Upon first appearances, Endless Space 2 does not seem to make any new major strides in the 4X genre. The title, the cover art, the opening menu, all of them vaguely resemble almost any other space strategy game in existence. Even the title, Endless Space, is vaguely reminiscent of a hundred other titles that all reference how space might be a big dangerous place. It’s a turn-based 4X where you colonize planets and move individual populations around to maximize your collection of food, science, money, and industry.
Appearances, in this case, are ultimately deceiving. Jumping into a game of Endless Space 2 opens up a world of rich lore rivaling (and often surpassing) other huge space classics such as Sins of a Solar Empire or Sword of the Stars. Each faction is uniquely built to encompass classic ideas of how different players might experience a 4X, down to the core. Their stories, ideas, characters, and playstyles all reflect each other in every intricate detail.
Starting a game of Endless Space 2 is based on setting up custom settings for your universe, who you’ll be playing against, and most importantly, which group you'll take control of. There are eight factions, each one with a unique quest-based story involving performing various tasks and making difficult choices that can guide your faction into becoming something ultimately different than when it started. Each faction has an interest in a particular means of playing the game, with inherent racial biases towards moral standards or different ways of dealing with the universe at large, but these deep biases can be skewed heavily in favor of alternate means of ultimately achieving their goals.
The Horatio, for example, is actually a single man who cloned himself repeatedly. An entire faction dedicated to achieving artistic perfection in design, construction, and even their own bodies; each one is a perfect clone of the original Horatio. Achieving their goal of making the universe a prettier place might involve heavy amounts of political intrigue, a military campaign, or simply growing their population so massively that they overcrowd every other race in the universe. Your decisions ultimately change how these goals are acquired, and the choices you make dramatically change how the empire will expand and grow.
The Unfallen, a race of sentient tree people, hold two ideas strongly and simultaneously in their wise wooden heads: Fire-that-Creates and Fire-that-Destroys. Maybe the way you play these friendly tree people isn’t so friendly. Maybe you decide to wage intense war on the other races, and as your story progresses, you’ll unlock unique technology not only for your faction but also for the direction your faction is taking. You might choose between two philosophical goals and end up with a significant bonus to your ability to create new ships or field new weapons. You could also choose to follow Fire-that-Creates, seeding the universe with overwhelming curiosity for scientific and diplomatic growth.
This is, in the end, what makes Endless Space 2 so utterly unique even from its previous incarnation. Your faction does not tie you to a certain play style, despite the fact that each faction is utterly and completely unique. There’s a perfect balance between your ability to choose and your ability to specialize. Your decisions allow you to distance yourself even from exact clone factions that might be in the same game; a custom game allowing nothing but 7 different factions of Cravers, they may all end up with unique technologies, strengths, and weaknesses. Yet still, all of these Cravers must expand or eat themselves to death, the locusts that they are.
This system also introduces a concept of exploring different facets of the lore in the game. No, Endless Space was not a name they pulled out of a hat full of different words describing how big space is, it’s actually a reference to an all-encompassing, important part of the universe. A resource called “Dust”, which replaces credits as a form of currency in the game is actually an ancient invention of a few races collectively referred to as the “Endless”. Long ago, two major factions of Endless existed; the virtuals and the concretes. Both were intent on achieving immortality in differing ways but ultimately annihilated each other in a massive war. The leftovers of this war was the dust, nanotechnology that has innumerable uses.
Dust is largely a plot device with varying and vague abilities, which can apparently range from building cities to giving people magic powers. In some stories, it blesses people with awareness, autonomous drones with sentience, or allows for fascinating world anomalies. Almost every planet in the universe is dusted with the amazing technology, and it’s collected by the races in the game like Sonic collects rings.
Similarly, each planet has other assets that increase their usefulness to all the factions. A gas giant might be a haven for science because it’s covered in Argon and a lifeless desert planet might contain concentrated dust because there’s no food chain to spread it all over the surface. Each individual system is full of procedurally generated planets with a large number of factors determining what resources it ultimately carries. Hot, wet planets could be marshes or jungles depending on what modifiers affect it, and you eventually gain the technology to modify those planets for yourself. The barren, lifeless rock you colonized with a population of unhappy Horatios become much happier when you give their planet an atmosphere and running water. Your Sophon friends living in orbital cities that get repeatedly bombarded by asteroids will be far happier when you erect an enormous planetary shield to protect them. Each world has a chance of getting a random anomaly too, such as the aforementioned asteroids. Other anomalies include a permanent monsoon, or deserted cities already built for you. You can see how this affects the surface of your planet via the in-game graphics, which are fascinating right up until suspense of disbelief is broken by your lava planet having a Garden of Eden anomaly.
The procedural generation often becomes a problem in Endless Space 2. Each star system has a method of transport between them based on travel lines. Eventually you can get research to avoid them entirely, but at first, you’re limited to arbitrary connections between each system that may or may not make sense. Sometimes, this works in your favor, but often you might be stuck on a single planet surrounded by many unconnected systems, blocked in by another starting faction. You can, of course, simply restart the game if it’s obvious it will be difficult to get very far when you literally cannot leave your system, but this mild annoyance happens too many times for you to get very comfortable. Along with this comes the random allocation of anomalies, which can ruin the immersion and flow of your colonization. You can’t help but feel that your arid wasteland of a planet should not have year-round equatorial polar tempests.
The aesthetics of the planets are a delight, nonetheless, and each system you newly discover gives you a short, if slightly repetitious visual tour of each planet, outlining the resources on it, or what might be of interest for your faction. Sometimes you even discover Endless Wonders or unique planets, such as a world surrounded by floating islands that slowly lead to the moon in orbit. You can discover the homeworlds of other minor factions, callbacks to previous factions in other games, and even the fabled Auriga itself (the planet the previous game Endless Legend takes place on).
Speaking of previous games, the stories dodge in and out of references to previous portions of the lore, and dedicated players will be able to recognize characters and ideas from the other installments. If you’re not a dedicated player, there’s still a host of new lore to explore, as well as the sense of wonder that comes from seeing the beauty the game universe is capable of artfully presenting you. Journal entries from dissenting faction members, the personal thoughts of kings and queens, or simply one daring commander’s hope of saving his home, it’s an absolute delight to experience the modes of thinking that inform your decisions for what’s best for your people.
Combat is usually inevitable and it can be a frustrating mix of good and bad. You can build fleets and individual ships to explore and conquer, and you move them around the galaxy map, but be wary. All fleets, no matter the size and power, are stopped by any fleet that is using the guard ability. Any ship can guard a system, and doing so means that you cannot pass that system until the guarding ship either leaves for is destroyed. You cannot even turn around to head back home. If you have a particularly stubborn AI, your fleet may sit on an unoccupied planet for the entirety of the game. Unfortunately, unless you have a significant sensor range, you cannot tell if a planet is being guarded or not until you’ve started your journey towards it: starting the journey cannot be reversed until you’ve stopped at the system.
Thankfully, ship battles are fascinatingly fun in Endless Space 2. You’re capable of choosing your tactics before the skirmish begins using a series of cards. These cards represent different tactics based on your technology level, ship systems, and even the ability of your commanders. Once chosen, you can make the computer figure out how the battle will go, or you can watch it happen in real time in order to gauge your ship performance. There’s not much you can do in the battle to change its outcome, but zooming around watching your missiles eradicate those silly Sophons is criminal amounts of fun. Combat is very simple: despite all tactics, the ships mostly run towards each other firing their guns at the enemy. Ground battles occur similarly, with forces made up of troops, vehicles, and aircraft duking it out with various card-based strategies chosen before each round of combat.
The interface is simultaneously bonkers and brilliant. It is exceedingly easy to use, with good tooltips and a simple method of right-clicking to back out of different menus. No menus look too cluttered or too empty. The downside is that the placement of some of the features makes no sense. There are ideas, such as increasing the infrastructure of your outposts into major cities, that are simply not well explained, and figuring out how to actually upgrade them is hard to find. Once you do figure the process out, it’s easy and makes sense, but finding it on your own is a chore, especially since the tutorial seems to have left important aspects of empire building out. Endless Space 2 features a politics system that improves the look and feel of how your empire is reacting to your political and empire decisions, but the effects this has on the game is largely trivial. Maintaining the factions in order to have a heavy industrialist presence is fairly simple, and doing so merely allows you to unlock and use laws that can increase your ability to create more industry. It's a self-rewarding process that can vary between frustratingly hard to control and far too easy to manipulate, depending on the faction you intend to play. Either way, you'll often find the politics to be an afterthought or annoyance to the main portions of the game, though I can salute developer Amplitude's attempts to make the populations more interesting than mere drones for you to send to the farms.
As you flip through the menus, though, you’ll notice one of the strongest features of Endless Space 2. Most 4x games have a generic, stunningly boring soundtrack based on people falling asleep at their synthesizer keyboards. Endless Space 2 went so far above and beyond that, they run the risk of overshadowing many other elements of the game.
Each faction actually has a unique theme based upon variations of the main theme of the game, which can be heard on the title screen. The Unfallen, ancient tree people, have a theme based on woodwind instruments and dark, flowing sounds. The United Federation, a human faction reminiscent of Starship Troopers with a heavy love of industrialism has a theme consisting of steam releasing, mechanical clanks, and a rapid, regular beat. The Cravers, half-insect half-machine warriors made by the Endless have a hard rock synthesizer riff. Each faction feels different, looks different, plays differently, and importantly enough, even sounds different. This does wonders for gauging the feeling of your people, and when you move through the menus, different sections of the music will drop in and out. The percussion might fall out of the music while you read the descriptions of your tech, or the strings might suddenly fade away as you look at your diplomatic options. Each click you make releases changes in the soundtrack that end up being powerful emotional triggers for immersion.
Endless Space 2 is not a tour de force or a game changer. It won’t be something that people will look back on years later and think that it is a sentinel for innovation in a genre full of much of the same repeated material. It doesn’t have to be. Endless Space 2 is a candy with a boring wrapper but an incredible flavor, chock full of the things that will make any science fiction nerd on Earth feel satisfied. It has a strong story and aesthetic marred only slightly by the paper cut-out characters lightly animated by a couple sessions of Photoshop, and a strong soundtrack. It’s all encased in your standard Master of Orion, move-this-population-over-here-to-do-things-better cookie cutter gameplay, but you’ll grow an attachment and fierce loyalty to each random sentient robot, each grizzled veteran, and each clone of a trillionaire you meet. This isn’t the most amazing 4X you’ll ever play, but it’s a game the developers can be proud of.
Our Endless Space 2 review was conducted on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.
Endless Space 2 is a standard 4X that happens to contain some of the most artfully constructed lore and environment we've seen in years. Marred by strange design choices and often cookie cutter empire management, Endless Space 2 will nonetheless leave you thinking about the various characters you meet for a long time.
- Atmospheric Gameplay
- Varied, Interesting Factions
- Stunningly Perfect Soundtrack
- Confusing Interface Choices
- Uninteresting Population Mechanics
- No Vaulters Faction?!?!