Endless Space 2’s Early Access Is Bold And A Bit Rough

Endless Space 2 is warping into Steam Early Access next week, but since I’m not a particularly patient intergalactic conqueror, I got my hands on it a wee bit early. Already, I’ve gobbled up countless star systems and found myself in plenty of scraps with space-faring ne’er-do-wells. Last night, I gave my entire empire pets. This morning, I harvested the life-force of a planet full of peaceful aliens.

In the 100 turns on offer, there are already a lot of diversions and meaty choices to chew your lip over, and it makes for a compelling glimpse of the bigger picture.

Having spent most of my time with the Lumeris when I last played, I found myself drawn to the Vodyani. I briefly messed around with them when I visited Amplitude last month, but they’d only just been added to the game and didn’t really work. They are, perhaps, the most unusual of the four races in Endless Space 2 at the moment. A race of parasitic entities given form by the suits that they wear, who left their ruined homeworld and now live in gargantuan Arks that exploit the worlds they orbit.

Now, a little bit wiser, I know that the space vampires are maybe not the best race to pick first. They’re fascinating, and will no doubt prove to be powerful in the right hands, but it took me quite a while to figure out what their deal was. Everything they do is just a little odd. So, instead of colonies, they have these Arks, massive ships that can be attached to planets, getting all the benefits that a colony on that system would. While other races have to buy or send ships to new worlds, create outposts, and wait for them to grow into colonies, with the Vodyani it’s instant. The Ark is essentially a huge factory, to boot, so production is pretty high.

To make this rather impressive ability more balanced, they grow a lot slower than the other races, and can only do so with a resource unique to them: essence. Basically, it’s the souls they harvest from other races. Lovely! To create a new Ark, for instance, you need 500 essence, and then 500 on top of that for every subsequent Ark, up to a point. Essence can also be spent on adding +1 population to a system. It’s not a resource that’s easy to come by, however. You can either waste a lot of dust – the Endless universe’s main currency – or you can send a ship with the appropriate module to an inhabited world and just start sucking up all those souls.

All this harvesting is easier or harder depending on, surprisingly, the politics of your people. They start out as zealots, and one of their religious laws allows you to take a hostile action against anyone you’re in a cold war with, which is how every relationship begins. That means you can harvest without actually declaring war. Not surprisingly, doing that pisses off the species you’re essentially eating. The Vodyani have a hard time making friends. Once new parties start appearing, however, the dominant party might change, leaving you forced to go to war for food.

It emphasises Endless Space 2’s unusual but welcome focus on the people you rule. They aren’t merely content or unhappy with your leadership – they have their own personal politics that not only colour their views on your actions, but have a tangible impact on the civilisation. Through campaigning, funding and a bit of deceit, you can still help your favoured party retain power, though that doesn’t make the outcome a sure thing.

And that’s where things went wrong for me. Another party took power and I started kicking off wars. The problem? I’d started to see Arks as simply mobile colonies, and not the deadly spaceships they actually are. I was fighting a couple of civilisations, spread thin, and I left a big gap that allowed a minor empire – mostly weak NPC factions that exist to get swallowed up by the main empires – to swoop in, attack my Ark, and basically wipe out my capital. No ground assault was needed, because everything important was on that barely defended ship.

What I should have been doing is upgrading my Ark with new weapons, special abilities and defence modules, just like I was for the rest of the fleet. I didn’t even think about doing that, though. It’s almost counter-intuitive, but that’s also what makes the Vodyani such an intriguing faction. They are full of weird surprises and subversions.

Each faction has its share of quirks and unique traits, of course. Even with only four of them, the diversity is impressive. And not just in terms of theme, but in how they play. They’re all fundamentally different. Take the Cravers, for example. They’re a race of insectoid cyborgs with an insatiable appetite. If they don’t swarm the stars and constantly feed their hunger, they’ll devour themselves. Not the most pleasant of aliens, admittedly. Their inherently aggressive nature means that they can never be at peace with any other empire, and are permanently at war with the rest of the galaxy. Their larger fleet capacity and peerless warriors make them seem stalwart, able to handle anything at the start of the game, but as they encounter the other empires, they suddenly start to seem incredibly vulnerable. Threats are everywhere.

More than a collection of stats and special abilities, each race also comes laden with history and a narrative that runs throughout the game, taking the form of quests with a slight Choose Your Own Adventure bent. Typos aside, it’s the sort of high-quality writing that you’d expect from the developers of Endless Legend, rich in world building and personality. With only 100 turns, I didn’t get very far into them, but they’ve whet my appetite for more.

Smartly, Amplitude have opened the quests up so that different objectives may be undertaken for unique bonuses. In an early Lumeris quest, you have to pick one of the ruling families to cozy up to. Each provides a distinct benefit, but they also come with different prerequisites, like befriending some aliens or building new outposts. These choices acknowledge that not every player, even those using the same empire, is going to have the same goals.

This bounty of choice persists throughout the game. Mosts quests and events I encountered offered up opportunities to show off my ruler skills with some decisive action. Occasionally, you’ll get a disappointing choice like ‘ignore’, but they’re largely more meaningful than that. One event saw me tasked with dealing with some rowdy bankers who were demanding looser laws in regards to citizens making risk investments in space. I foolishly went with it and presided over an economic collapse. To make things worse, upon realising that the economy was ruined, I doubled down, bailing the bankers out using the reasoning that they wouldn’t be able to solve the crisis if they all went out of business. Yes, I’m part of the problem.

For a game that’s all about keeping on top of a complex, sprawling stellar civilisation, clarity – though not as sexy as space battles and epic sci-fi yarns – is one of the most important things that Amplitude will have to nail. Right now it’s notably missing.

There’s a lot that I’m still a bit baffled by. And in the game, too. Immigration in particular, which is a significant part of the game and influences everything from politics to growth, continues to evade my understanding. The idea is that aliens will move to your systems if they seem like rad places to live. Makes sense. It doesn’t make sense, however, when you’ve established a new colony on an uninhabited world and half of your population is made up of aliens that you’ve never met or even heard of before.

Imagine: you’re in the first batch of colonists to head to this new frontier, you get the keys to your new house and decide, because you’re just a nice person, to introduce yourself to the neighbours. You knock on the door and Dave, a seven-foot-tall xenomorph, opens it snarling. He’s dripping acid everywhere. Nobody knows what he is or where he came from, but he lives here now.

Also, I’m not even completely sure what the game uses to measure how rad my worlds are for immigrants. System happiness? I don’t know why I’m asking you lot. Seriously, though, have you heard something?

This lack of clarity creates a sense of aimlessness because it’s not even clear how to win the game. Only two victory conditions are available in this build, score victory and military victory, but I couldn’t tell you how either is achieved. I mean, I assume that destroying everyone will secure a military victory, but maybe it’s based on controlling a certain percentage of the galaxy. Winning with a score victory obviously means having the highest score by the time the game ends, but I haven’t got the foggiest what contributes to that score.

I remain ambivalent in regards to the combat, too. Battles are hands-off, with you picking from a list of battle plans based on the ships and then letting the AI take over in striking cinematic encounters. The problem with the battle plan system is that they’re all range-specific and every ship has to follow the same order. So if you’ve got a long-range sniper and a close-range tanky vessel, then one of them is going to be pretty useless. The implication is that specialised fleets are the way to go, but then they’re going to be stuck with one battle plan, making them pretty easy to counter. The ability to pick formations or even just tactics that take into account mixed forces is sorely needed.

None of these issues, nor the occasional broken quest, are insurmountable, especially not for a game that’s only just going into Early Access, and in spite of them I find myself – right now, at some godawful hour – starting to look at it in my Steam library. If I finish up this preview soon, will I have enough time to snack on a few aliens and get into some good old-fashioned intergalactic wars? I think so.

Though it’s still missing a lot of the pieces that will ultimately, hopefully, hold it all together, Endless Space 2 does an excellent job of showing Amplitude’s vision. I know that sounds a bit wanky, but its weird races and delightful, if a bit self-indulgent, writing is like a statement of intent. It’s not trying to be another Master of Orion (and thank goodness, given the most recent attempt) and is more concerned with diversity and storytelling than precise balance and ticking a very specific list of 4X boxes. It’s bold, then, but just a bit rough right now.

Endless Space 2 enters early access on October 6th.

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24 Comments

  1. SaintAn says:

    Read on the announcement that it’s an Alpha. Has me a bit worried that it’s going to be in development for a long time. Was really looking forward to it.

    • Mokinokaro says:

      Amplitude used the same model for Endless Legend. Early Acess was in April 2014 with full launch in September of the same year.

      It should be complete by Spring/Summer 2017.

  2. Zenicetus says:

    Quote: “The idea is that aliens will move to your systems if they seem like rad places to live. Makes sense. It doesn’t make sense, however, when you’ve established a new colony on an uninhabited world and half of your population is made up of aliens that you’ve never met or even heard of before.”

    Uh oh… there was something immersion-breaking in a similar way, in Endless Space. You’d get mercenary Heroes offering to join your faction, from alien races you haven’t met in space yet. Worse, they’d happily join you in a genocide campaign against their own race. The handwaving for this was that they’re “dust-infused superorganisms” or something, that were beyond caring. I still didn’t buy it and it always felt weird.

    It’s going to feel just as weird seeing immigrants to your planets that you’ve never seen before. Especially if they then join you in war against their species. Amplitude needs to block immigration (and Heroes) from races you haven’t met yet.

    Also, have they finally figured out how to do randomized (and hidden) factions in the game setup? Or do you always know who you’re up against?

    • Fraser Brown says:

      Heroes from races you haven’t met do appear, and will help you fight their own race. There is, however, a bit of in-game fiction that sort of makes sense of this. I suspect that the alien immigration, however, is not working as it should. It just doesn’t make sense at the moment.

      • Mokinokaro says:

        According to their official forums, the immigration system is indeed not properly implemented yet.

        It should be in one of the first updates.

      • Zenicetus says:

        It’s unfortunate that they’re repeating this same immersion-breaking mistake (Heroes from other alien races). I’ve never understood the rationale for it in their previous games.

        If they’re fixated on a design that does this as the default, then how hard would it be to just offer a checkbox in the game setup that restricts Heroes to those of your own race? They’re just thumbnail portraits and stat numbers, after all.

        In the first Endless Space game I thought it might just be that they didn’t have the art/programmer resources to code a bunch of Heroes for each different race, so they had to mix them up. But there is no excuse now with this new game and with Sega backing.

        It’s like playing a CA Total War game and getting Generals from other factions you’re fighting, instead of your own culture. Makes no sense at all.

        • vahnn says:

          It would be nice if you could only get Heroes from alien races you have allied with, or at least have encountered at least once before. Taking it further, I would like to see Heroes have if not a fully fleshed backstory, then at least a trait that identifies how they feel toward their own race. Are they a loyalist, joining your military as part of an exchange program to learn more about your species? Are they an ambassador, working as a governor to bridge the gap between your empires and facilitate a growing friendship? Or are they a renegade, cast out by their own society, allowing them to join you in crushing them without remorse?

          Even further: Heroes could have personalities and a “happiness” stat that you have to manage, or risk them abandoning duty or fleeing your territory and leaving your army without a leader, or even defecting to the enemy.

          That kind of stuff could add a lot to the gameplay, though I suspect it’s a little much to ask. Especially since Amplitude seems to favor set-in-stone, hand-written characters that are the same every game, rather than randomized characters. Getting access to the exact same groups of heroes every game in Endless Legend/Space always felt kind of lame to me, especially when you start seeing repeats of them, like Exid the Chosen II, Strikes-From-Far III, etc.

          • Zenicetus says:

            Exactly! Getting Heroes from other races — assuming they’d add perks you couldn’t get otherwise — would be great if it tied into the diplomacy system. You’d gain interesting Heroes from allies, and you’d lose them if you break the alliance. It’s a real missed opportunity not to treat them this way.

    • edelnar says:

      Heroes come from Academy, its location is unknown to factions at the start of the game. Nevertheless, factions are aware of its existence, they’ll find it sooner or later, and its already full of different species. Just like factions, Academy has its own agenda, that’s why heroes are sent to help different factions, race-agnostic. Even if Hero may end up waging war against its own race.
      That’s not something new or uncommon to fiction or movies though. There are plenty of such examples of anti-heroes.

      • Zenicetus says:

        It may not be an uncommon trope for anti-heroes in literature, but the idea of every single Hero in the game being perfectly willing to commit genocide against their own race? That’s completely immersion-breaking for a game like this.

        It won’t stop me from buying the game, but it just seems like such a stupid design decision. Or more like lazy programming…. they just don’t want to include enough different Heroes for each faction, so they have to spread ’em around.

        • MetalShadowChaos says:

          Calling any design “lazy” just betrays ignorance of game development, I can’t recommend it unless you can explicitly state exactly why you think that in a way that doesn’t sound dismissive or rude.

          And while it is a bit odd that heroes have no acknowledgement of violence towards their own race if their lore has nothing that makes them in any way against them, the very reason the Academy as a concept exists is because having all your heroes be from the same faction would make for a boring story. Endless Legend worked on the system nicely to make sure you can still get heroes of your faction easily while encouraging diversity with faction-specific skills, as well as starting you off with a faction hero from the get-go.

          While it would be nice if the new diplomacy system incorporate more faction dynamics, there is still an onus on the player to pick heroes for your faction that fit how you intend to play/the story you’re telling. Yes you can make a Sophon lead an assault on their own people, but if you were intending to attack the Sophons then why recruit a Sophon general? Unless you’re going full Evil Villain, I suppose.

          • Zenicetus says:

            I’m sorry, it still doesn’t make sense to me. In games based on human history like the Total War series, we don’t suddenly see Generals pop up from the opposing factions leading our armies. Especially when we’ve never run into a faction before. It’s like a Chinese or African warlord suddenly showing up to lead your Roman armies in a Total War game.

            It’s jarring and immersion-breaking when you’re trying to role-play a spacefaring civilization taking its first steps out into the Galaxy. I think Amplitude is making the mistake of working backwards from the idea that “Heroes would be neat!” and not realizing that part of the fun of a space 4x is not knowing what’s out there, and having the option of leading a faction that isn’t intermingled with every other alien race once you do meet them.

        • edelnar says:

          48 different heroes (aprx. 6 heroes per faction) aren’t enough for you?
          And your “genocide” argument is no longer valid. Systems are captured with population in it, and it’s stays as part of your empire. The empire may fall, but population remains.

          P.S. In a reply to your comment below, I didn’t know generals and warlords, in games based on human history, came from from a “substance-enhancing institute”.
          It’s a science fantasy, ffs, not a Kerbal Space Program or SpaceX simulator. If that breaks your immersion, then you just have poor imagination.

  3. Pravin Lal's Nuclear Arsenal says:

    “The implication is that specialised fleets are the way to go, but then they’re going to be stuck with one battle plan, making them pretty easy to counter. The ability to pick formations or even just tactics that take into account mixed forces is sorely needed.”

    Depending on whether or not they stuck with the original three choices of weapon techs, this might not be an issue, since the various weapons were effective at distinct ranges anyway according to their type. Unless they introduce a whole new set of mechanics like, say, a research that gives access to two separate mass drivers with different and interlocking roles, you’re encouraged to mass produce ships with exactly the same guns (and, therefore, tactics) anyway: check enemy defenses, stick on your ships the best gun you have that counters those defenses, attack. Mixed fleets were always fairly pointless.

    Any words on the state of the AI? Early Access caveats aside, that was the one part of the Endless series that Amplitude really had to focus on since, well, two games ago, which kinda makes me feel validated in asking. :P

    • Fraser Brown says:

      You start with long and short-range weapons, and some of them work to a lesser degree at other ranges.

      To your question about the AI: it probably needs a bit of work. In my games, the most peaceful, science race was the most aggressive and expansive, starting pointless wars very early. In combat, it’s harder to tell, because all the AI is doing is choosing a battle plan. There’s not much room for it to exploit diplomacy at the moment, either, because there are only 2 diplo options in this build: peace and war.

    • Someoldguy says:

      In as much as space ships are similar to other forms of warfare, this sort of thing always pisses me off. Combined arms should make sense because you really, really don’t want to be the guy that discovers all your ships are fitted out with the wrong weapons for your new enemy. Your fleet should be able to cope with long range ships striking from a distance, protected by escorts, while the shorter range ships close in for the kill. No navy consists wholly of carriers. No army is exclusively tanks. No air force is exclusively helicopters.

      I was also very irritated by Endless Space offering you 3 random alien heroes to lead your civilisation on day 1. You haven’t even left your damn solar system – and neither has any other race – yet Slimemold, 8-Bit and Slartibartfast are your go-to guys you trust to lead your nascent star empire? That was a total immersion killer for me, as was the ability to scout the entirety of a huge (not small) galaxy in 40 turns. The exploration and sense of wonder at what you would find out there was gone so fast, then all that remained was the grind to achieve dominance playing rock-paper-scissors. I do hope that gets a bit of a rethink, but I suspect it may be too late for a fundamental shift in combat design.

      • Pravin Lal's Nuclear Arsenal says:

        Agreed wholeheartedly on the first paragraph, not as much because of realism but because combined arms are fun to manage. Endless Legend did it pretty much fine and, if they streamline and abstract even more the tactics side of Endless Space 2 (probably to have faster multiplayer), they could at least make the strategic and logistic side of fleet building a bit more interesting than “glue the biggest gun you have on it”. It doesn’t look like it, though.

  4. GunnerMcCaffrey says:

    Those are some remarkably bland screenshots, which is kind of the last thing I’d expect from Amplitude. Maybe they’ve traded off for a legible UI (the second last thing I’d expect from Amplitude)?

  5. stringerdell says:

    anyone know if the 100 turn limit will apply to the early access version this month? i really hope not

  6. Psychomorph says:

    The thumbnails in the article look beautiful and informative, as always.

  7. SadOldGuy says:

    How are the tutorials and advisors? Since getting into Civ V, I have purchased and played almost ever 4X on Steam and I get bored quickly and go back to Civ. Mostly because none of them seem to do advisors as well as Civ, with every choice having a little icon on if one of your advisors recommends it. I ignore them all the time, but it gives me that friction to find my own path if I have one or follow theirs if I don’t. And yes, I know quite well that I suck at videogames even though I love them.

    • Fraser Brown says:

      There’s none of that at the moment.

    • Zenicetus says:

      I wouldn’t expect Civ-style advisers, based on Amplitude’s previous games. There are usually tooltips here and there, but not much hand-holding. On the other hand, the forums are friendly and you can always go there if you get stuck on something.