Welcome to Best of Xbox Game Pass where each week I’m going to pick out a game available on Game Pass and explain why I think it is worth playing. While I’ll certainly include some of the bigger titles available on the service, I’ll focus more on other games that you might have overlooked in the hope of leading you to a hidden gem.
On the very first Best of Xbox Game Pass last week I opted to kick things off with something light and airy and cheerful. Peggle 2 is the epitome of a game anyone can pick up and play. This week in the Best of Xbox Game Pass I’m going completely in the opposite direction with a Grand strategy game that is so Grand it needs a capital G. Stellaris: Console Edition is an epic strategy game where you take control of an entire civilization and guide it as it ventures out into the depths of space to colonize new planets, discover incredible secrets, find alien races, engage in wars that span the galaxy, form alliances and hopefully carve out their place in the universe. Stellaris can be dauntingly huge thanks to its focus on menus and numbers, but if you’re willing to sacrifice almost all your free time and possibly your first-born child to it, Stellaris can also be incredibly rewarding.
It starts with the creation of your civilization. Sure, you could pick from the list of premade weirdos, but it’s far more fun and satisfying to cobble together a strange new species. You can pick out traits, like maybe your bird-like race aren’t very adaptive but are naturally great engineers. And then there are the bigger Empire traits. Is your civilization a democracy or is it more like a monarchy? Hell, maybe it’s a dictatorship. And what of your ethics? Maybe your civilization is incredibly xenophobic and extremely militaristic, or maybe you’re ruling over a bunch of peace-loving hippies who keep trying to hug the alien species currently stomping giant holes in your home planet.
And then it’s simply (probably the wrong word to choose) a case of guiding your people into the dawn of a new and prosperous age. Or more likely, an age of odd decisions, cock-ups and swearing as the gentle guiding hand of the player fumbles around and ultimately ends up sending an entire colony ship full of people to a lush new planet before completely forgetting about them. You shouldn’t play Stellaris to win, but rather you should play just for the joy of playing it and seeing what happens. In one of my earliest games of Stellaris I was busy fighting two wars when sudden an ancient species arrived from the darkest depths of the universe and proceeded to decimate everything in their path, and unfortunately most of that consisted of my planets and ships. It was a slaughter, but I didn’t care because the rise and fall of my empire was such a cool story that had been authored by myself and actions of the AI.
There’s an absurd level of replay value in Stellaris because no game will ever be the same. As you venture out to to colonize planets you may not meet another species for ages, and instead will slowly build your economy and develop new ships and perhaps stumble across the ruins of a long-gone civilization or make amazing scientific discoveries. Or you might find another empire almost immediately and end up in a war that lasts most of the game because your opponent is highly xenophobic, or maybe you’ll gradually manage to create a lasting peace that leads to your two peoples co-existing, sharing technology and mingling, creating a whole new species in the process.
If there’s a flaw worth mentioning, it’s how a lot of what happens must be conjured up by your imagination. Like most grand strategy games, Stellaris doesn’t do a good job of showing the action. Space battles are little ships floating around, colonization is a small animation and so on. Sheer spectacle has been sacrificed on the altar of detailed simulation.
Of course, a game this big and packed with so many menus and options is much more at home on PC. It’s a shame that Game Pass doesn’t offer the PC version of Stellaris as well, but the Console Edition is surprisingly adept at translating everything onto a controller, which is why I don’t hesitate to recommend it.
One thing to note is that there’s a lot of DLC for Stellaris and none of it is included. You simply get the base game on Game Pass, and so if you want stuff like technology that lets you destroy entire planets then you’ll need to shell out some cash for the expansions. I don’t personally have any experience with the expansions, so I’d advise checking out things like the Steam reviews to get an idea of what’s worth it and what isn’t. With that said, just the basic version of Stellaris is massive and more than capable of delivering dozens to hundreds of hours of play.
So, if you’re looking for easy and breezy to play, Stellaris is not it. But if you want something to sink your teeth into and spend hours upon hours playing, Stellaris might be right for you. It’s complicated and deep and rewarding. It massages the part of your brain that adores organization, planning, huge tech trees and reams of numbers. Above all that, it pushes you to create epic tales of civilizations that rise, expand and fall across thousands of years, and every story is different.