Review: Endless Space 219 May 2017 0
Review: Endless Space 2
Released 18 May 2017
Space: the final frontier! Or, when it comes to 4X TBS games, the well-travelled backyard. Exploring, expanding, exploiting and expanding naturally lend themselves to endeavours that give rise to galactic civilizations and space empires. Endless Space 2 is a game that asks us to do that again in one of sci-fi's most distinct universes.
The game takes its name from the top-dog precursor race of the setting: the long-gone Endless. One of the last things their civilization did was fight a huge war between the Virtual and Concrete branches of the culture. One of their most lasting legacies is Dust, an artificial substance with almost limitless potential. Dust extends life, Dust expands consciousness... if it doesn't kill you beforehand. And now, many ages after the fall of the Endless, brave new peoples head out to conquer space.
I always wondered how these precursor races always leave behind ruin-strewn worlds that mysteriously aren’t stripped of all mineral wealth. But that's not a question many care about, and it certainly isn't something that will impede your space empires. Chosen from a number of different species, they all start their trek to the stars in a single system, having already built a scout ship and a colonization vessel.
Unless they don't: while all races have their own quirks and gameplay differences, some are more different than others. United Empire, a hegemony both corporate and feudal, can have the Emperor flex his muscle and hasten not only build times, but even research by spending the influence resource, making UE the race most interested in its generation. Unfallen, ents in space, don't have colonizer vessels. Instead, they send a ship to neighboring system to plant a beacon for interstellar vines. If that ship remains undisturbed for 10 turns, you can immediately colonize the system, which makes the spread of the Unfallen very slow and methodical. Meanwhile, the Vodyani, who religiously worship the Virtual Endless, don't colonize planets as much as subjugate systems with their Arks. Much like barbarian camps in Total War: Attila, they harbor all of the planetary improvements and can easily transport them from system to system. However, the Vodyani are also energy vampires and they need to draw Essence from other races to construct their population units and Arks. And the price keeps rising…
Other than that, the gameplay in Endless Space 2 is relatively simple. The main unit of space is a system, which houses planets. The system is managed all at once, and the planets are only important as vessels for pop units, being restricted by habitability, and separated by resource production rates. You can move pops around from one planet to the other to improve production or happiness (certain species work better on certain worlds). The ships fly from system to system, and battles take place on a separate screen
Space combat remains, on the surface, like it was in Endless Space. You set tactics before the fight, and you can watch a pretty visualization of the fleets duking it out. Only this time, you can only choose a single tactic, and it applies to all three of the combat phases while having different strengths and weaknesses for the weapon range bands. There are more details than that, but suffice to say you will want to select a tactic that plays to your strengths… which will be “Turtle” for most of the game, since it increases the survivability of the ships.
And while the pre-combat screen presents a lot more info about the battles, the ship building is now a lot easier. The tired old rock-paper-scissors of lasers vs. shields, missiles vs. ECM and guns vs. armor has been kinda abolished for a more realistic approach. Heck, quick firing guns now even provide defense against missiles! Also, the tech tree has technologies that are exclusive, meaning that your fleet with have to choose between going the missiles and guns or the lasers and beams route. In general, planning out ships is now easier and more fun, since it’s hard to make a worthless ship, unless you forget to include an armaments. Instead of the linear small-ship to dreadnaught development route, you now have fever ship sizes and more of ship role classes (which determine how they act in the field and what gear can they take). The game also allows expanding the capacity of your existing ships as the time goes, bringing a new lease on life for your existing classes.
Granted, many of the advanced upgrades and newly unlocked slots also increase the price of your ship – in strategic resources too! What this means, potentially, that a long and devastating war could see you switch to making economy-class ships crammed with resource-neutral upgrades. After all, industrial capacity is easy to come by; on the other hand, you empire’s resource extraction might not be able to cope with the increasing workload. Eventually, even the near inexhaustible galactic markets might run dry as the competitors hoover up resources to replenish their fleets.
Yes, galactic market is a very much vibrant thing in the game, where resources, ships and even heroes can go on sale! This ties into the fact that, at least to me, Endless Space 2 allows you to amass great wealth a lot easier than before. I was never good with managing the economy, but playing against a normal AI, I do end up swimming in Dust (and, in the case of UE, Influence) almost past my wildest desires, being able to tech up new systems almost in the blink of the eye. Even happiness, a perennial expansion showstopper back in the first game, isn’t such a thorn in your side anymore.
However, difficulties remain. One of them ties into your imperial manpower, which is used to crew ships and replenish armies (which have been relegated to what could be considered the organic Marine crews of your ships), putting somewhat of a hard cap on how fast you can expand and replace your fleets. Recruitment can be improved – mostly via laws and hero upgrades – but most of the races don’t have an easy way to ramp up military enlistment without hurting themselves. Again, here is where some racial differences show: Riftborn, being exiles from another plane of existence, manufacture soldier forms much like they do bodies for their populace (Riftborn, just like Vodyani, don’t reproduce in the normal way), allowing them to dedicate forge systems entirely to the production of new soldiers.
Of course, not everything is fun and Dust in this game. I found the political system to be kind of fiddly and not that important. When each species in your empire has its own political leanings and a system’s political make up is influenced by what you build there (with every ship giving Militarists more influence, for example), it’s kind of a bother to look after them all and I just sleep through the elections. It’s easier when you play Cravers, since they start 100% militaristic.
Talking about fiddlyness, there’s a lot more of it to the exploration of the universe. So you have the autoexplore option, which is both great and necessary in space games (that's one reason why I dislike games like Polaris Sector, which lack this feature). However, planets can and will contain curiosities that must be manually explored while a scout ship that is in the system. The ship won’t do it automatically, and the reason for that is that it has a limited amount of probes that don’t regenerate that fast. You can also use the same probes to explore space – just fire them off in a general direction and they’ll fly forward for six turns, revealing stuff as they go. So, anomalies can’t be explored automatically and they’re mostly reveal boring and trivial stuff.
On the other hand, Endless Space 2 is still a beautiful game. The UI is super sweet, the ship battles look great, the game blends 3D and 2D animation seamlessly in the cutscenes – it’s all amazing. The audio side of the work is great, too, though I would like more and less repetitive diplomacy barks. I would also like diplomacy to be less about opaque threads and complaints, but I might be asking too much.
Endless Space 2 is a worthy successor to the first game. Playing it in a post-Stellaris environment might be a little rough – the technology tree seems such a bother after Stellaris’ random research – but it’s probably the most potent non-Paradox 4X space game these days. It is certainly better than the pointless new Master of Orion, and it has trimmed down on the excessive features in a way that Galactic Civilizations III hasn’t. Now, to wait for the inevitable high quality DLCs.