When I play 4X games I have one objective in mind: acquire a single victory. On average that will take me between 15 to 18 hours to complete as that’s how long it takes to grok the fundamental mechanics that will enable me to actually win. Even with titles I’ve played before which, you’d assume, would share similar fundamentals take just as long since it’s not often I’ll go back to revisit a 4X game between releases. The original Endless Space was something of an anomaly then with my first victory coming in at a swift 10 hours. Thus when I saw its sequel come out of Early Access earlier in the year I figured great, another streamlined 4X game that I can enjoy without the massive time investment. Well here I am, 22 hours of in-game time later and I’ve only just barely managed to scrape in a win.
So much for a casual 4X experience.
Set in the distant future where the currency of the day is Dust, a nano-element material that an ancient race used as a basis for everything. Your choice of race will heavily influence how you approach the game, which mechanics prove problematic for you and what aspects of the galaxy you’re able to uncover. Like all good 4X games the story that the game tells is the one you make by how you interact with the mechanics, your AI rivals and how you develop your civilisation.
Compared to its predecessor Endless Space 2 is a leap forward in terms of graphical fidelity. Partly this is due to the massive improvements that’s been made to the base Unity engine over the past 4 years or so, as it is far more capable of producing good graphics now than it ever was. However, and I’ll dive into more depth on this later, Unity also has some limitations and these start to become rapidly apparent as you start getting well into the double digit turns. Still when the game is running it runs well and the various bits of eye candy make it a much more visually pleasing experience.
At a base level not much has changed from the original Endless Space, mechanically speaking. You’ll be placed in a procedurally generated galaxy with a random number of planets, systems and constellations (something which you can control, if you so wish). You’ll get a home system, a colony ship and a scouting ship to begin your journey in dominating the galaxy using whatever method you choose. From there it’s up to you to explore systems, research technology and grow your empire to the point where you can achieve one of the 4 victory conditions (military, science, economy or score). Layered underneath all this are the equations which drive various aspects like population growth, your approval rating and so on, each of which you’ll have to optimise if you want to reach your objective. Like I always do I tended towards a science based victory condition and, whilst I don’t think that’s the hardest (military probably is, I think) it definitely felt like one of the more challenging paths to take.
It took me about 3 or 4, 1 hour games to get a handle on the basics so that I could sustainably grow an empire to the point where I was competitive with the AI. The main reason for this was forgetting that there’s a bit of a priority in Endless Space for what you should go for. The first thing to look for when establishing a new colony is food as that will dictate how long it will take for it to go from an outpost to a full colony. After that you want to develop your industry as that will determine how quickly you can build things, reducing the time to make the colony effective. Lastly you’ll want to prioritise whatever you need for your preferred win condition which could be any of the FIDS (Food, Industry, Dust, Science) resources. Once I remembered that everything started to fall into place however that’s when the cracks in the experience started to show.
Endless Space has actually been available since October last year through Early Access. Since then it’s undergone quite a lot of development with about 3 major updates since it first debuted there. However the game still suffers from numerous issues which are, unfortunately, game breaking in nature. I had one game which, at around turn 50, could not complete the current turn. Checking the forums I saw that others had had this issue and that a save and restart could resurrect them. Not so in my case unfortunately and so that game is simply unplayable. There has been another patch since then so it’s possible that it’s playable now but, right then, there was no option but for me to restart (I don’t tend to keep saves for every turn or anything like that). There are a lot of other issues I could point to but I’ll focus on what I believe is the most critical issue for this game: performance.
So my current PC, whilst not being the latest and greatest anymore, is most certainly overkill for nearly any game I care to throw at it. Endless Space 2 is no exception to this so I was surprised when, at larger turn counts, the game would start taking minutes to finish turns and would chug heavily while doing so. Puzzled I decided to fire up task manager to monitor CPU usage and HW Monitor to monitor my graphics. What I saw heavily indicated that the majority of Endless Space 2 runs on a single computation thread as only a single core of my machine was being utilised heavily. Similarly my graphics card would barely jump above 50% utilisation. Part of the blame is likely to lie with Unity as I’ve heard multi-threading can be a challenge with that engine. But, as someone who’s had to do his fair share of multi-threaded programming of late, I can’t help but think a good chunk of the computation that Endless Space 2 is doing couldn’t be parallelized. I’m not a game developer, of course, but when my system is under-utilised and something runs poorly there’s really not many other possibilities to consider.
If you can get past those issues though the core game can be quite fun, however. In my first almost-won-this-damn-thing playthrough I got tantalisingly close to achieving a swift science victory. However, early on in the game, I had put myself at odds with the Riftborn as they were colonising a pretty strategic set of planets that I wanted. So I, of course, blockaded them and proceeded to push them back until I had what I wanted. Whilst this never escalated into full scale war it did mean that the military political faction grew in power slowly over time. Eventually they became the preferred party and, with only 2 techs of the endless left to research, ended a policy that allowed me to research tech 1 level above what I should have access to. Then, because I had little option but to clear out the Riftborn I ended up with way more colonies than I could handle. Then, about 10 turns later, my entire system was in open rebellion and that was the end of it. Thinking back on it now it’s kind of comical how I ended up making my own bed, even if it was incredibly frustrating at the time.
My one, and only, victory came care of an aggressive early expansion strategy that locked off key areas that I could exploit later on. Like most 4X games the AI will get uncomfortable with you at one point and launch an attack but, weirdly, they’ll usually do so at a fixed technology level. So, once you know what level that is, you just have to quickly research the next highest level (something I could do easily with my research advantage as Sophons). After that point it was pretty much just a waiting game with my eventual science win at 100 turns or so. Honestly, without the performance issues I think I’d probably be able to achieve victory much earlier as the later turns were taking about 3~5 minutes to resolve, especially if there was any combat involved.
Endless Space 2 is a much more ambitious version of its predecessor in almost all respects. The breadth of the world you’ll play in is much greater, the races deeper on a technical and lore level and the fundamental mechanics have many more intricacies for you to learn. Suffice to say the additional requirements meant that I spent much longer Endless Space than its predecessor. However it’s still very much shaking off its Early Access roots with numerous game breaking glitches, performance issues and general quality of life improvements needed. None of these are beyond the developer’s capability to deliver I feel and, if you’re reading this review a year or two down the line, it’s very likely that Endless Space 2 is a different game to the one I’m reviewing today.
Endless Space is available on PC right now for $39.99. Total play time was 22 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.