When Amplitude released Endless Space in 2012, it didn’t have much competition. Aside from the over-complicated Space Empire, Galactic Civilizations was probably the only 4X space strategy series that managed to gain even relative popularity. And even GalCiv had some strange design decisions, like having planets scattered all over the star map. So, people were quite hungry for a new opportunity to conquer the galaxy.
With very little resources, aside from personal experience in the industry and passion towards deep turn-based strategy, developers managed to create quite an engaging game, that was probably most close to Civilization series. But that took place among the stars and the planetary systems around them.
With robust mechanics, well-balanced gameplay, and deep lore, Endless Space captivated 4X veterans and became a prominent event of the decade. Probably game’s success was one of the reasons why quite a few teams decided to dive into space 4X, contributing to turn-based 4X renaissance. And thus, the bar for the sequel became pretty high.
Civilization in Space (II)
As for the core gameplay, developers decided not to fix that was working. Endless Space 2 still feels like Civ in many ways. Food to grow the population, Production to build, Science to discover new technologies, and even Dust as universal currency to buy things – these main resources are used in the same manner. Not to mention that just like Civ, everything is counted in “units” or “points” – there is no relation to any real metrics. For all we know, each of our turns takes millennia or just a few years.
Instead of the continents – constellations, that have all their stars connected by fast-travel “space strings”. Instead of barbarians – space pirates. And there are minor civilizations too. Except, you can not only negotiate with them for resources and support but also assimilate them – by force or peacefully.
Of course, Endless Space 2 isn’t just a copy of Sid Meyer’s masterpiece. You can’t cultivate an area of vacuum as you did with the lands around the city. All resources are produced only on the planets and each one has a different rate of production. Thus assigning population becomes your primary concern. Is it worth to overpopulate the planet, sacrificing happiness over efficiency? Or maybe it’s better to assign a planet certain specialty to increase the output? Or change the climate altogether?
You can also build improvements for an entire star system. Bio-domes increase food output on all barren planets, droids raise production by a fixed amount per planet, etc. Depending on what planets you have, each system has a different optimal set of “buildings”. Though many of those you must discover first.
“Tech-tree” is divided into four sectors – science/exploration, economy/production, military and state/society development. To reach the more advanced tech, you must research a certain amount of technologies of the previous tier. But other than that four sectors can be researched pretty independently. Sure, the science branch holds some useful support modules for ships and the largest ship hull is “locked” in the advanced tier for the state, but if you just want to create a mighty war fleet, you can go without those, concentrating only on the military.
Speaking of the military action in space. Visually it’s simply gorgeous. And it’s not just a bunch of ships vs a bunch of ships either. Before each battle, you can choose tactics, and even group fleets differently – all that actually influencing the outcome of the battle. And during the combat you see your majestic fleets go against the enemy in full 3D, using exactly the weapons and tactics you prescribed them.
Visually it’s simply gorgeous
It’s really sad that you haven’t any control over the battle itself. And to be fair, description of tactics and how those combine mechanically could have been a bit more clear. Too often I’ve just looked at general “who has bigger forces” graph and sent my armadas without diving into details. And sometimes it didn’t play out the way as I’ve expected it would.
Conversely, planetary battles have the opposite problem. Their mechanics are obvious rock-paper-scissors, with you personally deciding how much infantry/tanks/air-force you send to the surface each turn. But it’s really frustrating to see that battles on different planets are totally the same. No matter if you fight on a gas giant (where air superiority supposed to be most important), in arctic ice or the desert – everything is determined by the same numbers.
And of course, there are no subtypes of infantry or models of tanks. This looks especially frustrating since spaceships are all highly customizable with different modules based on advanced tech (some even require special strategic resources). Weapons have not only different effective range but also energy/kinetic damage type. Some modules provide special abilities. Heck, there are even heroes that you can assign to your fleet that greatly boosts its stats.
Heroes of Might and Sufficiently Advanced Technology
Heroes are the whole other layer of the gameplay. They are trained in the mysterious Academy and can be assigned either to your space fleets or star systems. Though first, you must get in contact with that Academy either by finding the system where it’s located or building an Academy Embassy. Or you can just hire heroes from the market (again you must build marketplace first). Even some quests can reward you with another hero.
Regardless, how you got them, heroes gain experience over time and advance in their skills. You actually choose skill progression during hero “level up”, but the branches hero’s skill-tree has are depend on the class and race of the hero. Most skills just boost characteristics of the fleet/system hero was assigned to. But there are a few special abilities that can totally change your strategy.
And don’t forget the quests. Most of them actually don’t require any hero. You just need to explore some anomalies, or build certain improvements, amass certain resources or defeat space pirates in some system. The usual stuff you do anyway.
Some quests are given to you personally by minor civs, so you can finally persuade them to become a part of your glorious Empire. Others can make you compete for resources and influence with major players in the galaxy. Heroes can come in handy to tip the scale in those.
Diplomacy by Any Means
Interaction between the Empires has many facets too. Depending on your type of relations – cold war, full-scale war, truce, peace – your diplomatic options are quite different. And there is always a “pressure” that makes your adversary more susceptible to your threats. Though if another Empire has bigger “score”, tables will turn and it would be you who has to accept demands or suffer penalties.
The peace treaty makes you unable to do any aggressive moves but opens a whole host of other opportunities. Trade agreements, science research collaboration, even alliance. Though the latter, as many benefits it has, also means certain responsibilities. If your ally requests help (look for sword or shield icons on galaxy map), you better answer the call.
And if you think foreign politics is complex, look at your parties in the senate. Depending on your actions, events in the galaxy and many other factors, influence is split between militarists, pacifists, scientists, ecologists, industrialists, and religion parties. And the most influential party will dictate policies that can be a great boon or disadvantage for your entire infrastructure.
Of course, there can be additional laws that you can choose manually. And depending on your ruling system you can have even more (or less) control over domestic policies. Even heroes contribute to your politics if their views are aligned with the leading parties (there are some skills that are active in that case).
And that’s not counting market and corporations. Those can influence both inner and outer relations. In addition to their prime function – getting you resources and money you need.
Honestly, I could go on and on, telling about game intricacies. All the above are just core rules. And each race (or Empire, as those are called in ES2) has its own unique spin of them. Lumeris don’t build colony ships and just buy new systems. Cravers mine more resources, but after some time their planets become exhausted. Riftborn can get benefits from system improvements even before building them because they can bend the rules by manipulating time. And many-many more.
At some point strategic and luxury resources management comes into play and allows building advanced ships and upgrading star systems. You will face various events, from political crisis to supernova explosion, that you will have to deal in several possible ways. There will be non-linear quests and the whole chains of (mis)adventures that reveal the mysteries of the Endless lore and, with some of your choices, can totally change the society of your Empire.
The main problem with such an abundance of nuance is, of course, developers being unable to iron out all the bugs and oversights. Even today, two years from game release various quirks and strange behavior can be seen in Endless Space 2 on a regular basis. And some blanks in tutorials don’t make it easier to identify if those are bugs or features.
Still, despite some problems, Endless Space 2 is overall a great game. It has a lot of depth in both game mechanics and in-game lore. And it successfully balances between plausible sci-fi and engaging gameplay. Plus, gorgeous space battles and distinct individuality for each species in the galaxy.
If you want a (relatively) easy entry point into 4X space strategies, and also the game that you can dive in for hours/days/weeks exploring the possibilities for conquest, studying the lore, or simply enjoying the vastness of space, Endless Space 2 is probably the best choice you can make.