Amplitude Studios has built up quite the name for itself with the success of Endless Space, Dungeon of the Endless, and Endless Legend, along with its recent publishing partnership with SEGA. Annnnnd… In case you missed the memo, Endless Space 2 launches into Steam Early Access on October 6th, 2016.
While many people – including yours truly – have been anticipating ES2’s EA release, it is important to note that the landscape of space 4X games has changed considerably since the original Endless Space. Galactic Civilizations III kicked open the door in 2015. Then the new Master of Orion is in the house, aiming to capture hearts, new and old alike. Finally there is the other big dog, Stellaris, which is making a strong effort to shake up the 4X formula with a dose of grand strategy. How ES2 ultimately fits into the market remains to be seen, but the Early Access release brings us one step closer to the answer.
This is very Important! Amplitude is calling this Early Access launch of ES2 an alpha release. Most of the major mechanics are in place and the game is fairly polished and playable. However, it is evident that much of the gameplay systems are still a work-in-progress, not fully implemented, or in some cases a little glitchy. I’ll say this a few times – this is definitely an early Early Access launch – don’t climb aboard if you are expecting a complete experience. With that in mind, I’d like to cover the mechanics and systems that are in place, how they are working, and what features are still to come before the final release.
Game Setup & Factions
The EA game, at launch, provides the basic setup options you’d expect: galaxy size, shape, richness, etc. It is, however, limited to medium or smaller size galaxies. Star systems are connected with starlanes as in ES1 – but groups of systems are now linked together into constellations. Constellations don’t have starlanes connecting them, so space is broken up in an interesting way. Unlike ES1, the technology for “free movement” can be learned early on, allowing you to move between the constellations.
One set of options you can not modify right now are the victory conditions. The military (conquest) and score victory are enabled and can’t be turned off. The four other victory conditions – science, economic, wonder, and diplomatic – are disabled. This is important because the score victory is set such that your game is not likely to last more than 100 turns. In one of my games where I was doing quite well it ended around turn 51 (yes, really) with me hitting some magic score threshold (which I can’t seem to find the actual value for). And there is, sadly, no option to continue playing after the victory condition is reached (although this will probably change later in the EA period).
Four, out of an eventual eight, factions are currently included in EA: the tech-focused Sophons, the aggressive Cravers, the corpocratic Lumeris, and the haunting Vodyani. True to Endless Legend, each of these factions has a unique, asymmetric ability that changes up how they play. The Vodyani, for example, live in giant ark ships that you can move from system to system – effectively colonizing the system wherever their arc ships are. The Lumeris don’t need to build colony ships, instead using Dust to construct outposts directly, often just to turn around and sell the fledgling colony for a tidy profit.
The EA release also features six minor factions, with at least ten more slated for the full release. The minor factions borrow heavily from Endless Legend, and you can use Dust and influence to work towards assimilating them into your empire. One weird issue, related to minors, is that the immigration mechanics don’t seem to be working correctly. Often you’ll have population from minor factions you haven’t even met yet (much less joined your empire), immigrating to your colonies – which is a little strange. This is apparently a known issue and will hopefully be resolved soon.
The game includes about 22 different heroes, with many more planned. As with ES1, they can show up from any faction (major or minor). There is some lore hand-waving to explain this related to the galactic academy, but it still feels a little strange to me. The heroes each have a unique ship that you can customize, as well as a respectable skill tree that you can advance through as they level up.
Discovery & Progress
One of the revamped features in ES2 relates to exploration. Each planet can have a number of Curiosities, which players can investigate with expedition probes. They can be strategic or luxury resources, they can trigger special events or quests, or can be a bonus or malus to the planet’s resource output. Some Curiosities can be difficult to figure out and require you to research upgrades for your expedition. You can also launch probes into space to try and find new star systems. There is a wide range of planet types. It feels like each planet is unique, which is a nice touch. Overall, there is plenty to explore over the course of the game.
The technology system is lifted straight from Endless Legend, with techs grouped into five different eras. Unlocking the next era requires researching at least ten technologies in the current era (although Sophons start with era 1 and 2 both available). With this EA release, only the first three eras can be seen or accessed over the course of the game, so we don’t know what interesting late-game technologies there will be. I’m happy to see that many of the technologies focus on unlocking new capabilities as opposed to providing incremental bonuses. Then again, the technology grid doesn’t feel that expansive and so I wonder how many different ways of navigating it there will ultimately be. Time will tell!
Luxury resources have also been revised. Once unlocked with the right technology, you can custom build a “System Development” for each era – basically a custom-designed building. You designate a certain mix of luxury resources you want, which confers a certain set of bonuses, to the planets where it is built. Once constructed, the System Developments provide a permanent bonus to that system. It’s a nice shift and lets you start to focus your empire in different ways.
Business & Politics
The biggest new features in ES2 relate to your internal politics and the trade system.
Each unit of population belongs to a certain political party – at the start of the game all of your population follows the faction’s lore (e.g. the Lumeris are Pacifists). But here’s the cool part: most actions you take in the game impact the growth or decline of different political parties. Certain research items or quest choices might boost the Ecologist or Industrialist party (for example). Constructing planetary developments often boost the associated party’s influence within that system. So if you build many industrial buildings, you’ll start to see more population supporting the industrialist party in that system.
There are four government types (dictatorship, federation, democracy, republic), which you can change between after a temporary period of anarchy. There is an election every few years, depending on your form of government, to establish the dominant political party. This in turn affects which sorts of laws you can pass – each of which confers various empire-wide effects. That said, given the limited length of gameplay available in the EA release, it’s hard to tell how much impact this political system will have over the course of an extended game. In the 100 or so turns of the current version of the game, there isn’t much opportunity for minority parties to challenge the dominant one. How this all affects the strategic depth of the game remains to be seen.
The trade system has been reworked from the ground up. Once trade is unlocked through technology, you can construct a Company Headquarters on a planet. Once that is complete, you can build a Trading Subsidiary to be the other end of the trade network. You can even spend dust to increase the amount of income generated by a trade company. It’s an interesting system – but one that still needs more clarity around how it works before the full release. It is not clear to me at all how the relative locations of the HQ and subsidiary affect the potential benefits, for example.
Harsh Language & Laser Beams
The EA release contains a basic diplomatic system. You’ll need certain technologies in order to unlock diplomatic options beyond basic war and peace options. The Era 3 options seem to provide a lot more opportunity, but I had little chance to dig into this given the narrow scope of the EA release. Making outright demands and open negotiation are now separate options, which is a nice split to see. In addition, the AI will often sue for peace if the player is winning a war against them. The mechanics behind this behavior isn’t very clear – and you have no option to reject their peace offer, which can be sort of irritating. I’ll be curious to see how diplomacy gets intertwined with your political parties (if at all).
In terms of combat, the EA release includes fleet combat as well as ground invasions. When fleets collide, the attacking player can choose which fleet to use to attack the enemy – which is a welcome improvement over the seemingly random approach used in ES1. Once a battle ensues, players select a battle plan, which is basically choosing between long, medium, or short-range engagement. Obviously you want to pick a plan that matches the range of your fleet’s weaponry. Certain plans also confer different bonuses to your fleet, but the mechanics around which plans you have available and what the bonuses are is completely opaque to me. We’ve heard that the combat “instances” (i.e. battle system) might change through the EA period based on player feedback.
When you have a larger fleet, it will be broken up into two or more flotillas, but you still only issue one plan for the entire fleet, which seems a little pointless. All in all, while I appreciate the direction Amplitude is taking to resolve combat quickly, I think the system still needs more work. I like the battle plan concept quite a bit, but I really wish there was a finer level of control over order assignment. If I have a fleet that is one part close-range and one part long-range, there is no way to assign them their own, logical, battle-plan options. While combat isn’t everything, I really hope Amplitude spends some more time enriching the system.
After selecting a plan, you can watch it play out in the battle viewer. The battle viewer is pretty but not very dramatic or tense feeling. Moreover – much like the battle plans – the game doesn’t provide much detailed information or insight about the performance of your ships relative to the enemy. Hopefully more will be done to make the battles worth watching – either for the aesthetic thrill or to glean some information about the results – because right now I just skip it entirely.
Outside of fleet combat, there is a functional and slick-looking ship designer. I like the slot-based approach used here, and different hull patterns have their own pros and cons. Some of the modules lack descriptions at the moment, particularly for support modules, so it’s hard to tell exactly what some of the stuff does. The basic mechanics for ground invasions are also in place and like with fleet combat you have a few choices when planning an invasion. Unfortunately, my games haven’t lasted long enough for me to really dig into these mechanics yet.
If you’ve played ES1 then ES2 is going to feel very familiar to you – almost all the basics from the original have been ported over. Many of strongest features of Endless Legend have made the jump as well – like the influence system, minor factions, quests, and the tech grid – which I think are all good additions. The revised trade and political system are the two big new features in ES2. While they have the potential to be quite engaging, games don’t last long enough in the current EA release for me see if they will really pay off.
Despite that, the overall pacing and flow of the game feels pretty good right now. You usually have something interesting to do each turn – whether it’s sending off expeditions, picking the next tech, or reviewing what laws you want on the books. That said, I can’t shake the feeling that a lot of what happens is happening to you or is the result of an obvious choice, rather than the result of you having made a carefully considered decision.
This is a gripe of mine that carries over from Amplitude’s prior games – as essentially you’ll always just end up doing everything, everywhere, and there are not that many tough choices to make along the way. Fleet battle plan? Always pick the optimal one. System management? Build pretty much every building everywhere. Exploration? Yes – just explore every anomaly you can. I think the political party system has the potential to shake up this quasi-formulaic gameplay, but I just can’t tell from the length of the EA release if this will be the case. I really hope so.
Otherwise, the game feels quite polished – especially for an alpha. The UI is clean and attractive – although there are plenty of typos and placeholder text. I’m sure the UI will continue to be tweaked and refined. Some menu screens are only partially functional (e.g. victory progress screen) or completely unexplained (the Population Scan menu for example). Visually, the game looks great – there is even a pretty rockin’ soundtrack to keep you in the groove. That is all good. But…
If you are thinking about jumping into ES2 in the hopes of having a complete experience I’d strongly advise you to wait. The limited game length combined with many work-in-progress mechanics will certainly give you a taste for the gameplay on offer, but I think the game has a ways to go before it is ready for the masses. Fortunately, Amplitude has a strong track record with their EA programs and I have no doubt that the game will become better over time. As it is, the starlanes for a great and compelling space 4X are in place, but It still has a ways to go.
Oliver has played over 12 hours of Endless Space 2 (press copy) on a Clevo 670RG-G (Pro-Star Built) Laptop, 17.3″ FHD IPS Display w/ G-SYNC, 6th Gen Intel i7-6700HQ “Skylake” Processor, 16GB DDR4 2133mhz, GeForce GTX 980m w/ 8 GB GDDR vram DX12, 250 GB Samsung EVO M.2 SSD.