Games

'Endless Space 2' Makes Everyone Feel Like a Winner, Even Losers

Letting players go from strength to strength, Amplitude's space 4X may conceal the game it really wants them to play.

by Rob Zacny
May 25 2017, 6:00pm

screenshots courtesy Sega

The state of my United Empire has never been stronger. Our home system, Gemini, is a place of technological marvels and one of the most potent centers for scientific research in the galaxy. We now have two major combat fleets scouring the galaxy of pirates, spearheaded by fast-attack ships that close to point-blank range and obliterate their enemies with blistering plasma fire. We have multiple trading conglomerates raking in a small fortune from intra-empire commerce. We're have everything we could need, and to top it off we are at peace.

I think we're probably screwed.

Endless Space 2, like all of Amplitude's 4X games, does a great job of making governance feel like an epic accomplishment. When I'm learning each of their games, I never feel like I'm bad at them. The numbers climb higher. Build times and research times continue to fall. The money rolls in like the tide. Amazing new combat units take the field. But at some point, these games always remind me they are a cutthroat competition, and that secretly I was losing the entire time.

I'm still having a great time with Endless Space 2. It's palpable how much thoughtful design and polish has been applied to this stylish and evocative game. But it always seems to be speaking a slightly different dialect of game design than I'm used to. It's like when I'm trying to read Italian: I know enough Spanish and Latin to get the gist, but I'm definitely missing crucial information in every sentence.

Despite how it sounds, this is actually a great thing for strategy games. Because I increasingly think that getting into any exciting strategy series is going to have to be a little weird, hard to parse, and uncomfortable. If it's instantly accessible and intuitive, chances are it's an unambitious copycat of a popular franchise.

But that also means that it takes a long time to figure out what, exactly, the game wants you to be doing. Civilization would have this problem as well; its accessibility, I increasingly believe, is a figment born of familiarity. Even as abstracted as Civilization is, it's an enormously complicated game with absurdly long threads of cause-and-effect that would be excruciating to pick-up without the comforting knowledge that, after six games and however many spin-offs, you've done all this a hundred times before.

Endless Space 2 feels like what would happen if I were encountering a Civ game right now, for the first time in my life, with Civilization VI. Its clean and welcoming interface, coupled with a decent contextual tutorial, makes it easy to find your footing and start making straightforward decisions that seem like they would add up to a strategy.

Like in Endless Legend, this short and accessible on-ramp immediately dumps you into an open-ended and seemingly unstructured strategic wilderness. Every technology and development choice you can make feels incredibly useful and powerful—wow, look at those numbers climb! You can see your empire improving turn-by-turn.

In fact, all of this is so rewarding that it obfuscates how much you probably suck. It's very easy to putter along in relative isolation, not feeling any immediate and pressing needs, but also falling farther and farther behind the power curve without a clear sense as to how or why. It's not until you start seeing notifications that everyone else is hitting game-wide milestones—how the hell did they build a star system that generates 100 money per turn so fast?!—and reaping unique rewards that you realize you're slowly bleeding-out in your land of milk and honey.

Broadly, I think three things account for this in the Endless games: first, the factions have some wild variance that means they play by very different rules compared to one another (Austin and I talked a little bit about this in the podcast on Monday). Second, hero characters are critical force multipliers both as fleet commanders and settlement governors. If Risto Libera—the overseer that I imported from a race of ravenous insectoid cyborgs called the Cravers—is splitting his time between fleet command and system management, he's probably being wasted. If he's not managing an industrial or agricultural system where his insatiable drive for consumption can thrive, preferably in the hot climates in which he excels, then he's being wasted. The importance of these combo effects was especially acute with Endless Legend, but it's still true here.

Third, and this is key, a lot of bonuses are circumstantial: some of the discoveries on the "science" part of the research web are only moderately useful in themselves, but are game-changing if you meet certain conditions. For instance, one advanced research building, the Optics Research Labs, doesn't do anything at all unless your public approval is fairly high. If you're a sprawling empire full of discontented planets, there's no point to building these because you'll be paying high upkeep costs for something that won't even work most of the time, but if you do meet the building's requisite approval rating, you get a massive 25% bonus to research on your settlement. The tech tree is full of these little interactions between technology, geography, politics, and resources, but that also means it's a hell of a lot more complicated than "Labs 1, Labs 2, Labs 3."

The mid-game in the Endless series is very much about working these levers in ways that provide complementary boosts, so that you start fulfilling milestones that help cement your position as a civilization with a meaningful competitive advantage. But this takes a lot of familiarity with both the game's content—it's incredibly easy to miss important techs like the the one that lets your starships travel outside of the space lanes—and its different faction abilities.

But I think it's worth the investment. With Endless Space 2 I feel like a lot of the loose observations and conclusions I drew from Endless Legend are finally coalescing into knowledge, and Amplitude's strategic language is starting to sound like poetry.