Apologies to Endless Space 2. There’s a lot to love about Amplitude’s latest turn-based strategy game, a reboot-of-sorts of the original Endless Space and a follow-on to 2014’s surprise hit Endless Legend.
But all I want to talk about is menus. And maybe the writing too. But mostly the menus.
Lost in space
Okay, fine. We’ll start with the writing, if only because it’s a more traditional place from which to launch. Those who played Endless Legend will be familiar with its “Questing” system, which provided each of the game’s factions its own storyline—within the confines of a traditional 4X game.
It wasn’t the first to do so, but the quality of Endless Legend’s writing was generally a cut above that found in other 4X games—Age of Wonders, for instance. Because of the limited mechanics of a 4X game most quests still generally consisted of “Go here and find/kill this,” but paragraphs of backstory and faction in-fighting gave the world a heft not found in many other genre flagships. Especially not the ones created from scratch. (Total War: Warhammer has a ton of story, for instance, but it’s drawing on years of pre-written lore.)
Endless Space 2 folds this same quest system, and the same attention to detail, into its tales of outer space. It’s an immediate improvement over the game’s predecessor, which often committed the cardinal space-game sin of feeling empty and boring. Lots to explore, but no compelling reason to do so.
Here, factions like the Mafia-esque traders of the Lumeris or the locust-like Cravers become not just a bag of statistics but an empire.
The Lumeris have bonuses to trade skills, sure. They can pay to instantly colonize other planets, sure. But those are pure mechanics. It's much more interesting to focus on their shady aura, the hints at backroom dealings and illicit goods smuggling, the way the various factions within the Lumeris vie for your favor, to picture the cigar smoke wreathed around your head and the ash falling onto your gaudy clothing.
That’s a faction with some depth. That’s a faction you play because it’s a character, not merely a skin over some math problems.
And that’s Amplitude’s strength, at least as far as Endless Legend and now Endless Space 2—making you care about another random 4X setting. Civilization has it easy. They lift from history. They rely on our preconceived notions of Queen Victoria or Teddy Roosevelt to draw us towards one faction or another.
If you want to know how important Amplitude’s flavor text is though, you need look no further than Civilization: Beyond Earth. There, every faction felt interchangeable. There was the Russia-tinged faction, the French-tinged faction, but no reason to care about one versus the other except when it came to in-game bonuses. It made it harder to engross yourself in Beyond Earth’s world, to find that emotional attachment.
Or look at the original Endless Space. Amplitude put it best, saying that at times you felt more like a “galactic accountant” than an emperor. A 4X game that’s all-systems-no-story is just so much white noise at this point.
The sequel’s quest system is similar to Endless Legend. You have hero characters with their own ships and upgrades, plus stories that span the universe. My initial hour and a half with the game was mostly spent in pursuit of “The Academy,” a school known for churning out the “Heroes of the Galaxy.” And that brief taste and cliffhanger was memorable enough that I still want to know what happens next, weeks after our demo.
Visions of the future
Back to the menus now. I’m serious when I say it’s mostly what I want to talk about, and I don’t think Amplitude would be upset about this. After all, I have one member of the team on-record saying “The interface is the first thing we work on in a game’s design” during our recent demo. It’s clearly important.
It’s just a strange piece to explore, and I get that. User interface is not an aspect of game development given much attention by the outside world. It’s a thankless job, one of the proverbial “If you did it right, nobody will notice you did anything at all” tasks.
And yet Endless Space 2 proves how important it is, especially in contrast to other space strategy games. Again, consider Civilization: Beyond Earth.
I never liked Civilization: Beyond Earth’s interface. I enjoyed the game, inasmuch as it was a Civ V reskin, but I found the typeface weirdly cheap looking, the tech tree convoluted, the diplomacy screen lifeless, the buttons (and accompanying gradients) ugly.
Here are some screenshots of Endless Space 2’s menus:
I don’t mean to imply that Amplitude’s done something revolutionary here. Its ultra-thin sans-serifs would look at home in an Apple design manual, and the layout of various buttons (End Turn, etc.) are standard 4X design.
It hangs together, though. It looks futuristic and spacey and sleek. It’s Dieter Rams minimalism applied to a 4X interface.
First impressions are important, and Endless Space 2 makes an excellent one. In a genre that’s typically clunky and slow, riddled with unnecessary data in awkward places, Amplitude’s approach looks ever-so-slightly more sophisticated.
Hell, other games (Master of Orion) adopted a style eerily similar to the original Endless Space. I think it’s safe to say Amplitude’s influence is rubbing off.
Endless Space 2 heads to Early Access before the end of September. I think those who loved its predecessor will be impressed by how much more expansive the galaxy feels, and those who came to Amplitude through Endless Legend will find yet another impressive 4X game. And the ones who’ve never played an Amplitude game before?
Well, that’s just a mistake.