Endless Space 2 – Review
4X games have had an air of impenetrability about them for as long as I can remember. It comes with the territory; they’re system-laden games that lean heavily into logic, maths and resource management, often to a depth that can cause the eyes to heavily glaze over. But all that happens behind the scenes, with the good ones wrapping it all in an easy-to-read interface and some light story beats to keep things interesting as they move along. Endless Space 2 ticks all these boxes, managing to do so without drowning the player in technical jargon. But despite the game’s depth, it’s gorgeously communicative UI and beautiful presentation, the poor end game and lack of a defining mechanical or narrative hook makes Endless Space 2 a merely decent space explorer instead of a fantastic one.
Endless Space 2, like many others, is all about discovery, conflict and the progression and ultimate survival of your empire throughout a procedurally-generated galaxy. You can do this through diplomatic means, through conflict or through various other means. Players start by choosing one of eight empires. Each has a unique ability, or ‘faction affinity’, which changes up slightly how that empire plays throughout a game as well as signposting their political tendencies. The Unfallen, for example, is a pacifist race that uses something called Celestial Vines to encapsulate new systems, a requirement for colonization of new planets. These vines can take time to stretch out from their home system to the target, but once fully wrapped, can colonise any safe planet instantaneously. Others, like the Sophons, can colonize planets in any system they find, but must first set up an outpost for a number of turns before it can become fully colonized.
Once you’ve chosen your race and set up your game type, of which there is some customisation in terms of the types of quests given, how victories can be obtained and the map layout, you’re thrust into an unknown galaxy with nothing but your home system and the wide open of Space to explore. How you go about things from here is largely up to you, but from the outset, it’s important to learn how each of the game’s systems work. Actions will have consequences elsewhere and mindlessly clicking buttons will undoubtedly lead your empire down a dark path.
Resource management makes up a large portion of how you run your empire. Empires colonize worlds in different systems, with each planet offering varying levels of support to different parts of your economy. A desert planet might be inhospitable for some without the necessary technologies, but once it can be colonized could provide an industrial boost. In turn, that system will run through its build queue more efficiently than one that contributes little to no industry. As you research new technologies through spending science points, newer research, abilities and buildings open up, allowing you to further increase your empire’s size and capability.
The mish-mash of systems provides some interesting steps along the way. Discovering anomalies on random planets can reveal intriguing factoids about its nature as well as providing a random benefit to your cause. Empire elections are another cool part of the meta, letting you control not only the system of government your empire employs but how often (or if at all) new leaders are elected. Political denomination and leadership is directly tied to how your empire manages its resources and is one of the better ways of engaging you with the direction your population wants you to take them. Of course, how far you go down any one path will likely be dictated by the starting empire you choose. There is little point in trying to enact a religious approach with an empire that believes in science, though over the course of a game, affiliations can change.
Endless Space 2 also happens to be a pretty little thing, depending on where you look. It has a gorgeous UI that immediately stands out as one of the best I’ve seen in a game of this style. Everything is presented cleanly and neatly, with tooltips to explain the things you don’t understand. Discovering a new system sees the camera zoom in closely on each of the planets, giving you a good, up-close view of its atmosphere and surface. The same cannot be said for combat though, which allows you to watch battles as they happen or, the better choice, skip to the result. For what are meant to be mighty warships, they meekly float forward through space, trading pot shots with the enemy in what looks like a toy diorama. Sadly, it’s about here that things start to fall apart a little.
From the mid-to-late game, everything turns a bit stale. Eventually, you hit a point where there is nothing left to conquer or discover, leaving you to interact with the utterly woeful AI. They’ll reach out to you occasionally with the odd pointless threat or faint praise, but nothing of any substance. Under AI control each empire has certain tendencies they float towards, be that aggressively militaristic or insularly peaceful, but there is no middle ground except to be in a state of cold war.
There also appears to be little to no point in any of this. There is a story, but it’s so entirely indistinct that it makes me wonder why they bothered investing in it in the first place. Perhaps if the interaction with AI and other random elements of the game were more meaningful I might be compelled to play a few more games and try out some of the other races. But the lack of any relevant hooks, both narratively and mechanically, is off-putting after a while.
I don’t think Endless Space 2 is a bad game, not by a long shot. At a systemic level, it’s deep enough that fans of the first game, or of the 4X genre, will probably get something out of it. But then again, I consider myself a fan of the genre, and whilst discovering new systems and tactics was compelling at first, it didn’t take long to turn into something completely aimless, thus losing its ability to hold my interest. Endless Space 2 feels a little too safe in that regard, sticking to tried and tested mechanics rather than really digging into something new.
James Swinbanks is a Games Critic currently writing for GameSpot, although you’ll still occasionally see him popping up on Player 2, because frankly, he loves the smell of the place.