A beautiful 4X game that stays in close orbit of tradition.
I first realized Endless Space 2 would be a game I’d enjoy upon discovering that one of its main factions is a race of treants called the Unfallen. They approach the grand 4X strategy adventure of exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating by spreading peace and harmony throughout the galaxy. It’s essentially the March of the Ents on a galactic scale, complete with featherweight philosophical talk in quest popups about fire being a force that both creates and destroys. Other turn-based 4X games might leave establishing faction personality at that, but Endless Space 2 goes even deeper, setting the Unfallen apart from their competition by giving them their own expansion technique that relies on spreading vines from system to system and connecting the whole endeavor to a central heart. That’s but a taste of what makes Endless Space 2 one of the most aesthetically appealing 4X games to come out during the recent revival.
Underneath those colorful factions, though, are only a few notable features that set it apart from the familiar design of rest of the genre, as Endless Space 2 shows little interest in boldly going where no one has gone before. You’ll gather various resources, research various technologies, and expand from a home planet to possible dominance of the entire galaxy. You’ll find wildly different star systems with livable and resource-rich planets to colonize, and you’ll occasionally have to deal with pirates and raiders in addition to aggressions from your neighboring space empires. You’ll win through a wide range of victory conditions, including everything from economic to military dominance.
Each race plays differently in significant ways.
But it’s remarkable for the many options it allows for going about this business. For one, you can take the helm of one of eight races, which include everything from my beloved tree people to a race of clones based on an egg-headed man named Horatio who thinks entirely too highly of himself. (The titular “Endless” refers to an extinct race who’ve left nothing behind but their mysterious “Dust,” which acts as a primary currency.) A healthy stable of factions isn’t uncommon among 4X games, but Endless Space 2 considerably improves its replay possibilities by making each race play differently from one another in significant ways. The business of transporting citizens to colonies, for instance, is much simpler for the robotic Riftborn than it is for other races since they can just build new citizens on site. The Unfallen, meanwhile, extend their vines out to other systems, allowing them to colonize with relative freedom as long as those tendrils aren’t cut off.
There’s a danger of predictability when you specialize each race to the point where they have a “correct” path, but Endless Space 2 keeps playthroughs interesting with elements such as RPG-like quests that grant tempting rewards for quashing rebellions or colonizing a set number of planets. That can be a very effective incentive to lure you out of the path of least resistance. Its greatest strength, though, is the dynamic political system with up to six political parties and elections within each faction. Go along with the leading faction’s goals and you’ll see additional buffs that can also serve to jolt you out of a rut and grow your empire in a different direction.
Playing as the Unfallen, for instance, I started with a strong trade-oriented Pacifist party who tussled frequently with the comparatively like-minded Ecologist party. As I expanded and my empire integrated new minor races, though, I found myself struggling to keep new Militarists in check while their indolence threatened to destroy all my carefully crafted trade networks. Managing those internal struggles by passing the correct laws and following the appropriate perks on the technology tree gives you another layer to consider. Most impressively of all, Endless Space 2 manages to tie all these elements together, regardless of whether they affect expansion, construction, war, or any of its myriad other elements. Along the same lines, altering paths to pursue a different victory condition mid-game didn’t feel punishing as it often does in other 4X games. Little touches like these have the rewarding effect of making Endless Space’s setting feel like a living universe and not one you can manipulate by rigidly following a guide. You’ll have to adapt to survive regardless of which race or focus you choose, and the campaigns are better for it.
Inter-empire diplomacy, unfortunately, is far weaker. Pop-up interactions seemingly have little relation to what’s happening on the map, and the interface gives few clues of how to immediately address an issue a party brings up. As an example, one faction kept bugging me to pay it tribute, which I would have been okay with. But there was nothing prompting me to go to the section of the diplomacy interface to address this issue, so I figured it was just an open-ended suggestion. When they declared war on me a couple of turns later for my insolence in ignoring their demands, I was shocked. In a lot of cases a simple link to the Diplomacy panel would’ve made finding the solution and recognizing the importance of a problem much easier.
Endless Space 2 is easily one of the genre’s visual gems.
Make no mistake: playing Endless Space 2 is a memorable experience, largely thanks to it being easily one of the genre’s visual gems. From the crisp title screen to the icons elegantly punctuating the galaxy map, Endless Space 2 endlessly impresses with its visual design. Each race also comes with its own fantastic soundtrack and attractive (and optional) cutscenes that enrich the business of colonizing planets.
It’s a little disappointing that battles are largely automated aside from outfitting your ships in the ship builder and selecting a few strategies before the battle, such as whether to “turtle” for some boosts to damage absorption, but even so the fantastic cinematic style in which they’re presented make it worth avoiding the auto-resolve key from time to time.
Space-themed 4X games tend to suffer from interface design that resembles nothing more than dusty, academic, or stoic corporate presentations, but Endless Space 2 reminds us at every turn that space exploration is an adventure full of wonder and possibility. It’s frankly inspiring. Even its minimalist yet thorough look gives me hope for the future, as it imparts a wealth of information without ever sacrificing beauty.
Endless Space 2 reminds us that space exploration is an adventure full of wonder and possibility.
The elegant simplicity comes with a price, though. It’s tempting to associate the interface’s sleek lines and thin sans-serif fonts with an Apple-like degree of accessibility, but that’s little more than a lovely illusion here. This is a deep and intimidating game in a deep and intimidating genre, clearly aimed at 4X veterans, and it keeps elements that might otherwise be spelled out limited to icons with tooltips out of an expectation that you already know what to do with its various familiar features. If you’ve been tinkering with everything from Sid Meier’s Civilization games to Galactic Civilizations 3 to the recent reboot of Master of Orion this shouldn’t be much of a problem – I was able to familiarize myself with things like the different playstyles of each race and the generation of the “Dust” currency fairly quickly. If you can’t name out what the four Xs in 4X stand without referencing the first paragraph of this review, you might have a hard time.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t try to help you along. The tutorial is extremely thorough, and notifications that pop up suggesting which actions to take next do much to alleviate the pain of the complexity. There’s even a search bar for the technology tree, although finding the best upgrade can still be a chore considering many perks have arcane names like “Baryonic Shielding” and “Wave Function Control” that don’t readily announce their importance or purpose On the other hand, each perk is surrounded with icons that indicate which strategy it’s best for, such as science, planetary colonization, or ship design .
Even if you’re new, it’s worth pushing through those first few rough educational hours for the eventual payoff. Once everything clicks into place, it’s easy to appreciate how much sense the user interface makes and now conveniently it groups all of Endless Space 2’s elements in the spots where they’re the most helpful.