For me, the ur-open world/space sim has always been Wing Commander: Privateer. Some will argue for Elite, of course, but it never made it onto my computer as a kid. As a result, I’ve had very definite thoughts about what constitutes a good open world space sim for a long time. There has to be a lot of planet hopping and star system travel. There has to be a robust trading model, allowing for steady income from triangle routes as well as the chance for speculative ventures. The combat has be classic space dogfighting. And the story has to be engaging enough for me to want to go out and get shot at by various factions of aliens, pirates, and government officials. It’s a tough criteria set, and Everspace 2 doesn’t quite fill it out.
Instead of going with a roguelike disguised as a space sim like the first game, Everspace 2 takes its cues from the likes of Digital Anvil’s Freelancer, defaulting to a third-person perspective as you pilot a spacecraft though seven different star systems, each with their own combination of interesting locales, ports of call, and various random activities. You play as Adam Roslin, a clone soldier and pilot hiding out in a section of space declared as a demilitarized zone in the wake of a catastrophic war between Earth and the demi-sauroid Okkar. Trying to stay off the radar of the Colonial Fleet and the Okkar, Roslin has been flying as security for Grady & Brunt, a multistellar corporation serving the settlements and resource facilities in the region. When a standard job goes bad, Roslin is captured by local pirates, then escapes in the wake of a Colonial Fleet strike with another prisoner who promises him a shot at an outrageous fortune. From there, Roslin will assemble a motley crew of unlikely allies, fighting all manner of enemies from cutthroat pirates to zealous cultists, and racing to keep the DMZ from becoming a new war zone.
Everspace 2 uses the Unreal engine for its visuals and, for the most part, they’ve done an excellent job. Ship designs are appropriately sleek for fighters and burly for bombers and other heavyweight craft. Capital vessels have a number of interesting designs which fit with their faction. Wreckages of vessels and space stations, as well as alien ruins, are sufficiently large and cyclopean. There’s a lot of very satisfying visual effects going on, from exhaust trails on missiles to spectacular explosions from dying enemies to the various holographic signs and flashing lights of major spaceports. You could spend hours tweaking your ship’s paint scheme, mixing flat and metallic tones, different colors, different emblems, and you will undoubtedly find multiple combinations you could find enjoyable.
But all this wonderful work is compromised, for inexplicable reasons, by the motion comic style cutscenes. Now, I can understand that rigging character meshes and doing cutscene animations in-engine is a process. But that’s kind of what Unreal does really well. And while the characters are distinctive, there’s a serious drop in energy, almost a sense of disappointment when we get a cutscene. The visual change is so jarring, it takes you out of the story and takes you out of the moment. It’s particularly obnoxious when there are cutscenes immediately prior involving spacecraft which don’t go the motion comic route and are rendered in-engine. Those keep us within the moment. Why Rockfish couldn’t (or wouldn’t) keep to rendering humanoid characters in-engine baffles me.
When it comes to music and sound effects in Eververse 2, it’s more hit-or-miss. On the upside, you’ve got a lot of different varities of “pew pew” for your weapons. You have environmental sounds (yes, even in the vacuum of space) which warn you if you’re entering areas of particularly extreme hazards. The downside is that the musical score isn’t particularly noteworthy or inspiring. The “travel” music playing as you fly between planets gets old very quickly. Voice acting is middling, not terrible, not Oscar-worthy, but solid enough that you get a good sense of the characters. The entire audio package ultimately can be summed up as “about average.”
The gameplay in Everspace 2 is deeply mixed, and a good chunk of its problems indirectly tie back to how well the Unreal engine is being used. The actual dogfighting elements are pretty good, with indicators showing you where you need to lead your shots to hit the target for slower projectile-type weapons and beam weapons being a very “click, click, boom” sort of affair. The problem is that outside of dogfighting, the way the engine is implemented, it’s constantly trying to re-orient you towards an “upright” position in the space portions. When you’re on a planet, this makes sense, but “up” and “down” have no meaning in space outside of the pull of gravity. Speaking of which, for players who are coming from games like No Man’s Sky, there’s a lot of “blank screen” transitions between “orbital” space, atmospheric flight, and interplanetary space. It’s not a seamless affair, leading to a highly “choppy” feeling in terms of gameplay.
The variety of ships available gives players a wide range of potential options for how they want to approach combat, as well as non-combat elements like trading. As you go along, you’ll be able to pick up different hull segments, allowing you to customize the look of your ride at a fundamental level, not simply paint and graphics. However, you’re severely restricted in your options as far as non-combat activities go. Games like Privateer and Freelancer allowed players some room to move around in the early portions of the game, to explore as they will, and occasionally get blown out of the sky for their troubles if they wandered into an area which they were definitely outgunned. Here, you’re trapped behind a narrative wall, unable to enter certain systems until you advance the main storyline. It makes any sort of trading activity a practical impossibility because the potential vendors all have the same starting commodities. And given there’s only seven star systems to begin with, it means you’re going to be having to grind through a lot of story (along with a lot of side quests) to access new vendors and level up.
This leads to the next big problem in Everspace 2: the leveling system. Borrowing RPG-style elements from game series like Diablo and Borderlands, you are level-locked to certain gear. Anything above your current level can’t be equipped. And the game will poke and prod at you when certain gear gets too far below your current level. There is a crafting system in place for players to create new gear, but the materials for gear can only be obtained by dismantling it. Blueprints are obtained the same way, or occasionally dropped by a destroyed enemy, but those are random drops and there’s no telling what they’ll be until you grab them. Which means that the really good high end gear isn’t going to be available to you probably until the very end of the game, or unless you get unreasonably lucky with some sort of loot drop. Side quests occasionally provide new gear, but only one that I ran into provided any sort of high-end gear, and that was only after completing a very long and obnoxious quest chain. Compounding this is that there are variants of basic weapon types, both in terms of specification and specific manufacturers which provide set bonuses if you have multiple pieces equipped. Unfortunately, you have no guaranteed way of making those variants or creating gear with those specific manufacturers. In theory, you could buy them from different vendors, but it’s entirely random what those vendors will be carrying at any given time. And most of the time, it’s lower-tier trash.
To confuse the issue even further, there are a number of various and detailed crafting materials which are required for your crew members to apply to various “perk projects.” None of them actually fly with you (save one, and even that’s more “randomly appear to help out with an ugly dogfight, then I’m gone!”). And given how little you get paid for side jobs, as well as the artificial restrictions on trade possibilities, you’re likely going to be either not unlocking those perks much, or you’re going to be wasting an unconscionable amount of time trying to get them all done. You can’t use gathered resources to create components for gear, which seems like a wasted opportunity, if not poor design.
Narratively speaking, Everspace 2 isn’t what you’d call high art. It’d be more enjoyable if they were shooting for Roger Corman-style B-movie camp. Instead, we have a highly uneven narrative in terms of plot, characterization, and worldbuilding. Some of the characters are interesting, some are obnoxious, some just kinda sit there like lumps. None of them, however, feel particularly original or even distinctive. The motion-comic cutsecenes really don’t help here, even if the voice work is decent. You get the feeling that there’s a lot of stuff which may have happened in the original Everspace, but there’s a serious lack of connection from a story standpoint to that game. We don’t have any feeling of stakes, no sense of mission despite characters shouting how badly they want to leave the DMZ.
It’s made worse by the fact that we don’t have a particularly granular reputation system. There are a number of factions floating around, but we only have a single general reputation meter built up by doing “jobs.” This makes it difficult to really get a good handle on the sort of impact you’re making in the world, and your particular story. Are you an errand boy for the Space Mafia? A corporate stooge? A space pirate? A clever smuggler? You’re all of them and none of them at the same time. We don’t have a conversation system like Mass Effect to potentially sway a tense situation away from or towards violence. We can’t impress people with our towering reputation. And given the way the stakes just keep leapfrogging in intensity rather than gradually building up, we’re pretty much stuck having to shoot our way out of the increasing disaster brewing around us.
Speaking of, the notion of boss fights in space with weird mechanics we have to implement or work around kills a great deal of immersion. It’s one thing when you’re head-to-head against a pilot with a tricked out ship. It’s quite another where your weapons are ineffective against an enemy’s shields (particularly if they’re designed to break shields) and you’re reduced to throwing rocks at them. The former scenario is a good example of encounter design in a space sim. The other is not.
Having grown up playing space sims (among other games), it’s been a big problem for me not to have great games in the genre the last decade or so. I really wanted Everspace 2 to be able to fill that gap; to give me a nice chunk of space to putter around in without worrying about the entire galaxy. Instead, we have a minuscule area lacking either a sense of subtlety or a story that we can get behind. It’s frustrating because there’s parts to Everspace 2 which could be amazing if implemented differently. As it stands, this isn’t the space sim fans of the genre are needing. It’s not bad, but it’s a long way from good.
Axel based his review off a code provided by the publisher, played on a PlayStation 5. Everspace 2 is also available for Xbox Series S/X and PC.