After some cold years, the 4X space genre is pretty well stocked right now. There's Galactic Civilizations III, Stellaris, Master of Orion, and Distant Worlds. Into this cluster comes Endless Space 2, the sequel for Amplitude Studios' debut game. In 2012, the studio surprised with an excellent entry into the genre. Can they do the same in a more crowded space?
The core of the game carries forward from the previous entry and the 4X genre in general. You have your exploration, which begins constrained, with your ships only able to travel across space lanes that connect star systems together. Eventually, you'll open that to free movement and teleporting with new options like Warp Drive and Hawking Radiation Dowser, which come from specific research opportunities in the extensive tech tree. You'll talk to other factions, trade for goods and technology, and then use those goods to build improvements and structures on your owned planets. A 4X veteran knows this part internally, but it's an uphill climb for new players.
Where Endless Space 2 diverges heavily from its competitors is in the area of presentation. While many 4X games have a spartan UI that just provides data, Amplitude clearly took its time here. The UI looks amazing and more importantly, it's functional, allowing you to zoom between planets and different viewpoints in a few clicks or scrolls of the mousewheel. There's a slight learning curve, but once you get it, moving around in Endless Space 2's various gameplay and data screens is easy and charming.
From a narrative perspective, Amplitude surprises and delights with beautiful art and lengthy story segments. Each race has their own branching tale, with a unique starting point and various story choices depending on what kind of ruler you are and where you want your civilization to go. The writing in Endless Space 2 is top-notch and offers something most of its peers simply skip over. The tale of the human-led, jackbooted United Empire is quite different from the religious zealotry of the Vodyani or the arrogant clone-based solidarity of the Horatio. It's worth seeing every faction for their own story, not just their different playstyles.
And those playstyles are wider than different factions in some other 4X titles. The United Empire is the closest to classic 4X gameplay, sending colony ships to star systems to take control of them. The tree-like Unfallen send Vineships across space lanes, calling their vines towards other systems they can then colonize. The Vodyani have to leech essence from other factions, working from monolithic Ark ships instead of living on specific planets. The Lumeris are merchants, meaning they gain more money than other races for their population and they simply buy new planets.
It adds a great deal of variety to your game, but it also changes up your strategy. In one game, I dropped an outpost in a star system just before the Unfallen could. The outpost system of colonization means that there are a set number of turns before a star system fully comes under your control. This means another faction can have an outpost in that star system, making it a race for ownership. You can goose the turn speed with gold and influence, so there's a bit of tension there. Ultimately, I won the race and took control of the system. Since their vine network follows along a set path, I essentially locked the Unfallen into their small section of the galaxy.
On the opposite end, I had a ton of problems with the Vodyani, because their Ark means they're untethered. They were flitting around my empire, abducting my citizens, and since I wasn't on the path of a strong military, I couldn't do a damn thing about it. Notes for a later game, I guess.
Hidden under Endless Space 2's factions is a dizzyingly-deep politics system. Each race has a number of political parties inside of it, including Industrialists, Pacifists, Militarists, Ecologists, Scientists, and Religious. Nearly everything you do in the game feeds into one of these groups and makes them stronger. Certain colony improvements may make the Industrialists happy. Scientists may approve of the choice you made in a quest. The new technology you just researched makes the Pacifists stronger. Militarists see a happy shade of red when you fight anyone else.
There are also a total of sixteen minor factions that can populate your worlds, each of whom correspond to a specific political bent. You have to manage these folks as well, using specific resources to boost growth in certain minor factions on your worlds above others. If you're building a Pacifist empire, seeing growth in the warlike Hissho is a bad thing, so you'll need to boost the growth of the Haroshem in response.
These politics factor into occasional elections and the reigning group gets to establish laws that push your empire in different directions. This means most of your decisions actually matter, with you being forced to weigh the choice of a specific technology or improvement, knowing that one matter can trickle down into the rest of your empire. Losing an election can mean derailing your empire's overall progress. Alongside the force-multiplying Hero system, it's about finding balance.
There's also a decent economy and trade system grounded in Amplitude's FIDSI system, which stands for the resources of Food, Industry, Dust (currency), Science, and Influence. You can create a trade company and trade routes, allowing you to sell excess, unused resources on the market. Trade routes are a bit obtuse, with the game not really explaining where the best trade routes should go to maximize income, but I figured it out after a few games. Marketplace sales and treaties, if used correctly though, can see a significant influx of dust into your empire.
Endless Space 2 does stumble though. In the area of combat, the game is doggedly straightforward. Two forces clash in space or ground combat, the stats are tallied, and one side wins. You can slightly shift an even battle with specific unlockable tactics cards—which offer up three different attack ranges for three phases of combat—but they won't turn a fight that's far in someone's favor. The general strategy is to build ships that will counter the enemy's armada and then choose the tactics card that fits your current fleet. There's a cool visualization of ship combat, but I never really looked forward to combat in any tactical manner. I skipped the fight and just had the game give me the final tally, win or loss.
The AI could also use some work. Certain factions tend to lend themselves to certain sections (early, mid, or late game) in each game, only to find themselves streamrolled in others. I noticed that some factions wouldn't build larger, more advanced ships in the late game, even to defend themselves. In a diplomatic sense, the other factions tend to simply stick to their core traits, coming across as rather dry and workmanlike. As long as you don't tread across their territory or have capabilities they simply hate, peace is possible with most factions. I expect Amplitude will be hacking away at the AI post-launch, so I think this is an area where things will improve.
As a personal pet peeve, I'll note there's no espionage system in the game. Given that that the other 4X game I'm looking at just added spies, it's a small oversight that I wish was addressed. There is full mod support at launch though, so perhaps modders will get there before Amplitude.
Endless Space 2 is an excellent follow-up to Amplitude's very first game. This is a premiere 4X experience, with the developer layering on excellent art, story, and UI design to a solid core of gameplay. I lean more towards the terrestrial building of Endless Legend, but Endless Space 2 was a pleasant surprise for me, given that I hadn't played the first. If you're a 4X neophyte, Endless Space 2 might be the game for you, as the visual polish may carry you through the complex systems. For veterans, it's still a great game and Amplitude will no doubt be adding hefty expansion content to the game in the coming years.
My word, I actually have something to say about the interface! The UI of Endless Space 2 is great! it gives the right information and it's easy to get everywhere.
A 4X game is never truly done, because there are so many permutations of any match.
Amplitude has ensured that Endless Space 2 looks damn good, with a ton of concept art and cinematics.
Where other 4X titles lean towards a more utilitarian presentation, Endless Space 2 starts with a great 4X game and layers on good art, great writing, and excellent UI design. There's a wide variety of play in the available factions and a deep political system that underpins the entire thing. The combat disappoints and the AI could use some improvement, but Amplitude is known for its expansions and improvements. What's here is already a 4X class act.