Oh dear. This is not a preview I was expecting to write. Amplitude up until now has been one of the darlings of the gaming industry, a three for three strike rate with a solidly (if not terribly innovatively) executed space 4X in Endless Space, followed by the stellar Dungeon of the Endless and Endless Legend. Two games that both show what a developer can do if they are willing to “take risks” with existing formulae and pull the rules of existing genres apart to do something genuinely new and interesting.
Developer: AMPLITUDE Studios
Genre: Turn-based 4x Space-Strategy
Release date: 6 Oct, 2016
Endless Space 2 is the fourth game from Amplitude and the first sequel they’ve created, this does put some burden of continuation (potentially a problem) upon them but equally it gives them a chance to correct the flaws of the first game, most notably the combat, as well as take the things that worked from Endless Legend and add them into the mix as well as generate a whole swathe of potentially new ideas and mix them up into the game to do for the Sci-Fi genre what Endless Legend and Dungeon of the Endless have done for their respective niches.
You’re not sounding positive…
No, I’m not am I. I hate to be the bringer of gloomy news but at least in this current iteration there’s fundamental problems. Big, big fundamental problems, which actually render the game -worse- than the original. The biggest of which is the combat, but that’s going to occupy paragraphs all to itself, so I’ll get to that down the bottom. Let’s start with the good, then deal with the “so so” in that order.
First, the good, the new politics system is a pure plus, it actually rewards you for playing your race according to the style that the race has been intended to be played out, so for instance the Lumeris are pacifists, they work well when fostering peace through the galaxy and creating alliances and trade. The Sophons are, naturally, scientists, and gain influence as they pursue research goals.
Various political factions will appear within your empire and what actions you partake in will have effects on their influence, by extension this alters what galaxy wide laws you can pass, laws shape various bonuses you gain, so it becomes useful to shape your galaxy in synergy with your playstyle. Pacifist cravers really don’t work for instance.
Minor factions from Endless Legend make a most welcome return as well, and no surprises they’re once again filled with life and given meaning within the galaxy, with each minor race having backstory, personality, bonuses, and political alignments that mean assimilating a minor race can impact the political makeup of your empire. This is all excellent stuff, up to a point.
Politics is only good when it’s meaningful…
See, whilst political elements alter what bonuses you get, it doesn’t do anything more fundamental than tinker with bonuses, it’s not as central to things as say, Stellaris, where your choice of government radically alters what options are on the table to you, and what choices of government are constrained by ethos. Now if your sociological makeup and the factions you had available determined what kind of governments you could run, and that in turn had a direct impact on your empire, AS WELL as the laws you could pass, THAT would be truly groundbreaking, and would make the political system have real teeth. That would force people to really consider their actions. Right now it’s one step short of being what it needs to be, so it’s just “a nice feature in the background” as opposed to something that really matters.
Then there’s the Amplified View menu, accessible via the spacebar, frankly this is a gimmick, one that ought to be ditched and the associated information relegated to various submenus. It’s not helpful, and it just wastes time by forcing players to dig through another view to find information that may not even be terribly useful in the first place. The one place it is legitimately helpful is in the combat view, but there you need it on by default so really the use is limited to say the least.
The races are once again inspired, Amplitude have learned greatly from Endless Legend and their talent for designing asymmetry into the various major players is now truly beginning to show. Races as different as planet brokers, religious dust fanatics and the Sophons highlight that this time around, the starting races will have genuinely different goals to chase after, and wildly different paths to get there. This is good, it means there will be a race for every playstyle – the one accusation you can level at a lot of 4X games is that most races tend to blend into a sort of homogenous mush, with most characteristics being indistinct, not so here – and combined with the politics system, you’ll really get a chance for that playstyle to shine through.
Ping, ping, ping, THE PINGS, THEY HURT MY BRAIN…
That’s currently where the good ends. There’s some “so so” as well, such as the curiosities, which are Endless Space 2’s equivalent of ruins. In Endless Legend, these were seeded throughout the world much like Civ’s ruins to promote exploration and to encourage players to uncover the map. So far so good, here they’re seeded in galaxies to do the same, except you might have three or four in a galaxy, and you may have to ping each of them individually. Over, and over, and over. This won’t get old any time soon…
The research tree has been directly ported from Endless Legend with Endless Space’s research titles slapped in for good measure, and some artwork updates. Ironically, whilst Endless Legend’s era system worked well thematically for EL, it doesn’t work so well for ES because there’s not really a “race to space”, various races like the Sophos have already been in Space for some time (unless you want to pretend there’s been some magical reset) and it’s assumed all races know their way around the galaxy to some extent. The tree system of ES1, whilst a steeper learning curve, actually is a better fit for the sci-fi genre, it allows players to plan their research better, and to encourage specialist builds that better fit with their empires. The Era system takes away from that.
And then there’s the combat…
I wish words alone were enough to describe it, but I’ve had to resort to a meme, pictured above to describe my feelings on the matter. It’s bad. Really bad. No, let me try to come up with a metaphor…
Imagine Frozen Synapse got drunk, went to a bar, found a Michael Bay action movie, invited it home, and had a one night stand with it, then found out Jar Jar Binks was actually father to them both, so the resulting child, this incestuous mess, was the result.
Hey look, I had a metaphor for it after all! Granted, this particular description will probably give everyone nightmares, or send them running for the exits, but it’s a pretty good description of where ES2’s combat is at right now. You select a formation for your ships to fly into combat with, and then you press “go”, and that’s it. You can then watch the whole thing in “Michael bay-o-vision” or simulate the result. Congratulations, you’ve made combat worse than in Endless Space 1. Endless Space 1 didn’t have -good- combat but compared to this Endless Space’s combat is now considered the pinnacle of good design, it’s like Amplitude said “If you thought ES’s combat was bad, wait until you see how hard we can stuff THIS turkey!”
It needs tearing apart and rebuilding from the ground up, as it stands right now, you need to simulate every, single, fight. Otherwise you’re going to sit there crying your eyes out because it’s just so excruciatingly boring.
Now that stung, but is there hope?
Now I do admit that this is Early Access and the game has some distance to go, but there’s a real sense that the game needs to “go further”, a lot further. Endless Space 2 risks being overtaken by Civ VI, which much like Endless Legend before it, is ripping off the band-aid and is actually innovating and is going to take risks. This is something developers should be encouraged to do, because when developers take risks, yes, they might fail, but they sometimes succeed in ways we could never imagine.
Right now Endless Space 2’s greatest crime is that it feels “safe”, and married to that combat system? That’ll make it a poor choice compared to Civ VI I fear.
Wait, wait and watch, and tell Amplitude to fix the damn combat, and to take risks, they’re at their best when they do.