Written by Stephen Patterson
Stellaris, the new game from Paradox Interactive, is an ambitious mixture of the 4X and Grand Strategy genres – usually reserved for extremely dedicated strategy gamers who have lots of time for complex district gerrymandering, advanced monarchical succession lines and deep political intrigue. Stellaris itself incorporates a number of these elements, but unlike other Paradox joints such as Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, much work has been done to make the game accessible without losing depth. Their aim: a grand strategy game about intergalactic empire-building that doesn’t ostracise players behind layered menus and convoluted mechanics. So… how did they do?
From the outset, Stellaris is far more accommodating than other Paradox Games. A friendly robot appears in the top right and offers voice-over tutorials, which explain each menu and screen as you enter it. In addition, the ‘Situation Log’, the nexus of your current goals and projects, presents you with a list of important objectives to complete at the beginning of your first campaign. There’s no doubting though that the game is difficult to master: you can design spaceships with a variety of weapons systems, and defence outfits for combat. You can create galactic sectors under your control which segment your empire into AI managed portions, reducing the need for micromanaging on each planet. You can set political edicts and subjugate, enslave or uplift alien races you discover throughout the game, including enforcing 12 separate governmental systems based on your racial traits. You can even populate planets entirely with robots, programmed to produce resources at maximum efficiency. All of these mechanics create an experience rife with decision making: on one occasion, I encountered an alien race confined to one planet who were currently undertaking their own Atomic Age. I incorporated them forcibly into my empire by disguising my people as their world leaders, revealing themselves at the last moment and pledging allegiance to my galactic conglomerate. They thoroughly hated me for it. After several in-game months of political wrangling, I ended up resettling their population, covering them in space bureaucracy and therefore giving them no means of achieving freedom for their homeland – a strategy which seems to be fairly prevalent if Austin Walker’s description of a similar tale on a recent episode of The Beastcast (May 6th, 2016) is anything to go by. It is these sort of specific experiences that are only possible with the incredible mechanics developed by Paradox which have served their games so well in the past, and Stellaris continues to impress with the breadth of its research options, technology diversity and random encounters which arise across future play sessions. To that end, Stellaris presents the galaxy as a vast, organic entity that contains numerous empires with different goals, alliances and trade networks. You may be rapidly expanding in one arm of a great spiral galaxy, but on the other side an AI controlled empire is succumbing to the incredible, all-encompassing power of The Unbidden (a vast, expansionist force akin to Warhammer 40,000’s Tyranids), completely unbeknownst to you. What is clear is that, alongside the custom empire creator and the cosmic collection of side-objectives to pursue, Stellaris sets an impressive stage for galactic imperialism even without the important historical context apparent in games set during Earth’s history.
The game however is not without flaws. Paradox Interactive acknowledged that their games ‘launch poorly’ in an interview with GameSpy in 2013, and Stellaris is no exception. The AI players are notoriously passive, refusing to declare war on you even if their relationship with you is terrible and they have, by the game’s own standards, ‘overwhelming fleet power’ in comparison to you. There seems to be no method of coordinating your alliances and vassals during war time, often meaning they will sit back with their armadas instead of joining you as you attack another space empire. In fact, the Stellaris subreddit and official forums were practically bombarded with issues on the first few days after the release. A player even ended up ‘solving’ the combat system, discovering that building nothing but the most basic ship class was far more effective than any other combination, ignoring late game ships entirely. Yet, with these issues, there is the shell of an extremely promising game here, and those interested in the genre, or who were disappointed with the shallow nature of Civilization: Beyond Earth, should definitely consider investing. What we can only hope, and probably expect considering the impressive EU4 and CK2, is that Stellaris will become a well-polished experience over the next few patch releases. What is here though is certainly more than enough to dig into for all but the most hardcore of players.