Endless Space 2 is the sequel to French studio Amplitude’s cosmic 4X game, though it feels just as much a follow-up to their exceptional fantasy strategy affair, Endless Legend. Comfortably sitting next to all the numbers, resources and planetary management are lively stories, epic quests, and fascinating space-faring species, each with distinct hooks – the ingredients that made the company’s last game something special.
I traveled to Amplitude’s offices to get my hands on the game, and thus far my goal is to try and get rich – the noblest of pursuits.
I’m the invisible hand guiding the Lumeris, a species of amphibious deal-brokers, money-makers and corporate Mafia-types. Most 4X games have a wealth-obsessed faction, the Ferengi of their respective titles, but there’s more to this race than makin’ moolah.
Their society is run by four powerful families, whose support of the government is necessary to keep it running. Each family is responsible for different pillars of civilization, like farming and production, and while they compete, they have to work together for the betterment of their species. Family, then, is important to the Lumeris, and as they aren’t ruled by an aristocracy and don’t have much truck with religion – two major excuses for war – they are largely pacifists.
All of this is important because these details aren’t just flavour; they have a tangible impact on the game. With their citizens being driven by economic success, the Lumeris gains +2 wealth for every pop, the abstracted resource that represents these citizens. It even affects how they spread throughout the galaxy. While other races might build colony ships, sending them out into the void in search of new homes, the Lumeris see colonisable worlds as business opportunities. This is reflected by their faction affinity, called 'planet broker'.
Every species has an affinity that sets them apart from the rest, an ability that defines them. Planet broker means, essentially, that the Lumeris can buy worlds. The idea is that they hire private companies to do all the work for them, removing logistical niggles like constructing colony ships. Each newly purchased planet costs more than the last, ensuring that they can’t just gobble up a galaxy. It’s more than a colonisation technique; it’s a strategy for making cash. Before a fully-fledged colony can exist, it starts as an outpost, and the Lumeris can sell these outposts to other factions for a quick wealth injection. It’s a business.
The Lumeris aren’t the only faction whose colonisation efforts come with a twist. The Vodyani, for instance – a species of parasitic, power-hungry vampires that are reminiscent of Endless Legend’s Broken Lords – are nomadic. When they colonise a world, they are really just exploiting its resources, while all the important stuff, the infrastructure, is kept inside these massive, space-faring Arks. These vampires are a powerful bunch, but they grow slowly, which is why they also have the ability to abduct people from other worlds.
In my desire to swim in a vault of lovely money, I start sending out exploration vessels, hunting for new worlds to add to the burgeoning Lumeris Empire. While this largely involves sending these ships down the space lanes that create a galactic web, Amplitude have given them a new ability that makes exploration a little bit more involved. Probes can be launched, revealing what awaits the ships at the end of their journey, like colonisable planets or potential threats. This is handy, of course, but they also serve another purpose: unveiling the galaxy’s secrets. See, while the systems that pepper space are part of a vast galactic network of lanes, there are some worlds and anomalies outside the web. They can be accessed, eventually, by using a warp drive, but not if you don’t know where they are. Probes can help with that.
My little exploration vessel has been earning its keep, discovering two minor factions: the Kalgeros, who look like four-armed Krogan monks, and the Deuyivans, who are weird pacifist monsters that love science. Neither of them are very impressed when I say hello. It’s in my interest to change this, because minor factions can make convenient chums. Like their Endless Legend counterparts, they confer special bonuses to any major factions they are affiliated with, but must be bribed, threatened, helped, or in the case of the vampiric Vodyani, brainwashed before they’ll be your pals.
While all of this has been happening, I’ve been pouring over the research menu. It’s quite busy, but thankfully still legible. Research is split into different eras, and before you can move onto the next one, you’ll need to unlock eight techs from the previous selection. I’ve had my eggheads working on unlocking the mysteries of Xenobotany, which will give my ships overclocked engines and thus allow them to travel further in a single turn, and we’ll eventually be able to colonise tundra worlds. Who doesn’t want to live on a frozen planet?
Finally, thanks to the efforts of my scouts and my new tech, I find a suitable place for my first outpost. It’s got a lot going for it. I’ve used probes to explore it a little, uncovering special resources – I’m pretty sure they’re magic mushrooms – and even an indigenous species. The latter differs from the aforementioned minor factions in that they are very primitive and are essentially planetary bonuses, and can’t be befriended. Poor guys. I’m going to be their mate anyway, in my heart.
My first outpost is well positioned, connected by space lanes to two colonised systems, the first being my homeworld, and the second being the homeworld of another major faction. This benefits me because populations in Endless Space 2 can choose to migrate. Immigrants can mitigate slow growth, but importantly they also make a world, and thus the empire, more diverse. It’s a pleasantly optimistic mechanic that means the more varied the population, both in terms of ideologies and races, the more opportunities an empire has. It encourages diversity.
The Lumeris are mostly pacifists. This means that they tend to be happier when everything is nice and mellow and we’re not going around slaughtering aliens. Not only does this inform the sort of decisions I’ll have to make to keep everyone happy, it also informs the sort of bills I’ll be able to pass in the senate. The senate is what you’ll want to save up influence for, along with diplomacy, as it’s the currency of politics. From this screen, influence can be flung at bills to augment your society, but what bills you get to choose depends on the traits of your population. Thus, those bills reflect the people toiling away in your glorious space civilization, and the more varied they are, the greater the range of bills.
I start to get lost down the rabbit hole of building a perfect empire. As I obsess over my research options and building list I can see exactly what I need to do to achieve my goals of getting filthy stinking rich. I need this tech to make people happier, and those happy people will give me more influence, and that influence will help me pal up to the aliens, and those aliens will buy all the prime real estate I’m bound to have. Endless Space 2 is by no means simple, but the various interlocking systems seem to fit so well together that it does appear to be quite easy to start making long-term plans, even early on. This is no doubt helped by the distinct and specialised factions.
I’ve yet to touch on war, because I didn’t actually get into a proper one with a big faction. I did, however, blow up a bunch of pirates. Battles are different from both previous games. The card-based combat from the first Endless Space is gone, and there’s nothing like the involved tactical battles from Endless Legend. Instead, fights are entirely hands-off, as you sit there, watching gargantuan space hulks battering each other.
Have I mentioned how stunning Endless Space 2 is? It’s one of the most striking 4X games that I’ve gawked at, from the slick design of the UI to little touches like the way the game slowly reveals planets you’ve discovered with subtle yet cinematic flair. But it’s the battles that provide the greatest levels of eye candy. Damn, they’re gorgeous. A work-in-progress AI director determines what you see, revealing both the monumental scale of these conflicts, as well as minute details like the physical hull damage inflicted by a missile. I know that, after a few hours, they’ll start to become mundane and I’ll just want them over with so I can get back to the game, but they make an incredible first impression.
I do worry about the fact that these battles are just cinematic, though. Space 4X games often shy away from doing interesting things with combat, but both of the earlier Endless games showed some inventiveness. That said, there’s still the planning phase. When you engage another fleet, you get to choose a fairly simple battle plan – it determines the path your fleet takes, from straight lines to feints – based on your tech, and you can see what battle plans your opponent might choose. You might not know exactly which one they’ll select, though you can see which plans they favour, and attempt to counter them.
Heroes, I expect, will be what really determines the outcome of a fight. These important characters can govern worlds, be on the senate, or go off on space adventures with their fancy ships, of which there are four types, one for each class. They can level up and are blessed with special abilities and bonuses, so their inclusion in a scrap makes a lot of difference. Loadouts will help too, obviously. Both the ships of heroes and the regular ones you’ll construct on your planets can be beefed up with new weapons and engines as you work your way through the research menu.
I confess that I might be sold on the early game already. The influence of Endless Legend is clear and welcome, with its quests and fleshed-out, unique races, but it’s the new way of looking at the people who make up these space empires that’s left me most intrigued. The need to juggle all these different species and population groups within the faction is a wrinkle that, until now, hasn’t really been explored in a 4X game – at least not to this extent. The big question, then, is how will Endless Space 2 handle the late game, where so many 4Xs fall apart. With its Early Access launch imminent, we’ll soon find out.
Endless Space 2 is due to enter early access later this year.