When I think about those who helped pioneer the resurgence of 4X strategy games in recent years, I think first and foremost about Amplitude Studios. Their space strategy game, Endless Space, was the spark that reignited the 4X fire in many of us after we’d experienced a series of disastrous releases from other developers. In addition, Amplitude Studios was a true pioneer in both the early access concept as well as customer involvement. While in the long run I had my issues with Endless Space, I was impressed by Amplitude’s dedication to the genre and even more impressed by their take on 4X fantasy, Endless Legend, a game which has obviously done well as this very month it will have its 4th major expansion release. Until now, we could only imagine what this veteran 4X game studio could do if given a chance to apply this same level of polish and experience in a return to the space genre. Well you’ll no longer need to wonder, because today, Endless Space 2 launches on early access.
What will and won’t be available in Endless Space 2’s early access is something you’ll definitely want to be aware of before diving in. This information is based on my time with a pre-release press copy of the game, so please bear in mind some things may change in the official EA release. At this stage 4 of the 8 planned races are playable and only 3 of the 5 tech trees are available. While each of their 4 races present has unique traits, and in most cases very unique and asymmetrical gameplay, at this point they all have the same technology tree aside from the ship hull techs. My understanding is that each race will have unique technologies (more than hulls I assume) given their official wiki page listings, but at this point none are present. When it comes to victory conditions, the game will feature 5 victory conditions, but only 2 (Score and Domination) are available currently and can’t be disabled. Some aspects having to do with the economy, such as the marketplace, are unavailable at this point. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that at this point only single player is available.
One important thing to note is that the official word is that the initial Early Access release will be limited to 100 turns. This coincides with roughly about how long my games have gone thus far, with one ending at turn 100 due to score victory, and the other ending around turn 119 due to score victory.
EDIT (10/12/16) – The 0.1.3 patch was released and has removed the turn limit from the game! You are no longer limited to set a number of turns. Check out the link for additional details on the patch.
While there are some limitations and missing features at this point, there are quite a few new systems that are fully available for you to explore and enjoy. Chief among these is the government system complete with competing political factions and laws for your race to abide by. Several systems popularized by Endless Legend has been brought into Endless Space 2 including a full quest system with unique racial quests as well as a system of minor factions and citizens who can inhabit your worlds and their own and who can be absorbed into your empire for added bonuses. Heroes make a return with unique military and governor roles, somewhat more diverse skill trees, and the addition of their own personal ship that can be customized. Ship design is also revamped with new modular slots which are locked down to certain types of modules and which vary dependent on the ship hull type and role.
I’ve spent a dozen hours exploring Endless Space 2’s early access courtesy of a press key that we were provided and am ready to share my first impressions. In the time I’ve had, I’ve completed 2 full games from start to finish and spent the remainder of the time discovering what the other 2 factions had to offer. My games were necessarily short due to the score victory being mandatory and generally occurring near or shortly after the 100 turn mark.
Races – Sophos and Cravers
I can’t write about an Amplitude Studios game without covering what I consider has become the defining feature of their games, asymmetrical races. While nearly every 4X game makes an effort to diversify factions by providing them with different traits, ship designs, technologies, and personalities, very few manage to create a truly unique playstyle for each. From what I’ve experienced so far, the initial races being offered here range from familiar to radically different, and for someone who greatly values diversity as I do, a good precedent is being set for the remaining races.
Those acquainted with Endless Space will certainly recognize the return of two major factions, the Sophos and the Cravers, as playable factions once again. The Sophons are the easiest to play, and as the somewhat stereotypical “research” specialists, they will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played a 4X game before. I found them to be great to ease into the game’s new features with. The Cravers also return with a similar role as they’ve had in the past, complete with their warlike and planetary depleting ways, although this time they are bit more flexible due to some new mechanisms present in the political system.
Races – Lumeris and Vodyani
What I found more exciting, and what I spent most of my time exploring, were the new races the Lumeris and Vodyani. If you like the idea of space mobsters complete with competing families and political power plays, the Lumeris and their unique quests and events are going to make you feel right at home. Even if you’re not, if you like dust (aka money!), you’re going to love how effectively they use it. Forget about colony ships, forget about traveling to a system in order to colonize it, because once the dust gets flowing, any unoccupied system you want is yours to be purchased.
The most unique race at this point is the Vodyani. They operate quite differently than any space 4X race I’ve played before. Colony ships? Forget about them. Dust? Nice, but not their focus. What they really want is essence, a commodity they’ll literally suck out of the competition. The Vodyani grow their population by orbiting their fleets around the planets of major and minor factions in order to “harvest” their essence. This essence becomes a resource you can use to increase the population of your existing Arks or to create a new one. What is an Ark? Think of an Ark as a deluxe mobile home equipped with defenses and deadly weaponry. You can build many of these, and can even retrofit and build them with newer technology, but each one increases in cost and makes it more difficult to get the next. These Arks serve as the Vodyani’s colony ships, only instead of establishing a colony they simply dock in a system to be able to build it up and gain its resources. They are also mobile, so if a better unoccupied system with more suitable planets, better resources, or amazingly beneficial anomalies is discovered, they can simply un-dock their Ark and fly it over to re-dock over there.
The power of the Ark comes into full view when you realize that its existing population is retained whenever it moves. Not only that, it also simultaneously works all colonizable planets in a system. For example, an Ark with 3 population will have 3 workers per planet, meaning with 2 colonizable planets you actually get 6 population worth of work. Increase your population to 4 and now you’ve 8 population working between the two planets. Better yet, fly your 4 population to a system with 4 colonizable planets and you can get 16 population worth of work done between them. It’s a powerful ability, but one tapered by the ever increasing amount of essence required to grow an existing Ark. Essence that can only be stolen from enemies or neutral factions who likely won’t stay neutral for long.
Both the Sophons and Cravers feel like worthwhile additions to the line-up, but I do feel like both suffer more than the other two factions do based on the current lack of unique racial technologies (aside from ship hulls) and the limited nature of the tech tree. Their unique features are certainly nice, but perhaps a bit bland for my personal taste at this point. Some interesting new technologies for the Sophons could certainly change my opinion on that if and when they appear. On the other hand, the Lumeris were enjoyable to play, easy to expand with, and very powerful. Even without some of the economic features they will take advantage of being in-game at the moment, they have just enough uniqueness to them to remain interesting. The Vodyani are the most unique and therefore most interesting to me at this point. They feel really well defined even in this early access stage due to their unique resource and unique colonization and population mechanics.
Government & Politics
Aside from the asymmetric races, the other element of Endless Space 2 that I found really intriguing thus far is the government and politics system. Every faction has a starting government that is based on their initial political leanings and philosophy, but additional options can be unlocked through research. Government types include Federation, Democracy, Dictatorship, and Republic. Each offers unique bonuses and penalties to your empire and determines how important the votes of your population are. If you’re tired of the needs of your people getting in the way of your demands, you can simply declare a Dictatorship and follow your own political agenda (after a brief period of pure anarchy), but don’t expect them to be happy about it. The government descriptions at this point appear to still be in their prototype raw form, so I can’t say for sure what the exact penalties and rewards are, but it is clear their intention is to promote a robust and dynamic government system.
Politics and political views are related yet separate from the government type. Each of your citizens will have their own political view based on their race, and this controls how they initially feel and how they react to actions you take. Their political view and voting decision is modified by actions you take throughout the game. For instance, constructing certain buildings for production growth increases the strength of the Industrialists party. Building military war ships increases the Militarists. Exploring systems and anomalies increases the Scientists. Money making endeavors tend to please the Pacifists. These and other political factions will be vying for control. Initially your empire will have just one political group large enough to vote, but soon enough you’ll see announcements that your actions have brought about the rise of new factions who you’ll see represented in future elections.
Votes are important because of the many periodic elections your empire will take part in. Elections present an opportunity for all of your systems to vote on the political direction of your empire. Here is where government type can play a significant role, as the number and importance of votes can be largely impacted based on your government type. Votes are important for a few reasons. One, your heroes can also serve as political party leaders. They can unlock certain skills as they level up that grant bonuses if they are a political leader. More importantly, votes determine the composition of your senate and the types of laws you can put into place.
Laws are unique benefits you can vote in using your influence resource. The number of laws you can have is limited, although it can be increased through actions such as the research of certain technologies. Which laws you can use is dependent on which ones you have unlocked, and this determined based on the political parties that exist in your empire and their strength. I’ve also see that new laws will appear later on once parties further establish themselves. Just unlocking a law for use isn’t enough though. You’ll also need enough political support from that party to enact it. Should your pacifist party falter, you may no longer have the broad support required to keep your law “Super Tax Act” (aka Peacetime Prosperity Initiative) going, and losing the 50% bonus to your dust generation that this law offers could be catastrophic to your plans.
What than is an emperor to do when his or her people start to turn against their preferred political agenda? Sure, one could declare a dictatorship if they wanted to be obvious about it. The more discerning however will take advantage of the opportunity presented before each vote to nudge the election results through official support, ad campaigns, or even the intimidation of their political rivals.
The Government and Politics system is a fantastic addition to the space 4X genre. I respect Amplitude’s decision to confidently put the system front and center rather than relegate it to a secondary and less impactful role. Once you try to truly optimize the system, you realize just how far the effects ripple outward into your actions and decisions. Instead of blindly and routinely proceeding with your plans, you actually have to start asking yourself questions. Should you build a beneficial building, build an armada of war ships, or hire a hero who represents the Scientists party if it could push the political view of your people to a view that conflicts with your preferred laws? Not only are there strong gameplay elements at work here, but the presentation is equally excellent. The government screen is informative and well laid out, and the presentation of the actual election, complete with system by system voting results, is equal parts tense, interesting, and enlightening.
Diplomacy is an area I’m not head over heels about. It’s very similar to Endless Legend at this point, so I’ll repeat what I said in my review and say it’s average. Animated leaders are present and even a bit more detailed, but by no means are they the equivalent of those seen in a 4X title like Civilization. Diplomacy still feels like a business transaction rather than a meeting between two races. Based on some of the responses I’ve seen to my requests, I have the feeling that unique and flavorful responses may be coming, because at this point responses seems to be populated with placeholder text that include the faction’s name. Hopefully we will see unique responses per faction this time around. Ultimately, while the quest dialog is excellent at portraying the flavor and ambitions of your chosen race, diplomatic negotiations in contrast feel like you’re doing exactly what you’re doing, trading with a computer AI based on its analysis of a trade’s value. It’s a missed opportunity and reduces immersion, at least in its current state. Let’s hope this is just an Early Access issue and they have plans to introduce custom text and faction flavor as the trade aspect of diplomacy is a solid foundation to build upon.
Space combat is the primary area I’m most disappointed with. Just as they did with Endless Space, combat remains cinematic and non-interactive. In fact, the tactical card system has even been removed, which in my experience has further reduced the amount of impactful decisions you can make once a battle begins. Instead, they present a battle plan at the start of the battle. This allows you to select a flight path for your ships and provides a bonus for the battle such as +30% weapon accuracy or +25% fleet experience. It also provides a range and compatibility based on the armament of your ships. It’s not a bad idea to introduce this type of plan, but after numerous battles I’ve found that picking the one with the highest listed compatibility tends to achieve good results. I’m not saying there isn’t some deeper strategy to this decision, especially when you’ve designed your ships to excel at a certain distance or have an intimate knowledge of what your opponents best range is, but in the long run the decision is a boring one that feels even less interesting than the original’s limited options.
With the introduction of module based ship design and hull types built for certain roles, as well as the potential for more powerful weapons to be acquired at higher tech levels or perhaps as the game further develops, I’m not ready to write off combat completely yet. There’s still plenty of time for it to change, though I remain very hesitant to place my hopes too high. I’d love for battles to be about more than just slapping the best of everything on a ship and then watching the admittedly beautifully drawn ships blast away at each other to a foregone conclusion. At this point though, it’s a series of ships of the line battles in space once more, and leaves me wishing they had taken a different approach.
Ground combat, while still simple, is a vast improvement of the very generic circular bar invasion system of the original. Now you can actually see your troops, known as manpower, as they land and blast the enemy on the planet’s surface. It’s a simple cinematic which interestingly includes a brief tactical choice beforehand. Ground combat can still spread out over multiple turns and the length of battles can actually be influenced based on your choices. Again, it’s simple, but effective, and each faction seems to have unique looking ground units from what I’ve seen, which is a nice touch.
Space Travel, AI, Miscellaneous Thoughts and Impressions
I know it’s important to many of you to know what methods of space travel are in use, so I must report that star lanes are the default and fastest method of travel once again. It is possible very early on to research free movement via the warp drive tech (tier 1), but it is important to note you can’t simply fly to a random spot in space. Primarily, you will use it to reach a star system that is not otherwise connected to any of your systems via a star lane. It’s a slow means of travel, but a vital one when you want to expand outward.
Some of my frustrations with the original Endless Space travel system seem to have returned. Ship combat can only take place when ships are orbiting a star system rather than in open space or when intersecting within a star lane. A blockade/guard system is in place to allow your ships to prevent any ships from moving out of a system you’re guarding, presumably so you can destroy them, but on numerous occasions I found this option turned itself off and enemies were flying their scouts and colony ships through them and through my front line of defense. Also in a similar manner to the original Endless Space, your turn isn’t really your turn. Enemy ships can and will move on your turn. Enemies will also take actions and colonize on your turn. This is especially frustrating when you undock an Ark ship to move it to another system, with plans to dock another orbiting Ark ship you have there a few seconds later, only to find that the AI Lumeris player has created an outpost by paying dust using their special ability and has made the system contested and prevented you from docking (hopefully this is a bug). I don’t like the idea of turn-based games where your turn doesn’t belong to you alone, and while I understand that this is likely beneficial for multiplayer, I feel it hurts the game for the majority of players who will enjoy this as a solo game.
The AI is difficult to judge at this stage, nor should it be judged in Early Access. With the requirement to keep score victory turned on, of the two games I played to completion, I won easily via score victory on hard (as Lumeris) and lost due to score victory on impossible (as Vodyani) to a faction I never met. Both games lasted around 100 turns.
Endless Space 2 has a ton of potential, and I think fans of the original are really going to love what it has to offer. For those of you who had issues with the original, it’s fair to say that some of those issues have returned. However, you should definitely keep in mind that there are also a lot of new and interesting elements to consider, and at this point a ton of content still to come, so don’t just dismiss this one. While I’ve pointed out some missteps, missed opportunities, and annoyances, I’ve also gotten a lot of enjoyment out of the hours I’ve spent with it thus far and am really intrigued to see how it progresses and expands as it approaches release.Subscribe RSS
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