Although you won’t find the word "wonder" in the traditional description for 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) space simulations, it’s the key element when capturing the imagination of players building galactic empires. Endless Space 2 gets that. Developer Amplitude’s follow-up to the dry-but-challenging Endless Space builds a brilliant space opera that never loses sight of fueling your imagination. A focus on storytelling that includes loads of interesting quests as well as some of the most beautiful graphics and sound in the genre make this a game that inspires awe as you colonize and conquer the space lanes.
All that said, Endless Space 2 diligently follows the 4X template and doesn’t offer much in the way of major surprises. The setting is the same as its predecessor--a galaxy once controlled by the godlike Endless, who have left traces of their vanished civilization in every nook and cranny of the star systems you explore. When the game begins at some point in the far future, civilizations of the time follow in the paths of the Endless, growing from one system to another in an attempt to create the biggest and best galactic empire turn by turn and achieve victory conditions based on science, economy, pure domination, and so forth. The focus is, of course, on the four Xs. You explore the unknown via vessel and probe, expand to new systems by creating outposts that grow into colonies, exploit the resources that you find on various planets and in space itself, and you exterminate enemies when they get in your way.
There's tremendous depth to explore in all four areas, making you feel like you’re leading a real empire. The game offers eight playable civilizations, each with its own set of traits and specialties and a specific storyline that makes for eight distinct campaigns. You can go with the fairly standard human United Empire or choose something much more offbeat--and there’s a lot of that to select from here. You’ve got the four families of the Lumeris, a froglike take on the Roman Empire crossed with the Mafia, who buy colonies. Then there’s the Vodyani, religious fanatics who spread through the stars in space arks and act like techno vampires. The Cravers are insects created by the Endless and then abandoned to go from system to system, devouring and using up every world that they conquer. Unfallen are space treants who have recently woken up to the greater universe and are now sending out colonizing vessels and extending their viny tendrils across space. And then you have the science-jester Sophons, the wholly alien Riftborn from another dimension, and the cloned Horatio narcissists.
Coming to grips with the ins and outs of each faction would take dozens, if not hundreds, of hours in total. Each race has very different specialties that you have to play up if you want to be successful, which results in quite the learning curve when going from one to another in the solo campaigns. While some core concepts translate well across each faction, only the United Empire and maybe the Sophons can be jacks-of-all-trades that lend themselves to varied approaches ranging from being a militaristic nutjob to a pacifistic science lover. The more alien species have to be played as what they are if you want to win. So forget about running a Craver game by being all about the science or playing the Vodyani as nice guys who might not want to absorb the citizens of every other world that they stumble across.
Still, running an empire is about a lot more than simple, species-based talents. You’re never locked into a single approach, and politics are a major factor. Six different parties--the Industrialists, Militarists, Ecologists, Pacifists, Scientists, and Religious--jockey for position in regularly held elections for seats in a proportional-representation senate. This makes for a tricky balancing act on different colonies, since happiness ebbs and flows depending upon how citizens feel their political priorities are being represented in the senate. So if the Scientists are big across the Sophon Empire but the Pacifists are tops in the Niss system colonies, you’ll have problems with happiness. Similar issues can happen when you absorb lesser species. Take on a race that’s militaristic when your main species are a bunch of eco-loving hippies, and you’ll have to deal with demands that might lead your civilization into some choppy waters. Who’s in power also governs what laws can be passed--and sometimes things collapse and government types change from democracy to dictatorship and back again.
The economy is widely diversified, based on the FIDSI system. That acronym refers to the five main resources--food, industry, dust (an ancient substance that serves as the in-game currency), science, and influence (new to Endless Space 2)--that form the basis for everything you do. That sounds complex, and it kind of is when you get into more intricate aspects of the game, such as trade routes and the marketplace for goods. But Amplitude has broken the elements out so that it’s pretty easy to grasp how to develop each one and get a functioning--and at least relatively prosperous--society up and running in short order. This makes the game as accessible as a 4X space sim can really be, especially with the help of the in-game tutorials that take the form of an advisor giving out tips all the way through initial playthroughs.
Everything essentially revolves around colonies. These planetary expansions of your empire are essentially factories for the production of resources (along with special and luxury resources that can be used to improve colonies in various ways and even provide for tweaks that can help expand specific populations). Every new facility added to a colony brings boosts to one or more of the resources (planets are rated in what they bring to the table, too), and this is spelled out very clearly in the descriptions of these amenities. So if you add Sustainable Farms on Altair, you get +10 to food overall, an additional +5 to food for hot and cold climates, a boost to the Ecologist political party. Go for Big Data Shipyards, and all vessels built in the system receive a +40 XP bonus, and the Militarists get a shot in the arm. It’s all easy to follow, especially for anyone with even a bit of 4X experience.
While the above underlies everything that you do in Endless Space 2, the real heart of the game revolves around exploration and telling the story of your growing galactic empire--and both are handled extremely well.
An extremely comprehensive technology wheel completes the picture. This four-spoke contraption features Military, Empire Development, Science and Exploration, and Economy and Trade sections, which, of course, divide each range of techs into these broad specialties. A spectacular amount of depth is offered here, as you can use techs to tailor-make a civilization for both personal preference and to meet the situations faced in any given campaign. That said, techs take longer to research as you move through each specialty’s five tiers--which means that you can’t learn everything and have to be careful in your selections. It’s all too easy to look at the techs and realize that something you desperately need is 30 or 40 turns away...and the rampaging Craven or Vodanyi on your doorstep just aren’t going to wait around for you to catch up.
And that’s the challenge. There’s a lot of tech to digest, and many of them aren’t intuitive. Most come with multiple bonuses that aren’t always easy to understand. Baryonic Shielding, for instance, is tough to figure out in the first place due to that confusing name (many techs have nomenclature impossible to understand at a glance), let alone knowing that it unlocks the ability to colonize Savannah-class worlds, use warp drive on ships, and equip advanced scanners. Key abilities are scattered all over the wheel. A search function helps, but sometimes you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. The best thing you can do when starting out is to take some time and carefully read over the entire tech wheel. Even then, some more advanced techs aren’t as fully explained as they could be, and you have to experiment to see how much of an impact that they actually have on your empire.
Of course, that’s all just the nuts and bolts. While the above underlies everything that you do in Endless Space 2, the real heart of the game revolves around exploration and telling the story of your growing galactic empire--and both are handled extremely well. Exploration gives you a Star Trek sense of boldly going where no one has gone before, as each ship and probe sent out has the possibility of uncovering a new planetary system, a new race, or some other secret that could swell your coffers or increase your scientific knowledge. Amplitude has really filled out the universe here, too--there’s a lot to discover. Planetary curiosities hide resource deposits, ancient technology, strange races, hidden pirate gangs, ancient Endless strongholds, and more. While there’s some repetition, in that you uncover a lot of unimaginative loot hauls of materials like Adamantian (the game’s take on the metal that makes up Wolverine’s claws, presumably renamed to dodge Disney’s lawyers) and meaningless-sounding tech doodads like basic plasmoid shielding, there remains something undeniably cool in exploring the ruins, odd signals, and other anomalies on strange new worlds.
Each faction-based campaign tells a wholly original story, too, and these plot points are moved forward by quests that give direction to your efforts. The United Empire deals with a mysterious attempt to dethrone the emperor, the Sophons wrangle with an emergent AI, the Unfallen wrestle with the differences between the Light (pacifist) and Fire (militarist) ideologies, and so forth. Every story focuses on the defining characteristics at the heart of each civilization. Some quests are tied to the main storylines, some events pop out of nowhere during explorations, and others arise from focused efforts like trying to annex the system of a minor civilization through a specific assignment. There is a fantastic range of challenges offered that run from solo exploration jobs to competitions and collaborations with other empires. Choices also arise all the time that force you to essentially prefer one faction or resource over another, which can have long-term consequences for your empire.
Outstanding depth and tactical challenge have been preserved, although not at the expense of strong storytelling.
Further atmosphere is provided by the game’s beautiful visuals. The menu screens themselves are attractive in their own right, with a lot of graphic elements like colored graphs livening up the text and stats, but the real glitz comes in the form of cutscenes showing the surfaces of planets as they’re first being colonized. Getting a glimpse of the surface of a dusty ash planet or a rainy monsoon world--complete with a native creature often in the foreground--imparts a landing-party vibe that further enhances the sense of discovery in your explorations. The sound includes the expected bleeps and bloops of the computer-styled interface, along with a not-so-expected musical score that blends the majesty of a cinematic space opera with weird electronic tunes straight out of old sci-fi movies from the mid-20th century. Some moments seem designed to evoke the soundtracks of genre classics, including Forbidden Planet and Silent Running.
Just a couple of drawbacks interfere with the empire-building offered here. The interface is generally well designed and intuitive, although there’s too much need to go through your civilization system by system. Granted, this is where most of your decisions are made, but it seems like there could be a better way to organize how you examine all of your colonies.
Combat remains a low point of the franchise. While there are plenty of options when it comes to customizing fleet tech and ship designs, space battles are routine affairs that are dull to watch (although they show off a neat naval style, with ships firing broadsides at one another). You pick a battle plan, and everything else is automated. Thankfully, you can sim right to the results. Ground battles are also depicted, although they’re even more boring to watch than their space equivalents and don’t come with the same attention to detail provided to the ships.
A few aspects of the design are more inscrutable than they should be. Much of this can be found in the tech wheel, as previously noted, although a couple of issues exist elsewhere. One area that seems particularly unfair on players is the harsh penalty for “overcolonization.” This can flat-out obliterate your empire in a couple of dozen turns if not addressed, and it’s not easy to address it--at least in a successful way that lets you start expanding again. A vicious cycle gets started when systems become unruly. Anarchy reigns, resource production plummets, bankruptcy forces cuts across the board, and the government falls--making it impossible to issue the laws needed to increase happiness. Some advanced techs help with happiness and the overcolonization penalty, but they aren’t cure-alls and often come too little, too late. The whole concept of overcolonizing is a tough one to understand, given how the game is about creating a (presumably) sprawling galactic empire. It would be a welcome option to be able to turn this rule off--or at least disable it in the Easy and Sandbox levels of difficulty.
Any way you look at it, Endless Space 2 is one impressive achievement even taking into account the above paragraph of what are fairly minor gripes given how much this game does extremely well. 4X space sims have long been known as the territory of the serious strategy gamer, but Amplitude has broken away from the pack here. Outstanding depth and tactical challenge have been preserved, although not at the expense of the strong storytelling needed to emphasize the sense of awe and wonder in galactic exploration that’s always been a huge part of the genre’s appeal. Amplitude has done a masterful job combining these two elements into a single game, where the quests and strategy and politics and economy are all tied into a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.