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Everspace 2 is inching closer to being a modern Freelancer

When Everspace 2 was first revealed, I got a little worried. The original game is a favourite of mine, but it was very much a less-is-more kind of game. Everspace 2 promised RPG-like mechanics, loot and a few other elements that I feared could unnecessarily bloat it.

Having now played the near-final Early Access build - which goes on sale on Monday - I can safely say that my fears were misplaced.

Everspace 2 feels like the perfect sequel. All the usual baseline upgrades, from visuals to scale and scope have all been made, but the game’s biggest triumph is how each of its various components meaningfully build on what the original introduced. Take exploration. The first Everspace was a rogue-like, revolving around what were essentially dungeons with limited space within each that you hopped between on your way to a boss. Die and you’d be thrown into a different layout with different enemies and challenges - fairly typical stuff.

I liked it well enough, but the frustrating nature of rogue-likes stopped me from really sinking my teeth into it. I wanted a sense of freedom and clear progression; to take my ship and go anywhere in the system, build alliances and make enemies. This is a game set in space, after all, so it never really made sense for its environments to feel so manufactured or be so constrained.

Everspace 2 does away with that rogue-like setup, though not entirely with all of those elements. The sequel instead gives you a ship, and teases the promise of open space with multiple systems to explore. Before you can do that, your first playground is the starting system, which houses several sectors full of things to see and do. Sometimes those come in the form of scavenge or hunt missions, other times they’re distress signals you may spot in the warp, or side jobs that open up unique missions and the opportunity to gain the favour of the game’s factions. There’s a bigger emphasis on story this time around, so the early hours are surprisingly authored. This is where you’ll learn the fundamentals of the world and the mechanics of your ship.

Soon, though, Everspace 2 really opens up and reveals its true self as a space action RPG.

The makeup of each system hasn’t changed much from the original. You still run into a mix of straight action, shipwrecks with hidden containers, puzzles and more than a few secrets. But the quality of each of them has risen significantly. I’ve come across several big puzzles that took me a few minutes to figure out and execute. Even the massive carcasses you dive into have much greater variety, and the environments often tell tiny stories of their own.

Procedural generation is still a thing, and it’s what controls which variation of those you come across, which is good for variety. Everspace 2’s shift to openness really encourages exploration, and it is the single most impactful change in the game. It also makes for a surprisingly good combo with procedural generation, and inches it ever closer to becoming a modern Freelancer.

But Everspace 2 excites in other ways. Loot is a big component of the game this time around. Yes, that means often getting an item that’s almost exactly like the one you have, only with a blue banner (rare) instead of grey (uncommon). You’re obviously getting some boost or some new prefix for your trouble, but it’s still the same space laser.

There’s no getting around that, but the way Everspace 2 implements this all-too-familiar system never took away from the experience. For one, the loot is doled out at a modest pace that kept me interested in the process, thoroughly weighing my options every time I got a drop. More interestingly, the game manages to give even low-tier items a good roll or two on general stats. Very few of the items I saw were immediately junked, which is often a problem with loot games. You can even upgrade your existing loadout, which feeds off of the materials gained from dismantling excess loot.

Everspace, and its sequel, expose the different components of any given ship. This is another layer that allows loot to be about more than just new weapons and shields. It’s an opportunity for theory crafting and build variety, so it’s a shame there’s currently no way to save a custom loadout or favourite items.

Everspace 2’s bigger scope and scale are not without their problems, however. Although you have far fewer constraints on where to go and what to do, transitioning between the different planets is still archaic. You hit two loading screens anytime you leave a sector; one at the start of the warp, and another before you arrive at your final destination.

These are detailed worlds, often full of things to discover, so I understand why it happens, but I can’t help but wish the warp itself was the loading screen, to make travelling more seamless. There’s even a physical edge to each of the zones in the game, which it warns you about and turns your ship back when you get too close. These may very well be resolved by the time the game graduates Early Access in a year, but right now, there’s still this lingering feeling that you’re jumping between separate levels, not exploring space.

This may explain why you can only manually save on stations. The game also auto-saves anytime you enter a new location, but I would still like to manually save whenever. Indeed, I have died a couple of times and came back to find the same area occupied by an entirely different activity. Such is the price of procedural generation, I suppose.

The UI and frontend also can’t quite keep up with the bigger focus on exploration or the sheer number of new items each location throws at you. The inventory screen is easier on the eyes in Everspace 2, and certainly more descriptive, but you don’t have enough room for everything you want. If you’re not interested in scrapping or discarding items, you’ll have to travel to a trader to offload your cargo.

There’s an upgrade you can develop that sends excess cargo back to base, but it won’t appear until much deeper into the game. Even then, you’d still need to ferry stuff from your hangar to a trader to actually sell the damn things. The good news is that the game (usually) indicates which items are needed for quests/projects, so it’s harder to get rid of stuff you needed.

Obviously, upgrading your cargo hold or buying a new ship entirely will inevitably expand your options, but depending on how you play, it may take you a while to get there.

Likewise, a few other bits have made the transition seemingly unchanged from the original game. Having to be extremely close to objects to interact with them is still there. Tractor-beaming cargo and dealing with floating interactables is still finicky. Part of that is the nature of inertia in space, of course, but it could be better.

These UI problems also carry over to the combat and targeting HUD. The original game could get very busy with more than one icon on every enemy aircraft. I still find it hard to focus on a single target in Everspace 2 when three or more are clustered together. A different colour or an entirely unique icon when locked-on should be used.

I had also hoped combat would be a little more refined in the sequel, but Everspace 2’s action is largely similar to the original, which, albeit satisfying in feel, often felt scrappy and imprecise. I imagine combat will become more interesting down the line with new weapons and ship classes, but so far it’s the same dance of getting through their shields and switching to your other weapon to deal kinetic damage.

What’s there right now in Everspace 2 is in an almost complete state. Though I feel the asking price is a little high – particularly considering your progress may not carry over to the finished game - this isn’t an Early Access game you’ll be done with in five hours. Even with only a portion of the story finished, the playable space – coupled with procedural generation in side missions and locations – offers decent replayability.

Everspace has always been an accessible and constantly fun space shooter, the sequel only really reinforces that – and there’s much more of it to play.

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