I am as impressed as I am overwhelmed
I’m not a strategy game guy, but that might change with Endless Space 2. If that’s enough for you to check out and look for another preview by someone better-versed in 4X games, I’ll still love you (but don’t let the doorstructoid hit your ass on the way out). This’ll be more from the “Oh my God what am I doing there’s so much text and so many rules and entire colonies of alien races are dependent on my choices” perspective, so keep that in mind.
A couple weeks back I went to an event in San Francisco to see and play Amplitude Studios’ newest foray into the stars, and I was nervous as heck. I wanted to seem impressive and knowledgeable, so I told the team that I was just starting to get into the “Turn-based RTS” genre and had played Civilization: Beyond Earth just the week prior, when I heard a snicker from behind me.
Site-and-personal friend Hayden Dingman of PC World later jokingly chided me, pointing out that the I didn’t sound too smart, contradicting myself with turn-based and real-time strategy in the same sentence. So began my time with a game I was woefully unprepared for.
Amplitude has made some changes that helped to quickly alleviate my apprehension. Strategy games that involve managing diplomacy, tech trees, military, colonies, food, industry, approval ratings, and more can quickly become overwhelming. One member of the team even let me in on the secret that “4X games can easily become spreadsheets, so the UI and aesthetics have to be really compelling,” which is why Amplitude came up with the scanning system. At any time, one tap of the spacebar simplifies just about everything on screen into a more digestible form of information. Using the scan while looking at a zoomed-out galaxy became a colorful jellyfish of trade routes that was much easier to follow. The colonies on my planets morphed into graphs that immediately conveyed what I needed to know.
Similar to Endless Legend (which I’ve recently started playing just to prove that I’m intelligent enough for these games, damn it), the UI is gorgeous and always seems to provide the right amount of data without freaking me the hell out. Compared to the Endless Space, the sequel doesn’t overwhelm with small text, instead choosing to take its time and sound less like a science journal. Aesthetically there’s also been major improvements: each faction begins with an animated movie that had me interested in trying each one, and even still art has taken on a living, breathing style using subtle animations. The Cravers (the insect-robot hybrid that I played as) looked terrifying with their multiple mechanical limbs, shaking and quivering with rage and hunger.
It was the huge space battles that I was most taken with, though. Whereas the first game used battle cards, this one has you choose a strategic play similar to a football coach while showing you the possible moves your opponent could make. After deciding to flank, rush, or perform defensive maneuvers, cinematic fights play out, similar to the Battlestar Galactica remake. Shaky-cam zooms and tracking shots of huge ships blasting each other from afar started off slow but became more intense as I invested more of myself into my fleet. This was after only a few hours of gameplay, so I can only imagine how excited and anxious I would be after literal days of investment.
Flybyno’s music is rich and textured, providing blips and bloops that made space seem mysterious and tantalizing instead of sleep-inducing. Meditative in a way, but not so much so that I was glancing away and looking for other things to do. Instead, I was locked in, captivated by what I was seeing and hearing.
Sure, I’m mostly talking about aesthetic improvements at this point, but in the past I’ve bounced so hard off of 4X games because of their clunky interfaces and encyclopedia-long tutorials. With Endless Space 2 taking writing inspiration from Endless Legend, the quests and overall flavor text made for intrigue, far and away from the clinical sterility that can often be found in the genre. So much so that I’m wondering about how each faction’s story will progress even now as I wait for another chance at the game.
No, Endless Space 2 isn’t my normal genre. And maybe the fact that Amplitude had to beautifully sugarcoat it to get my attention says something negative about me. But lately, I’ve been looking at the stars at night and thinking about going back up there when ES2 comes to Early Access later this month.