Endless Space 2 might, at first, look like your typical turn-based space strategy title, as it has multiple races to choose from, planets to explore, fleets to clash against, and enemies or alliances to be made. From the first fumbling playthrough, though, it's clear that the emphasis lies in a new, seldom visited direction. If you're into deep tactical spaceship combat where a single big battle might take half an hour to complete, this might not be the game for you. Smaller and larger ships float around like pirate ships on the sea, exchanging shots of plasma and cannons, and the player's role in these cinematic bouts is limited. Endless Space 2 is more about domestic politics, and this is much more interesting than you might think.
The game's many races, or factions in this case, are incredibly varied. Not only do they have flat bonuses to science or industrial production, but they also exhibit much more exotic qualities as well. The Unfallen, for instance, link planets together with cosmic roots and suffer heavily if the link is separated. The mecha-insectoid race of Cravers, however, strips planets clean of resources and have to be on the move at all times, or suffer extinction (consequentially they make awful neighbours). One race doesn't bother colonising planets at all and instead prefers the comforts of their massive ark ships. Amplitude has also crafted unique single-player campaign-like quest chains for each with branching narratives and this, combined with the factions' differences, means you can get several wildly varied playthroughs depending on how you choose to start your trek through the stars.
Endless Space 2 is also a game of many systems. Not only do you have the usual suspects of space exploration via small scout ships (that can also send probes into unknown space past the star lanes), colonising planets, and building improvements to support the growing populace, but you also get some well-thought game mechanics about domestic policy and colony management. Your own faction isn't a homogenic clump of equally-minded drones (well, aside from Cravers) but a splintered group of people. Some agree with your current politics of Science, for example, but others may feel more militaristic or religious. What you do, build, and choose affects which "party" gains favour. Every once in a while come the elections, where the balance of power may shift, and not always in your favour.
In one game our scientific Sophons conquered several planets from nearby Cravers. What we hadn't considered, however, was that these new members of the empire can vote. To our dismay, the newly "liberated" cravers voted the Militaristic party to overwhelming victory. This meant losing support from our science-boosting Laws while new, more aggressive laws were enacted. For the first time in a strategy game, democracy as a government type had very real consequences and totalitarianism started to feel like a nice, pragmatic option for the Sophons.
Members of major and minor factions join your empire both in this way and via immigration. They also bring their own small bonuses and preferences to your table, so what you end up with is a proper intergalactic soup of many, many races and ideas all mixed together in (dis)harmony. Aside from maybe Stellaris, this is rather unheard of in a galaxy-conquering game and truly exhilarating to see and play with. There are also heroes, who can lead forces, guide colonies, and function as party leaders while gaining levels and power. Endless Space 2 has a myriad of systems to see, experience and tinker with, and the adequate tutorial only scratches the surface of how to properly manipulate them all. Don't expect to learn everything on the first go, although the rather beautiful and well-crafted interface helps you learn the ropes.
All's not well in the race for the galaxy, though. You might think from the gameplay trailers and screenshots that the combat is a major part of the game. While its importance is undeniable, the player's control over it is skin-deep at best. Once your fleet of destroyers and battleships encounters an enemy, all you can do is choose from a few tactics and press play. For the first few times, watching these leviathans duke it out is entertaining and brings back memories of sci-fi staples like Babylon 5 or the new Battlestar Galactica. The spectacle gets repetitive after a while though, and after a time you'll probably be happier skipping the cinematics and going straight to the results. It's usually the one with the bigger stick wins anyways, so there's little to get excited about. The grandeur of the space battles almost feels like it was crafted solely to produce cool visuals for trailers, but Amplitude does try its very best to bring character to a genre often suffering from a lack of it. Foreign diplomacy is fine, but with domestic politics being so intricate, it can feel a bit stale. There's also no subterfuge or spying of any sort yet either, which is a shame.
Endless Space 2 is a good game with great features. There's so much to do, decide, and tinker with that the worn phrase "one more turn" could have been born off it. You can fight your wars cold, hot, foreign, and domestic. There's a lot to explore and learn, from random events to new ways of knocking your annoying neighbour down a peg or two. The game is a constant source of "war stories", cool-sounding anecdotes of great victories and grim defeats home and abroad. If the peaceful and less-peaceful foreign affairs management were handled the same way internal ones were, this would be an instant classic. At the moment it's "only" a game you should play and that other space strategy developers could learn from. Science fiction and management games don't have to feel like shuffling spreadsheets around.