There have been a lot of 4X games set in space lately, from Stellaris to the Master of Orion reboot. Some of them have been good! None, however, have been as good as Endless Space 2.
A lot of 4X games, and I’m especially talking about ones set in space, often struggle on two fronts: they’re visually dreadful, and their interfaces can be charitably described as “functional”. Endless Space 2 continues Amplitude’s great work with Endless Legend (and indeed the first Endless Space), in which these genre norms are thrown out the window in favour of slick, clean and stylish menus.
Everything in ES2 works as it looks like it should. Every command or button is sat next to other, similar things. There are helpful tips explaining how almost everything works if you just hover the mouse over a button. You never get lost looking for a command, or overwhelmed with information. Everything you want to do in this game is rarely more than 2-3 clicks away, and nothing it wants to tell you is hidden.
For experienced players, or those who will just be playing this game a lot, that’s good news, since it will save you time getting around. It’s better news for newcomers, though, because these types of games can seem daunting at first, so keeping things clean and simple will make slotting into the Endless Space series for the first time pretty easy.
In terms of how ES2 lines up against its competition in the space strategy space, all the standard stuff is here. Exploration, research, ship design, diplomacy, trade, it ticks all the boxes, with the only things standing out a little being the quest system and presence of hero units, both of which will be familiar to anyone who has played Endless Legend.
And I mean, all that stuff is fine. It works. But where Endless Space 2 sets itself apart from the pack isn’t how it handles spaceships and planets, but how it handles people.
Endless Space 2 features the finest strategy game implementation of politics I have ever seen. It’s chaotic, and impactful, sometimes under your control, other times a spiralling beast of its own creation. Basically, politics is represented in the game exactly as it plays out in the real world.
Politics is everywhere in Endless Space 2. The game is built on the idea that every empire is able to be home to a collection of political movements/parties/factions, ranging from ecologists to industrialists to militarists. And every empire can be home to any number of species, whether through assimilation, immigration or expansion.
Every decision you make in the game alters the make-up of those factions. Certain buildings will lead to increases in militarism. A choice in a quest may be a boost to scientists. Everything you research impacts at least somebody. This means you can tailor your approach to a certain extent, but also that events will dictate that you must concede ground to styles and opponents you may not have otherwise wanted to, creating a constant internal balancing act.
This makes your faction, and by extension the entire game world, feel alive. Your internal politics aren’t displayed here simply as a crude metric of happiness, they’re an amorphous entity, an extra opponent in the game that you’re both fighting alongside and against at all times.
What’s more, in addition to ES2's politics being implemented well as a system, they’re also a pointed commentary on matters a little closer to home. The game is full of quests and events referencing contemporary hot-button political topics, from immigration to the environment to how people are labelled, and in keeping with the political juggling act mentioned above, there is rarely a “right” answer: every action you take will please someone and piss someone else off.
The parallels between Endless Space 2's universe and ours are obvious enough to trigger a response, but still subtle enough that they don’t feel forced: in a game where the movement of entire species is possible in just a matter of days, of course immigration and the mingling of different races are going to bring out the best and worst in people. And aliens.
It’s important for ES2 to have nailed its politics, because while trade and commerce is handled well through a marketplace and treaties, its combat and diplomacy are severely lacking. For such an integral part of the game, combat is extremely limited, your involvement relegated to simply amassing your forces then making a few basic tactical decisions before watching battles play out.
AI relationships are even worse. I found throughout my review that computer opponents were incredibly passive, and whenever I did engage with them, it felt cold and distant. Worst of all were the constant diplomatic warnings and messages I got from opponents that seemed at odds with what was actually going in in the game, and which weren’t accompanied by a prompt to engage in action related to what was being said. As an example, I kept getting prompts from the United Empire to form an alliance, but those messages weren’t accompanied by a button to actually agree to it, or at least jump to the diplomacy screen.
You might be playing Endless Space 2 for a very long time, because in addition to being a very good strategy game, it’s also one with a lot of replay potential, because like Endless Legend, the factions here are so wildly different (and entertaining) that you’ll want to explore the nuances of each.
Where most strategy games make their playable sides only a little different, distinguishing each with just a few perks or bonuses, Endless Space 2 goes to town, altering everything from the way sides handle currency to whether they can even colonise planets at all.
I’ve played four games over the course of this review, each time as a different side, and as a result each time has felt like a substantially different game, with only a handful of core tactics able to carry over.
My favourite, though, are Horatio. Or, is Horatio. An entire faction made up of clones of a single eccentric billionaire, who fancies himself the most gorgeous, stylish and intelligent man in the galaxy. Like Tony Stark meets Tolkien’s Elves. The Horatio aren’t out to rule the galaxy. They’re out to simply make it more beautiful.
Another fascinating side to choose are the Riftborn, a species hailing from a parallel universe, who flee to our dimension and are forced to assume three-dimensional bodies. Like this:
It’s just a shame the game doesn’t ship with more of these factions, as there are only eight sides you can choose from at launch, though given the genre and developer’s track record we can expect a lot more to come in expansions and DLC.
Outside of Civ’s relentless near-perfection, Endless Space 2 is now one of the real standard-bearers in the 4X space. While some of its more direct elements come up short, its implementation of politics is a masterstroke, adding depth and complexity to part of a game that often feels like an arbitrary chore.
We just need its first expansions to make dealing with your opponents as much fun as it is to deal with the people inside your own empire.