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.