Endless Space 2 Review
Endless Space 2 is the fourth game in Amplitude Studio’s Endless universe, a science-fantasy space opera setting packed with strange artifacts, mysterious races, and ancient secrets. A 4X strategy game, it places the player in charge of a space-faring civilization developing planets and constructing fleets and infrastructure, trying to thrive in a galaxy filled with other civilizations who can become rivals, trading partners, allies, or mortal enemies.
Amplitude has made a name for itself by enhancing the traditional 4X formula with elements often less in focus in the genre, including slick interface design and unusually compelling narrative and art. This focus persists in Endless Space 2, a beautiful game by the standards of the space 4X genre. Each civilization has distinct starship architecture with character and style, and the space scenery is suitably lovely, particularly in battle sequences.
The soundtrack, composed by Amplitude’s regular composer FlyByNo, is subtle and restrained, and customized to the various factions and gameplay situations. Gentle echoes and piano keys mark the arrival of the extradimensional Riftborn species, while quiet and sometimes eerie beats echo in the darkness of space as you explore peacefully. Even in battle, the music is energetic without being overly dramatic – ground battles throb with electric beats, while space fleets engage to the tune of urgent keyboard strikes and slowly blaring horns, but everything remains paced and subdued enough to let you think.
The interface is lovely too, maintaining a connection to the galactic scenery by only imposing a gentle blur on the screen, flanked by with strategically chosen iconography and bold colors. A few screens are hidden too far from sight – management screens for planetside armies or population, for example – but for the most part the interface presents everything logically, and provides tooltips and concise explanations for what everything does.
But while all this presentation helps, the core promise of Endless Space 2 is the experience of guiding an interstellar civilization to greatness in the face of the dangerous and the unknown. This is where Amplitude really tries to show its work, intertwining of pre-authored narrative, background lore, and gameplay systems into a cohesive experience.
Every game of Endless Space 2 begins with your choice of a civilization to play as, and aside from a unique narrative premise, art style, and various unique technologies, each civilization has a small number of radical variations on the game’s basic ruleset: The United Empire can use its political influence as a secondary currency to develop their infrastructure, their science, and their fleets, and gain more political influence with construction projects; the Cravers enslave non-Craver subjects and can eat them for a bonus, while their own populations produce extra resources at first but deplete planets until they are barren and unproductive; and so on.
This is complicated by further population and political systems. Alongside the “main” species that confers its name and unique traits, most civilizations quickly become multiracial states with population units from many different species, each with its own traits and sometimes even associated quests. And if that doesn’t sound complex enough, every so often all your population units will vote for one of six political parties: Militarists, Pacifists, Scientists, Religious, Ecologists, or Industrialists.
Different species tend to vote differently, though they also respond to galactic events in the news. Whoever seizes control of the senate will determine what kind of laws you can apply to your empire, and these laws can have moderate but wide-ranging effects. When the system works, which it usually does, it adds an element of internal tension and unpredictability that heightens the experience. But there are balance issues, in particular related to warfare. Every single battle and warship and bunker you build boosts the Militarists, so any serious war will quickly give Militarists a huge senate majority that becomes very difficult to shake. But for the most part, parties respond in reasonable ways to galactic events, a steady trickle of believable changes that can sometimes have sudden and major payoffs.
Layered into this is that each civilization and many of the individual species all have their own unique narrative quests that come up in the course of the game, and completing these can unlock powerful unique technologies, infrastructure, or equipment. These quests even branch depending on how you want to run your empire, and provide a great deal of narrative context for your civilization and its place in the universe. There’s a pleasing variety in tone, too – the Sophon civilization quest plays with the difficulties a well-meaning ethnic majority can have incorporating minorities into its society, but the Sophon population quest is a glib joke about getting lazy youngsters to willingly jump into the higher education meat-grinder. My only complaints with the quests are that I want more of them, and I want them to be longer – they form satisfying connective tissue that helps set the game apart from its competitors.
The combination of narrative and systems can lead to all kinds of little moments that feel shocking, surprising, or delightful. I once passed a number of laws boosting scientific research in pursuit of a science victory, but after I decided to bolster culture funding in a border system that was about to be swamped by enemy cultural influence, the Religious party suddenly swung into power and repealed all my scientific laws, crippling my scientists and ultimately costing me the game. Another time I found a lost colony of Horatio clones living on a dangerous planet, so I invited them into my empire to settle down, but because I was playing as the Cravers, I ate them.
A good game of Endless Space 2 is a series of infrastructure and research policy decisions punctuated by a series of many such occurrences, but this being a space opera strategy game, there will almost certainly be space battles as well. Aspiring space tacticians with no interest in politics and economics might want to look elsewhere, however. Combat is hands-off, in line with what you’d expect if you were a political ruler. Your main inputs into battle involve building fleets and sending them out to meet the enemy at strategic locations.
First, you’ll be equipping items to your civilization’s core starship models, trying to optimize your weapon load-outs to hit enemies hardest and deflect their weapons while adding in special modules to allow ships to self-repair or scour extra Science points from battle wreckage. While the interface is clear and the system is straightforward on paper, in practice the AI is a little too good at using the system. Even on the lowest difficulty setting, if your AI enemy sees your weapons penetrate its shields or your shields block its weapons, it will almost instantly retrofit its entire fleet to a new configuration optimized to kill your ships.
You, meanwhile, may become stuck with your now disadvantaged weapons because you can’t upgrade your fleets in enemy territory. The only options are retreat to retrofit your own ships, or accept a serious beating. I’ve been in situations where the AI and I are aggressively retooling our fleets with different weapon/shielding combinations, with barely any fighting, and as far as I can tell the only reason they stopped keeping up was that they ran out of money.
That’s a lot of fidgeting for battles that are mostly cinematic. Your main input in battle is to choose a tactic, which provides you with a fixed bonus like increased armor. Much less clearly described is the fact that your tactic actually plays a major role in determining how close the prongs of your fleet move towards the enemy through space, which in turn has a significant impact on how effective different weapon types are. This isn’t very clearly explained, but if you ignore this you might end up sending a fleet equipped for long-range bombardment into close quarters because you wanted an armor bonus, to disastrous results.
So, combat on the whole is a mixed bag. Personally, I enjoy the hands-off approach – it doesn’t make sense for a galactic emperor to be issuing individual orders to pilots on the battlefield, and there’s more than enough meat in the game’s economics, governance, narrative, and strategy. But a few systems could stand to be clarified, and the weapon/shield countering system leads to some absurd lateral arms races that waste everybody’s time and money.
There’s a lot more to the game that’s worth exploring than there is room in this review. Despite a few post-launch bugs, diplomacy in this game is fairly solid, and the ability to win games as part of an alliance really helps transform the pursuit of victory from the selfish quest for dominance of other 4X games into something centered around the idea of thriving, one way or another. Heroes add an interesting if sometimes convoluted layer to the game, and interact with quests in ways that can be quite narratively interesting. There are cooperative quests that can be fun or frustrating or just bizarrely incidental depending on the dynamics of a given match.
All in all, Endless Space 2 is as vast a game as befits any 4X. On the whole, its focus on narrative in both the foreground and background, clear and artful presentation, and political management distinguish it from its competitors. It’s definitely an improvement over Endless Space, though not across the board, but it’s not clear if it’s successfully learned the right lessons from Endless Legend’s lauded abundance of personality, and there are some balancing issues that need to be addressed.
For good or ill, this is not unusual in the 4X genre, so it seems likely time and expansions will help crystallize the game’s final identity. But the foundation is enjoyable, well-crafted, and continues Amplitude’s legacy as one of the premier developers in the 4X space.
PUBLISHER – SEGA | DEVELOPER – Amplitude Studios | ESRB – E10+ | PLATFORMS – PC, Mac
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RECOMMENDED – Endless Space 2 is a solid entry into the genre that has novel takes on narrative and political management, bolstered by slick and well-crafted presentation. As with many turn-based strategy games, it suffers from a few balance issues and design inconveniences, so some players may want to wait until more patches and expansions have been released, and combat may prove divisive. But for the strategy game enthusiast, Endless Space 2 is already a great space 4X worth digging into.