonus law for having peace with two other empires. By the time I owned a quarter of the galaxy things still spiralled out of control. The game started cycling through each of its government types, a new one every other turn, forcing me to set up laws again and visit every system to see if the population would accept a bribe to calm down. I only got things back to normal when I declared war on two factions for which I received a massive happiness bonus through one of the Military laws. Odd, for a pacifist faction.
Checks and balances
The performance, happiness and stability issues drag down a game that could have received a perfect score. If I had a choice, I’d roll back to the previous patch to at least have a stable game again, but that’s not an option. Fortunately there are ways to win the game without having a large portion of the map in your back pocket.
When the turns are processing, battles are resolved smoothly and revolts remain manageable, Endless Space 2 is an absolutely magnificent game. There is so much to discover, so much to do and so many different ways to do it, it’s dazzling when you get started. But once you have the basics under control and start noticing the many intricate ways in which the game allows you to manage and fine-tune your empire, it is hard not to be impressed.
Incredible depth, many aspects remain relevant throughout
Show stopping bugs