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Premature Evaluation: Endless Space 2

Al(ien) Capone

Every Monday we jettison Brendan into the uncharted quadrants of early access and demand constant progress reports. This week, Brendan is away so Adam did the only thing he knows how to do: he spent a few hours playing a strategy game. It's Endless Space 2 [official site].

I've been looking forward to Endless Space 2 since around the time I played Endless Legend and fell for it hard. Actually, I've been looking forward to Endless Space 2 since I played the first Endless Space and a wonderful feeling washed over me – here, in Amplitude, was an exciting new studio making strategy games that were forward-thinking and unafraid to muck around with genre conventions.

Now that Endless Space 2 is available in Early Access, I should be soaking it up, exploring every corner of what already exists and speculating about the shape of things to come. Instead, I've been playing another 4X game and didn't find a spare minute to look at Amplitude's latest until this weekend just gone. And now, I'm not planning to go back until the Early Access period is done.

The original Endless Space excited me because though it was a sci-fi 4X game, it didn't seem like it had been drawn exclusively from experience of the usual suspects (Master of Orion and Galactic Civilizations) but from some of the more unusual suspects as well (Ascendancy, Sins of a Solar Empire), and it had heaps of home-grown qualities to go alongside those influences. Its mythology of Dust and its collection of weird and often sinister factions helped it to stand out and its universe has only become stranger with the addition of Endless Legend and Dungeon of the Endless, which expand on the setting in unusual ways.

In an odd way, the imperfections were the things that excited me most about Endless Space. It contained good ideas that didn't quite reach their potential and other ideas that might have been better off never having left the drawing board. It was a thrilling game because it felt like a genuinely inventive release in a genre that often looks to the past and iterates slowly around set ideas. Endless Space might not have ripped up the rulebook, but it took a whole packet full of markers to it and went to town.

Some games are ill-suited to Early Access. Usually, it's those with a strong narrative component that I'm accustomed to avoiding until they're complete, or close to complete. While the Endless games have some of the best world-building in their genre, they're not likely to be spoiled by visiting those worlds before they're quite finished. The problem here is that Endless Space 2, like its predecessors, is clearly doing a lot of very clever things, and a couple of hours play suggests it might be best to wait until all of the tutorial systems are in place to understand those clever things.

As things stand, there is a tutorial but it's for 'expert' players rather than the likes of me. I'm probably a half-expert, the kind of person who can probably bluff and educated-guess their way through most of the details, but is unlikely to be able to explain precisely how things work after the fact. And that would be fine with almost any other game, but Endless Space 2 seems to be building on one of the strongest features of Endless Legend with the inclusion of extremely distinctive factions who all play by their own rules; to master even one of them is going to take a thorough understanding of the way they work as well as the workings of the underlying game.

There's a race that live on their ships, exploiting the resources of systems but not actually colonising the planets. They essentially devour the life-force of the creatures on those planets. Do I want to control the destiny of a bunch of ark-dwelling space-borne parasites? Of course I bloody well do, but if I jump into a campaign with them I'm not going to learn anything about colonisation or planetary management, or diplomacy. That last is an assumption. Maybe I will learn about diplomacy in between banqueting on the population of an entire star system, but it seems unlikely.

For my first game, I decided to go with what appeared to be a relatively well-rounded option. The Lumeris are a trade federation or a galactic mob of gangsters, depending on how generous a description you decide to attach to them. A little from column A and a little from column B in reality, as I assume most trade federations are. After an intro movie that made me feel like I was going to play a third-person action game about Al(ien) Capone and his gang, I was in familiar territory. A screen with a star system, a colony and a couple of fleets to command.

From there, a research project can be selected, orders can be given to ships and colony alike, and a hero unit can be assigned to either the planet or a fleet. Already, there's a lot to take in. Should I be concentrating on tech that allows me to explore the galaxy or one that lets me develop my home planet? How much does my chosen race play into that decision? And what about this hero? He seems like he'd be suited to some interstellar exploration, given that he's a member of the Seeker class, but I'm not entirely sure that's where he'd be best used right now, or whether he can learn the skills that'll make him a useful planetary governor.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that this Seeker chap, Yelchin Ordara-Arrakyo, is a Senator. Yes, the chap I'm considering sending out into the unknown in the hopes that he can become Han Solo and smuggle some goods back home is the head of a political party. The Pacifist party. Fiddlesticks.

My home planet has two factions: the Pacifists and the Industrialists. I'll be able to encourage their growth by building certain planetary improvements and through the actions I take, but right now I'm still wondering whether I should send Yelchin into space or not. It seems a little irresponsible to send a politician into space – after all, what has space done to deserve that kind of treatment?

I stumbled through thirty or so turns, coming to grips with the basics but unsure as to whether I was making any use of my particular Lumeris-ness. Maybe I should have plumped for the space vampires and accepted that it was better to ignore planets entirely.

Another thirty turns later, I made the decision to stop and I don't think I'll be back 'til after Christmas at the earliest. Most likely, I will wait for the full release, so that I can embrace the elegance of the interface rather than fretting about whether I'm missing anything. It's not that Endless Space 2 feels particularly complex, it's more a case of recognising that Amplitude have created another game where the strengths are found in unusual corners, particularly the management of populations and migration. The strong focus on factions within a species seems like a fantastic way to expand on the distinctive playstyles and rulesets associated with each race.

Some of those systems aren't entirely finished yet though and early exposure to them seems more likely to muddle my understanding of them than to reveal their secrets. This is Early Access for those who enjoy watching a game's pieces fall into place and picking through the details as that happens. If you are one of those people, and don't mind seeing through the polish and the paint of what might turn out to be a superbly well-integrated and consistent UI, I wouldn't warn you away from Endless Space 2. Learning the four major factions already integrated would probably occupy you for the next few months.

If you enjoy Early Access games that feel a little more like a finished article though, I'd hold back for now. I'd be surprised if Amplitude don't raise their game again in this next outing but enduring through the balancing and the confusions of the current state of the thing isn't for me. Instead, I'm going to go back to that other 4X game. Not Civ VI, though that'll be part of my diet as well – I'm talking about Endless Legend, which has one more new expansion to dig into.

For an in-depth look at Endless Space 2, look no further than this massive preview.

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