Reviewed On: PC
Published by Paradox
Review code provided free of charge by Paradox.
Right now the human race is pondering ways of achieving ways to leave our solar system and colonize other planets. Theories on how to terraform Mars or to set up a base on the moon are thrown around constantly. Despite the fact that we’ve yet to sort out our own planet, we already want to travel through space and seek out new planets and life. Stellaris, the new strategy game from genre veteran Paradox, lets you take control of humans or an alien race who embarking on their first forays into the universe, guiding them through the process of setting up a galactic empire, building a military, colonizing new planets, researching powerful technology, handling diplomacy and declaring way. It’s big and flawed and sometimes ugly, but at its core Stellaris is a compelling experience.
You start small; a single planet is your home, so you build a science ship and use some influence points to hire a scientist to command it. A quick order and it begins surveying the system while you start the process of gradually building up your economy. Time passes and you begin sending your science vessel into new solar systems where it discovers minerals and other goodies, so naturally a construction ship is built in order to construct the necessary space stations to acquire them. Eventually you’ll probably stumble upon your first habitable world and eagerly build a vessel to colonize it. Before long you’ll be lord and master of two planets, each with spaceports capable of producing basic ships of war, because it’s inevitable that you’ll bump into an alien species. It’ll be a momentous occasion, but the big question is whether they’re friendly or colossal dicks. An encounter with ravenous looking giant bugs might leave you surprised to learn that they’re a diplomatic species looking for allies, while the cutest looking fluffy things may be war-mongering bastards intent on conquering your entire empire.
It’s all a bit impersonal as you view it from far above. There are two methods of watching what’s going on; a sector view, or a full galactic view. Sadly there’s no seamless zoom between the two which feels like a real mistake. No matter species you encounter there’s never a sense that they’re truly alien to you. You won’t find strange lifeforms that live entirely underwater or something that doesn’t require food to survive. Each race is a few different ideological beliefs and stats, but that otherwise follow the same style of technology and needs. The diplomacy screen offers a relatively small amount of options for dealing with the other races you’ll meet. Through this you can offer basic trades for resources or even research, allow border crossings and even migration between species, form alliances, declare war and more.
Technological advancement is handled differently than in other 4x games. Rather than having a preset tree of technology for each research path – physics, biology and engineering – that you progress along you’ll be dealt random cards out of a deck, with some rare cards representing large leaps forward in the advancement of your species. Other more standard types of technology are weighted to help ensure some semblance of balance across the galaxy. It’s a fascinating system because on the one hand it forces you into making decisions that feel important. You’ve got three scientists, each of which focuses on one of the three scientific areas and that can research one thing at a time. Typically you’ll be given three pieces of technology to choose from, and whatever you opt to focus on its possible you’ll won’t see the other options again for quite some time. In the case of the rarer technologies there’ll be moments where you’ll be forced to pick something more immediately useful with the knowledge that the opportunity to research that rare item may not pop up again. On the other hand the variable nature of the system means it’s difficult to focus your empire. You might begin be forced to research more military tech when you really want to develop somewhere else. It also has the effect of making the mid-game and late-game less interesting as quite often you’ll have researched and developed most of the big tech available, leaving you with small stat boosts. It’s a system likely to divide opinion, but personally I like how it makes you adapt and change instead of choosing a strategy at the very start of the game and trying to stick to it for as long as possible.
When it comes to expanding your borders there are a few options. Firstly you can simply construct a frontier outpost in any surveyed system which will claim that area as yours, linking it to your existing territory if its close enough. These bases cost power and influence to maintain, but are good for grabbing faraway zones that perhaps contain considerable resources or even just for giving yourself a buffer between you and the opponents. To get to said far away zones, however, you will need to upgrade your ship’s warp capabilities or build something like wormhole generators. The bigger option is to build a colony ship and send it off to some distant planet. As you research more technology you’ll open up the ability to colonise a wider variety of planets or even terraform existing ones.
Select one of your colonies and you can a close up view of a tile system that’s used to micromanage the economy. Every tile can have something built on it provided there’s an active population to run it. Furthermore most tiles tend to naturally have one or two resources on them that will lead to improved production if you put down the appropriate building type there, thus a tile that already puts out natural minerals will be best suited to a mine. You can, however, opt to ignore this and build whatever you want should the empire be lacking something specific, such as power or minerals, both of which are important since maintaining fleets of ships can become very expensive. On top of that some tiles will have to be cleared of various obstacles before they can be used, which requires certain research to be done. Naturally as you progress through the tech tree new buildings and upgrades will become available to use, letting you improve output to help keep up with a burgeoning empire that spans multiple sectors of space. Rulers can also be assigned to each planet, providing a variety of bonuses. Provided you meet a population’s food requirements you’re generally okay, but if happiness dips too long people will start to leave or other more disastrous things can happen.
Interestingly there’s a limit to how many planets you can have direct control of. Should you want to colonize any more than the surprisingly small limit of just five you must assign planets to groups where a single governor will rule over multiple zones in your stead. You can direct the governor to focus on certain things or even allow for existing buildings to be demolished and replaced with new ones, but for the most part your level of control is minimal. As your empire grows ever bigger you’ll eventually end up with numerous planets that you have little influence over. In this regard it’s like running a country; you have say over the big picture but must leave the day-to-day running to other people, otherwise you’d be overwhelmed and unable to cope. However, the limit of just five feels far to small as it really isn’t that difficult to keep track of numerous planets. You can opt to go over this limit, but doing so incurs some hefty penalties. But the biggest problems is that Stellaris’ A.I. is a bit…um, slow. It’s not uncommon to find that planets not directly under your control seem to be screwing up left, right and centre. This problem stretches to the opposing empires, too, who will often make incredibly stupid mistakes, such as tricking ships to defend their borders or making strange political decisions.
The other option for expanding is to just head out into space and start blowing stuff up. Sadly attempting to conquer other empires through force is where Stellaris is at its least engaging. As you unlock new tech for your ships through research you can use the ship design panel to create new templates that make use of improved weapons, armor and power supplies, and existing fleets can be commanded to return to a starport for an overhaul. The exact size of the military you can field is governed by a variety of things, including the amount of spaceports you have, leaders and various bits of research. And of course as you advance through the game you’ll get access to larger vessels, culminating with battle ships. It all sounds decent enough so far, but when it comes to actually battling the enemy it’s just a case of clicking the attack button and waiting. Fleets are assigned a number indicating their power, and whichever fleet has the biggest number will almost always win, except in a few rare instances. Thus invading an entire empire amounts to nothing more that patiently sending fleets to different solar systems and watching as a fairly mundane space battle takes place. Repeat until success is achieved. Capturing an enemy empire isn’t as simple as you might think, though. You can’t simply waltz in and start taking over planets. No, instead you have to first formally declare war, and then set out the goals you hope to achieve in the conflict, such as forcing the enemy to cede planets to either yourself or other empires. As you wage war and occupy planets with armies you’ll earn War Score, and it’s this that dictates how many of those goals you can achieve when negotiating for surrender. The act of conquering entire empires should be exciting, but Stellaris somehow makes it a dull process. You just consult your diplomacy screen to see roughly how your military compares to the chosen victim, and if it’s looking good declare war and start tossing fleets into their sectors. There’s no tactical thinking involved, it’s just watching some numbers go down until victory is yours.
Military conquest sadly seems to be only viable option a lot of the time in Stellaris. There are two win conditions; colonize 40% of the life-sustaining worlds or subjugate everybody else. In a crowded universe full of empires vying for territory, however, both of these goals are damn near impossible without having to build a powerful military force designed specifically to blow the crap out of every other empire floating around in space. On the one hand being able to achieve victory simply because all the other species stop to marvel at the brilliance of your empire as per other games of this nature is somewhat stupid, but it does at least provide varying paths to victory, whereas in Stellaris it all tends to revolve around conflict. It’ll be interesting to see if new victory conditions get added to the game through DLC.
I’ve not had enough with Paradox’s other strategy games to rightfully be able to say if Stellaris is a deeper or more streamlined experience. What I can say is that even after ten hours playing my first game I was still learning and discovering new things to try. A chance encounter with a primitive species provided the opportunity to study them in order to gain more scientific points for research, but that was a fare less compelling option than accelerating their technological advancement. It took some considerable time to do, but eventually I had helped create a new space-faring empire who became subjects to me. Thankfully they were pacifists and thus never felt the urge to rebel against my authority. In fact when I offered them independence, believing that to be a morally good choice, they were somewhat hurt and actually wanted to remain part of my empire. Eventually I integrated them further into my empire. I felt a lot of pride; I’d helped raise a civilization up and in return they were thankful, and were now taking their own forays into space and encountering alien species. And then things started to go to hell as a mid-game event occured to try to shake things up, taking the form of an alien species from outside of the galaxy suddenly invading by landing squarely at the edges of my empire, edges I hadn’t bothered to protect because as far as I was aware there was no possible threat from that direction. Boasting substantial military power over my own weaker forces, because at the time I hadn’t realised pure brute force was going to be so important, they ran roughshod over me. Despite this lot of aliens being a threat to everybody, none of the other empires could be called upon for help, annoying. Only one lended a hand, and that only because we were in an alliance that was waging war against a different empire and their fleet was merrily following my around. Eventually I fought the scourge off, but my loses were heavy and recovery slow. Even, then, though, I ran into interesting new technologies and even managed to research the debris of one of the “Fallen” empires, an ancient race with incredible power. Along the way alien species moved to my planets thanks to opening my borders up to allies, and I even began researching policies that would allow other space-faring races to become available for leadership positions within my empire, granting new bonuses. There are loads of other things to consider, too, like the beliefs of your own people and those of others. Planets can potentially rebel, and new factions can come of that. New types of power generation could make you seek out important strategic resources. Defeating an enemy could lead to cool new tech to research. There’s a lot going on in Stellaris.
Thankfully the tutorial does a reasonable job of imparting the requisite knowledge for dealing with a lot of it. It’s far from perfect, though, as there are glaring areas in which the game leaves you stumped, and the interface can be a chore to work your way through at times. Considering just how much is actually going on, though, it’s sort of impressive that the UI doesn’t actually take up pretty much the entire screen and use a baffling array of buttons just to move a ship. Still, that doesn’t mean you might not be annoyed by how it can be difficult to keep tabs on your defensive stations and fleets because if you zoom out to take in your empire they’re a bit hard to see amongst everything else. You might want to choose a research option that lets jungle tiles on planets be cleared away to make room for more buildings, but there’s no way of quickly finding out how many of those tiles actually exist in your empire without checking each planet. Again, though, I have to concede that to deliver a lot of the information that feels like it’s missing would likely leave the screen a cluttered mess, something which I’d then complain about blithely in this very review.
Given the amount of stuff, then, it’s surprising how weak the mid and late game is. The A.I. tends to be very passive, even if you have shocking bad relationships with them. This is largely because to actually attack you they’ll probably have to pass through several other race’s borders, which could be impossible depending on the current political situation. Provided you’ve got your neighbours at least ambivelent to your existence there’s very little sense of threat in Stellaris, and thus in almost every game I found my empire stable and safe during the mid-game, capable of pumping out massive fleets. Almost all the important research had been completed, leaving me with very little to actually do except for increase the speed and watch as spaceports produced more ships or resources rolled in. Further exploration was difficult since you can’t fly into other empire’s space at will, although Paradox have already stated that one of the first major updates they plan to do will make it possible to fly across borders by default with the option to close them. By the mid-game most areas have been claim, your planets should be mostly upgraded and everything else will be done. If you’re like me you’ll probably take to mucking around with genetic manipulation or randomly declaring war so you have something to do, forcing other empires to become vassals just for the hell of it.. Hell, even former opponents now under my control weren’t giving me any problems since the inhabited worlds didn’t seem to care that much. I very rarely had to worry about rebellions or anything else. It’s really the early game where Stellaris shines.
The mid and late game also brings up some minor performance problems. For the most part Stellaris ran very well since it’s not a very demanding title, and it does look quite nice at times, if a bit basic. Planet textures tend to look a bit murky and repeat far too often, but overall the game does look pretty. I’d like to see a bit more creativity in ship designs, though, and some bigger size differences. Once large fleets start operating, though, the FPS can begin to drop when watching the action. I also noticed that swapping between the two main viewpoints would sometimes result in a second or two of unresponsiveness on the menus. Overall problems were largely nonexistent. I never noted any serious glitches or bugs that got in my way.
Ultimately Stellaris is not a game for everyone. It has significant flaws: the combat is dull; the aliens aren’t very alien; there are long periods of waiting; the research system can leave you eeking out tiny bonuses half-way through the game; the scripted events are not varied or interesting enough; the AI is shoddy, and when you get right down to it it’s basically a giant spreadsheet that you manage, albeit one floating around in space. Underneath that, though, is something very, very addictive. I lost my first game because I was stupid and painted myself into a corner, but even then I had a sense of satisfaction because I had managed to form a relatively powerful and successful empire than endured for quite some time. It’s clear to me, even as a Paradox newbie, that the company has a lot of work to do on their formula, and based on what I’ve read it’s work that they haven’t actually been doing. In spite of itself, though, I genuinely love Stellaris. That’s not quite enough to earn it the full recommendation sticker just yet, but with a few updates it’ll be well worth your time.