Amplitude have cultivated a reputation for distinctive 4X titles, thanks in particular to the unique faction mechanics and evocative world of 2014’s Endless Legend. Endless Space 2 takes many of the distinguishing aspects of that game, adds new features of its own, and returns the Endless series to its star-spanning beginnings.
As a genre, ‘4X’ can be a broad church. It’s an umbrella term that can technically include Civilization, Stellaris, and Age of Wonders; all throughly different once you go below the general surface of “game where you oversee an empire.” Endless Space 2 hues somewhat traditional in the sense that you colonise planets, research new structures and military fleets alike on a dense tech tree, and juggle with diplomacy both internal and external in nature. But it skews towards lavish writing to support its universe, and excels in the diversity of its eight playable factions.
The first faction I indulged in, the Vodyani, don’t even colonise planets in the usual way. They’re religious beings of Life Essence (a resource also unique to them) who perform corporeal actions thanks to pragmatic suits, and lurk in space on massive Ark vessels. That’s both a benefit and a hazard; Vodyani reproduce slowly without more Life Essence (harvestable from other hapless populated planets), but can effectively hoover up resources from every planet in a system at once. They’re also very versatile, able to move their Ark (and all structural system upgrades) to a brand new home with ease. The Arks make for formidable combat opponents in the early to mid game, too.
Meanwhile, the Horatio (one of four original factions returning in Endless Space 2), are dictatorial ecologists with a bit of nasty xenophobic streak. The identical cloned creations of an eccentric ‘Horatio Prime,’ they aim to spread true beauty across the universe. True beauty being themselves, of course. Other beings are tolerated, but this faction has at least one “kick out the filthy aliens” quest, and their somewhat dirty secret is ‘disappearing’ other population segments for gene splicing bonuses.
Both are typical of Amplitude’s sharp faction design, matching inviting storytelling with engaging mechanics. The studio are great at coming up with fascinating amalgams; hence nomadic space vampires in the midst of a religious schism, and unhinged cloned empire devoted to nature and sinister gene splicing (granted, they’d already invented these guys for the first Endless Space). In addition to the returning and expanded Sophons, Cravers, and United Empire, Endless Space 2 rounds out the eight with the Lumeris (basically the space mafia), time-bending Riftborn, and deceptively soft-spoken tree creatures The Unfallen.
The unique mechanics for each faction are obviously the main attraction, but there’s a terrific attention to detail that extends even to the little blurbs for certain science and tech discoveries. Even though the technology or structure performs the same universal function, it’ll sometimes have a faction-specific explanation. Aspects like this, and the fact that each playable faction has their own terrific musical themes, show an admirable commitment to making each one feel distinct.
Endless Space 2 makes a significant addition to the Endless feature set by including a political dimension, influenced by faction choice and by individual population units. Every faction has an affinity with one of the major political ideologies (industrialists, militarists, and so on), while minor factions also have their own viewpoints. Just about every decision you make in the game can nudge political feelings one way or the other, from building certain structures to having too many enemy ships hanging around your borders. Populations express their political feelings every twenty turns, when elections return representatives to the Senate.
Essentially, the political dimension adds flavour, potential points of internal conflict, and another way for the player to push their empire in a particular direction through Senate laws. There may be times when you really want a particular party in power, either to push a lot of science research or perhaps as part of a particular narrative quest. The dictatorship model can ignore voting results and select a preferred party (at risk of angering the populace), but other government types can also be gently manipulated (through direct or indirect action) in order to get the result you need. During these periods, massaging political opinion can become a bit of a meta-game.
As mentioned there, minor factions appear in Endless Space 2 in much the same way they did in Endless Legend. Befriending them can lead to resource tributes and, ultimately, full membership in your empire. Depending on the faction you’re running, there can be special interactions with minor factions too. Vodyani can soak up their Life Essence, for example. It’s another instance of Amplitude intertwining expansive writing (every minor faction has their own short story too, like the civilisation which almost collapsed due to virtual reality addiction) and meaningful game mechanics.
The interface clarity that Amplitude brought to their previous games is mostly intact in this sequel. It’s closest in form to Endless Legend, but as there’s more information and data to fit into a similar number of screens things do feel a little more cluttered or shunted off to sub-menus in places. The technology screen is especially daunting for the first campaign. A few useful mechanics (like specialist colony additions) are not exactly hidden, but are also quite small and unassuming buttons. Still, aspects like trade routes (often so confusing in other 4X titles) can be set up, monitored, and understood with relative fluidity and ease.
Endless Space 2, again like its immediate predecessor, takes evident steps to avoid bogging down in micro-management. The aforementioned trade routes are one example; you set up a primary HQ and a subsidiary at the other end and you’re pretty much done. You’ll perhaps spend time shunting populations around your colonies, or switching new modules on and off your fleet blueprints, but most choices, management, and organisational actions take a broad, big picture approach. When compared to other games in this genre, at least.
One area which can get a little laborious is levelling up Heroes. Later in a campaign you’ll end up with several of these potential fleet leaders and colony governors, all of whom will be gaining levels at (by this point) a fairly consistent rate. There’s a point at which dumping levels into Hero skills (helpful skills, admittedly) every other turn gets a bit tedious. Amplitude have accounted for automation in other areas, colonies can be given an auto-build focus if you wish, event notifications can be switched off (though come back after a re-load, annoyingly), but Heroes have to be dealt with manually. It’s a fine system in general, and adds even further narrative immersion; it just pulls attention away from more important matters a little too often in the end game period.
Endless Space 2 could also do with a straightforward way of filtering potential targets for colonisation. It’s not too strenuous to poke around the systems you’ve discovered for clusters of promising planets, but it’s a rare case of something feeling a bit like busy-work.
As was the case in the first Endless Space, military matters in the sequel are somewhat hands off. Your actions and decisions before battles (whether your fleet tech is up to date, if you have the production levels to churn out enough ships, picking the right targets) are what will significantly swing a conflict in your favour. Ship battles in Endless Space 2 are a matter of interpreting some pre-attack data about your opposition, selecting a tactics card (more of which can be obtained through research, events and so on), organising your attending ships into between one and three ‘flotillas’ and then letting the clash unfold.
Battles can be viewed (and re-watched) as a cinematic presentation, but this an unusual instance of Amplitude’s style and substance not really meshing together. Even though it’s satisfying to see your faction’s unique ship types in action a couple of times, there are no mid-battle decisions to be made. So it’s likely that a 4X player 20 hours into a campaign is just going to be mashing the auto-resolve button. The cinematic representations do have some value; you can get a sense of how well your fleet composition is working with your selected tactic (maybe it’s not getting off enough shots at long range, or whatever), but are probably best reserved for truly climactic assaults.
Combat mechanics themselves revolve around dual weapon and defense types. Beam and projectile in the first instance, and shields or armour in the second. Weapon types that specialise at short, medium or long range add another layer to think about when switching modules around on your ships. Particular strategic resource types allow improved modules, as does further research into the various engines and support functions available in Endless Space 2. Like other aspects of the game, ship design offers some tactical freedom without insisting that the player take the full role of Chief Aerospace Engineer.
Switching around your fleet designs is necessary, because the AI seems relatively able to respond to, say, an all-laser barrage with new designs of its own. They’re certainly not flawless in executing a war (on Normal and Hard I have seen them throw underpowered fleets at me in rather futile gestures), but the AI is capable of making the most of its tech level to put out enough firepower to cause problems. It’ll also happily assault worlds left unprotected by your navy. In the campaigns I’ve played the AI has tended to play to its faction (Lumeris pursuing an Economic victory, etc) and despite early access accounts to the contrary I never saw them flounder around or fail to expand.
I’d recommended turning off pirates, though. They spawn with rather absurd levels of power and don’t seem to add a whole lot to the game besides periodic irritation.
In the Vodyani campaign I played, I’d beaten the Unfallen in a lengthy war (which in Endless Space 2 can stretch the limits of the new, Europa Universalis IV-esque ‘manpower’ resource). They’d ceded all but one planet to me in a peace deal, and were probing around my nearby systems while I was busy elsewhere. After a short time they offered an alliance, effectively making them a lesser partner in my schemes. All in all, it seemed like a pretty sensible response for a pacifist faction placed in that position.
My opponents have all been AI for the purposes of this review because, while multiplayer is available in Endless Space 2, having a different, pre-release build of the game makes testing it impractical. It’s very likely to have the same functionality as Endless Legend, but beyond that I can’t really comment.
I can chime in on reports from people playing the early access version about campaigns getting unstable, or save files not working beyond the 150 turn mark. That didn’t happen to me across a pair of campaigns, but I was also playing galaxies that were on the medium side. The game did hard-crash a couple of times, however. I also ran into a few bugs. A Vodyani Ark got permanently stuck to a system after winning a ground assault, hero portraits went missing, and I’ve been able to gain affinity with minor factions I’ve not even met on the map yet.
Amplitude have already confirmed that carriers (with fighters and bombers) had to be cut from the initial release, and will now appear in a first, free update. This sort of thing suggests a tight release schedule, which means at least some of the issues mentioned above will probably appear in the final version.
The feeling that Endless Space 2 could do with more time residing in early access is enough to give me pause from unconditional recommendation. That said, the pre-release version I’ve been playing for the past few days has been extremely compelling in spite of the bugs. If the game receives the same standard of long term support as Endless Legend (and most signs suggest it will), then it’ll be an outstanding 4X title. Military logisticians won’t find their dream game here, but anyone who values top-tier faction design, atmosphere, and intuitive, interconnected empire management will find another splendid Amplitude universe to lose themselves within.