Quality 4X games all have a single tangible quality in common: once you dive in, you dive deep, and you often don't even realize you need to come up for air until you're blearily blinking at the clock at four in the morning.
Endless Space 2 embodies that spiritual gameplay perfectly. You sit down, start or continue a campaign, and after saying to yourself “just one more turn” about a thousand times you find yourself knee deep in your society's struggle for survival as your resources thin, critical research completes, or a new fleet is ready to see its first round of combat.
It's this sense of turn-by-turn problem solving that drives Endless Space 2 forward, while the ridiculous attention to detail paid to each faction's unique feel and playstyle keeps things spicy in between each playthrough.
But that isn't to say it's all solar rays and asteroid belts in Endless Space 2 – there are enough technical issues to disrupt the flow occasionally. And although the factions themselves are deeply detailed, elements like the hero system and an occasional fluky UI need some specific tweaking before they become the polished experience we'll likely see out of Endless Space 2 at the end of the year.
However, that doesn't keep Endless Space 2 from being a fantastically energetic 4X game that leaks character like radiation out of a warp drive, chock full of an addictive freeform take on 4X elements that's sure to keep you utterly glued to the screen for weeks on end.
There's an intense satisfaction to exploring and completing any of the hundreds of tiny objectives throughout Endless Space 2. Early in the title these are often as simple as getting your first network of colonies up and rolling. Mid to late game it's watching your fleet successfully arrive at and defend your star system from a resource-hungry faction.
Every choice, every completed objective feels small but ridiculously satisfying to accomplish. This in turn feeds back into managing another small objective, and then another, until you're six hours into a campaign trying to remember if you need to eat or begin prepping your faction for yet another round of elections as a militant uprising threatens your industrialized trade federation.
A huge part of this turn-by-turn satisfaction is due to how well Amplitude organizes separate events within your empire. Each turn brings about new technological advances, new quests, new threats, and new chances to overcome or work around these challenges. Yet the genius of Endless Space 2 is that as you work to overcome each challenge and stretch to each new horizon, the game encourages you to think organically, rarely pigeonholing you into a single path or playstyle simply because you've always done it that way.
This creates a unique 4X experience that allows you to subtly manipulate your society constantly, allowing you to evolve and face new threats as you steadily work towards either a victory choice that you've been aiming for all along, or one that you adapted to when the other became much more difficult.
The result is a 4X game that feels like it responds to your individual choices, and that ultimately takes the pressure off of having to make the absolute right choice that'll help you win 20 turns from now, and instead focuses you on simply learning more about Amplitude's universe so that you can better adapt when the time comes.
As you would expect, this shift makes for extremely fun turn-by-turn experiences, and removes the choice paralysis many new players experience stepping into the undoubtedly overwhelming world of 4X titles. This is great, because once you get past that paralysis the real fun and the progressive learning begins, which is often where 4X games really shine.
A Whole Universe of Possibilities
Of course, addictive turn-by-turn encounters are common in a world where Sid Meyers and Civilization have dominated for years, which is why Endless Space 2 spent a hell of a lot of time overhauling their factions to make them some of the most interesting we've seen in a long time. Each one frames your campaign with unique mechanics that go beyond simple class bonuses and government tweaks. The framework serves to bring you to the table, but when you arrive you'll find yourself staying because the whole damn house is fun to build and explore.
For example, transporting population units from one planet to the other as the United Empire is generally a slow process. Even when you develop shuttles that can transport these units one at a time to distant colonies it takes a certain amount of time and commitment to see these movements come to fruition. This is mitigated by the United Empire's ability to open diplomacy with alien races, and eventually assimilate them into their colonies from the beginning of the game, gaining allies and new citizens through diplomacy. Either way, these events often require time and investment to encourage population growth from one colony to the next.
The Riftborn, on the other hand, just need to make it to a planet they wish to colonize, and then thanks to the wonders of an entirely mechanized race, can invest industrial resources to simply build more colonists. In contrast, the Unfallen use massive space-born roots and tendrils to connect their system in a single powerful ecosystem, meanwhile the Vodyani, can create massive expensive arks that can travel to a world and instantly colonize and populate its surface.
Each faction allows for a different set of bonuses, and unique speed and tactical advantages begin to emerge as you master the faction's abilities. These much more tangible differences from faction to faction create a sense that, as a race, they're more than just a set of numbers on a character sheet. It's the difference between a character that's been min-maxed all to hell on paper but lacks the personality and role-play to really come alive. Endless Space 2's factions are alive, and they feel like they're constantly evolving with every structure you create and every choice you make.
This focus on detailed factions not only draws you into their cultural universe, but also builds up the replay value to a massive degree. Each faction plays differently, and each faction can be played in a number of ways, allowing you to apply their specific strengths in new and inventive ways depending on your playthrough. Nothing's quite as terrifying as a group of Unfallen that have set aside their pacifist lifestyles to forcibly spread their tendrils across the galaxy, assimilating everything by force rather than diplomacy.
The research system – as much as it's built for four specific paths in the form of military expansion, deep space exploration, science, and economics – can hopscotch back and forth quite a bit, which makes for unique opportunities to explore alternative paths to similar objectives. It's an element of flexibility that allows you to play each faction numerous ways even if you're working towards the same goal.
Subtle Storytelling binds an Empire together
My initial playthrough as the United Empire led me down what felt like an extremely slow opening set of turns as I explored the galaxy and opened diplomatic lines with four or five smaller alien races peppered throughout the galaxy. I found myself struggling to invest in research even as I was literally swimming in credits with few planets to call my own.
Yet, as soon as my investments in diplomacy paid off, I was able to complete a quest for each of the sub-factions in the space of three or four turns, and assimilate each race into my empire, tripling the number of colonies I suddenly had available. This, combined with a key research that allowed me to boost my scientific bonuses on temperate, fertile planets, and I was suddenly well on my way to completing even massive research topics in a single turn. This allowed me to send out waves of patrols and colonization ships to previously unavailable planets and lay the groundwork for a massive empire with a diverse set of creatures working throughout.
However, this also quickly put me at odds with one of my neighboring factions that needed resources and colonies even worse than I did, forcing me to invest in more military-geared ships and fortifications on my border planets, including recruiting one of my bodyguards as a powerful hero and my heir-apparent to help serve as a powerful strike force for my armada.
This was all well and good until elections came to town, and suddenly I found my industrialist government at odds with military and scientific factions alike, which threatened to shift certain laws out of the picture that would severely cut down my supply of Dust, the most common form of currency in the galaxy.
As a federation, I had the ability to influence the odds of the election, but instead I let the chips fly on the off chance it would show me something new. If I was going to rule, I was going to rule by the people, not by my corruption and coin.
After a few nail-biting moments, the election tolls rolled in and the industrialist faction emerged victorious, giving me another 20 turns to manipulate the tide of votes or at least stockpile resources in case I lost my precious industrialist-minded passive.
As I was planning my next few steps, I found that I had to stop and just take a moment to realize that I very much felt like I wasn't just playing a sandbox table top strategy game. I legitimately found myself immersed in space opera levels of court intrigue, watching the drama unfold before me as a subtle manipulator behind the scenes.
I felt like the United Federation was my child, and I had a choice in how it would develop. Shifting to democracy, filling out trade, pursuing a more pacifist narrative, I suddenly didn't care about victory conditions – it became about helping my empire survive and thrive as it spread throughout the stars. The detailed quests and small wonders I found by sending probes catapulting into unknown space felt like a combination of Stargate and Game of Thrones, and had me frothing at the mouth to continue.
I've never had a 4X game make me feel like I was writing history, like I was forging new frontiers and expanding a civilization that would soon enter either a golden age or a historic bloodbath with it's neighbors across the stars. I've found myself pulled close by gameplay, by challenges, but never by the inner workings of my faction on its own.
It was a level of immersion with a 4X game that had nothing to do with graphics or even simple gameplay. Instead, it was created by a system that draws the player deep into the folds of a living, breathing society that's exploding across the universe fueled by goals more intriguing than mere survival.
It felt good, it felt right, and it felt like fun in the same way that reading the most exciting act of a good sci-fi novel feels. By the time I hit the final acts of that campaign, I didn't really care if I won, all I wanted to do was watch my society continue to grow.
Graphically, the game looks pretty good for a 4X game, managing to maintain a serious and more realistic tone than Civilization, while pulling off just enough of a cool sci-fi feel that plays well off of the space-tastic backdrop.
In reality, the game doesn't actually push the boundaries of graphical fidelity in any significant way. But it hides it well enough behind futuristic HUD elements and the majesty of a massive star system, so that you're hard pressed to realize you're just looking at a bunch of small white lines connecting spinning planet-themed-space-marbles, with a few geometric fog of war touches and an occasional piece of concept art to help your imagination paint the landscape.
That said, because it manages to create this illusion so subtly, the game looks really appealing. It manages to strike a more attractive, serious tone for hardcore players that want to experience a unique virtual tabletop adventure but still want to be taken in by the majesty of space travel in all its glory.
Battles themselves will also play out in real time 3D reenactments if you choose to take advantage of the feature, which brings you close to the action in a decent representation of a 3D space RTS that's much more enjoyable than your average Risk-style representation of cartoon characters duking it out on a virtual table top.
All praises aside, while I obviously enjoyed Endless Space 2, there were more than a few technical elements that also made completing my first few campaigns a little difficult.
As far as performance goes, the minute-to-minute optimization was stellar, I rarely felt like I was losing frames, and the game generally performed flawlessly on my GTX 970. I could easily tab out to access other features or to use other programs and the title usually had no issue being temporarily put on the back burner while I worked on other projects.
That said, as my campaigns progressed I ran into several issues often enough that they began to get a little bit annoying, if not altogether game breaking.
After prolonged gaming sessions my client occasionally needed a restart, which was always signaled by a strange lag when I attempted to zoom in or out of planets. Not terrible, considering the game usually still let me save, and startup times were typically quick. But considering it occurred once or twice every three to four hours it created a bit of a break in the immersion that Amplitude seemed so intent on creating.
Again, not a huge deal, but definitely a minor inconvenience that needs to be ironed out. It could have had something to do with my settings, but it was subtle enough that I could never nail down the exact cause. It definitely wasn't a memory leak because I rarely found my RAM topping off anywhere near capacity. It's a minor annoyance that gets frustrating in a game that encourages long campaigns with a massive replay value.
In contrast, I also experienced an incredibly annoying glitch concerning the Hero Academy, which is supposed to serve as a primary base of operations for recruiting new hero characters and using them to strike fear into the hearts of your enemies or bolster stats of certain systems.
Probably five to sevens hours into my first campaign, I stumbled across the academy while completing a quest for a nearby group of lifeforms I was hoping to add to my repertoire of colonists. I found the academy at the same time, completed the quests, and was all set to continue on my merry way – groovy.
Except it wasn't, because after that point anytime I zoomed into that particular system my game would freeze frame on the academy planet. I couldn't back out, I couldn't open any other menus, and every time I was forced to hard shut down the program and restart from my last autosave.
This wasn't often a huge deal, but until I learned better any time I accidentally clicked on the system to see if I could lay a new colony in this tiny unexplored space I experienced the same crash, followed by the same restart rigmarole. As you would expect – because I'm obviously not a very smart man – I managed to accidentally click on the system a lot, resulting in a lot of cursing and quite a bit of frustration, especially if I had just set a lot of commands into motion that I now needed to repeat.
As a result, I wasn't able to really use the Hero Academy for the entirety of first campaign until I found the research for the Academy Embassy, which allowed me to access the Academy without ever accessing the Hero Academy's bugged star system.
I only had the error occur on my first playthrough, and hopefully if it's a chronic issue it'll be patched out soon, but based on a Google search looking for solutions to the problem it's rare enough that the issue isn't likely to come to the developer's attention anytime soon. Although that also hopefully means that it's not an issue for a huge number of people.