“If you can make it through the slog, a satisfying endgame awaits.”
The more modern strategy games I play, the more I find myself feeling like new franchises simply can’t compete with the models of older ones. I have played strategy games both big and small, but never has anything matched up to what games like Age of Empires, Rise of Nations or Civilization could offer for me. Why have I started this review in this way? Because despite feeling disheartened on several occasions, it was a friend who convinced me that Stellaris might be worth my while. Just an hour or two into playing the game, I was feeling inclined to believe him…
Stellaris is one of the latest grand strategy titles to be released by the veterans at Paradox Interactive. Paradox are perhaps best known in the strategy arena for their hugely popular title Crusader Kings II, but Stellaris explores an entirely different setting to this classic. Released almost in synchronisation with the latest instalment in their Hearts of Iron series, the publishers are clearly putting their foot down hard to make a real mark on the market.
Stellaris is a brand new endeavour for Paradox, but has the scope and depth of a game which has been actively thought about for years in advance. Playing out on an epic scale, the galaxy is yours to explore, colonise and conquer at will, as long as you have the numerous spare hours in which to do it. When I started to play, I was met with one of the steepest learning curves I have faced when entering into a new strategy world. There are so many aspects to consider and control that at first glance your mind can be blown. Whilst in most strategy titles the early game tries to help you avoid micro management, Stellaris throws you head first into every little detail of your empire. There is an attempt at a basic tutorial to help you get to grips with the basics, but despite teaching you clearly it never really explains why you are doing the things you are doing. Nevertheless, if you can make it through the tutorial you will find yourself reasonably well on your feet going forwards.
Before jumping into your first real game after getting the hang of things, it is worthwhile creating your own race to play with. The game offers premade civilisations for you to play with if you want to, but a lot can be learned about the dynamics of different civilisations and their unique traits by having a go at creating one yourself. Stellaris has a fantastically in depth system for creating a new race, which truly considers every little factor and how these might affect the way your people evolve and expand in the galaxy. For example, you might create a civilisation which is reliant on water to survive, which will mean that colonising planets which lack in this substance may be difficult for you as you expand. You also set out the personality of your people at this stage, deciding whether they will be an aggressive race hell bent on domination or perhaps a scientific one with a focus on expansion. One of the most important decisions you will make is the way that your civilisation will react to others, be that with a friendly handshake or a nervous disposition. When it comes to diplomatic relations during the mid game, your attitude towards others can be critical to survival and victory. There are plenty of aesthetic details to choose from as well, which will determine the appearance of your people, their structures and the insignia that is brandished on their banners. Stellaris allows you to customise on an incredible level, but likes you to look good doing it too.
When you dive in to your first real universal conquest attempt, the early game is all about exploring and gathering resources. The more you discover about your neighbouring systems, the better understanding you will have of what resources you have to play with. Random events can trigger simple quests as well, which guide you with gentle nudges towards progressing with some purpose. You main aims at this early stage are to find out what systems are around you and begin to think about which ones you might be able to colonise in order to gain an early foothold. Research is also critical early on. You have several different options when it comes to your research goals, each of which are randomly selected for you. It is important to pick the most advantageous focus in each of physics, society and engineering early on in order to progress at a meaningful rate. As a whole, the early game is probably the most exciting stage in Stellaris, making you feel genuinely enthusiastic about your empire’s growth.
Early preparations lead you into a long mid-game involving colony expansion, ongoing research and militaristic growth and diplomatic relations. By this second stage, you should have a solid idea about how you hope to play the game, and there are two pathways to victory which you can choose from. One is to simply colonise 40% of colonisable planets in the game. The other is a little more open, tasking you with dominating every other civilisation in the galaxy. This can be done through diplomacy, destruction or domination via slavery, meaning no matter what kind of race you control there is still a route to achieving this victory condition. It is hard to say which option is easier, as this depends on the difficulty level you are playing on and whether you are challenging AI or human players. In either case, the victory conditions are pretty standard for this kind of strategy game, and very achievable if you know which you are working for. Nothing too creative here, but effective in the overall model.
As the power of your empire grows, more intriguing options become available when meeting smaller races. One unique pathway to expansion which Stellaris offers is the ability to enslave more primitive species, which can allow you to expand into systems which otherwise might not suit your own people’s needs. If you are a water based civilisation like previously mentioned, but you need resources which can be found the surface of an arid planet, enslaving another race is a genuine option for obtaining them. Of course, if you prefer to have a friendly faced empire, you can always attempt to use your influence to achieve the same results instead.
The issue with the mid game in Stellaris is that it can feel as though it drags. You have to be willing to invest a decent amount of time into the game in order to make it through this stage towards the end. The map is incredibly vast, and the number of civilisations attempting to exercise control of it can create long stalemates. Research and growth grind almost to a halt as you attempt to either amass an army large enough to conquer your enemies, or grow large enough to influence diplomatic relations with them. Exploration becomes unnecessary, eliminating the element of intrigue, and micromanagement becomes automatically managed as you are forced to form AI-controlled systems to gather resources on your behalf. This is very unfortunate, as the game shifts from giving you ultimate control to having very little. With combat being automatically simulated as well, there is very little that you need to do other than watch, wait and occasionally strategise as you anticipate the events to come. With so little to do but grind in this stage, you really have to rely on your own passion to stick with the game.
If you can make it through the slog, a satisfying endgame awaits. Victory feels very sweet by the end, if achieved. A loss by the end of your first campaign however can feel quite disheartening. Winning a game does inspire you to play on to a second, so replayability certainly does support Stellaris’ model. Some players however may not make it to the end through the mid game, or may be put off playing again knowing that they will have to sit through the slow periods once again. Multiplayer does however eliminate the slow pace of the mid game is some ways, with human players operating more actively than the simulated AI. If you have other friends to play Stellaris with (or against) this is almost certainly the best way to enjoy the game, especially once you understand how to play.
Stellaris does plenty to attempt to make your experience with the game as pleasant as possible. A competent AI, alongside a good variety in random events and decisions to be made along the way ensure that there is always something to think about, even when there is nothing immediate to do. The scale of the game is fascinating too, providing a burning desire to explore its great expanses, especially early on. Visually there is plenty to be appreciated too. The game’s size is emboldened by its appearance, which truly draws you in as you look on at the environment that is made up of all of known space. The art which appears in stills throughout gameplay and the designs of the different species are beautiful too, and it is clear that plenty of thought has gone into every little aspect. Aesthetically, the game has plenty to marvel at.
The UI in Stellaris on the other hand is an element which is lacking in clarity and certainly doesn’t rank amongst the most intuitive in strategy games. As with any new title, the layout can be learned, but in a game where so much is going on at once a simpler, more accessible UI would be very welcome. A few of the models in the game outside of those for characters look somewhat generic as well. Ships are well designed but do not feel as though they will make any significant mark on the sci-fi fan’s mental map. Planets too look beautiful, but not necessarily very original. With these particular design aspects, Stellaris appears to do a much better job with its grand scale visuals than it does with a few of its finer ones.
All things considered, Stellaris has been a tricky game to review. On top of the sheer size of the game, Paradox have played their classic card by releasing a viable but imperfect game with some big patches and updates to follow. As a result, the game could change significantly in the days to come, making it difficult to know when the game will be at its best to accurately comment on. All that can be considered at this stage is the point which the game is at now. At its core, it is a grand strategy which succeeds in being everything that a space based entry in this genre should be thanks to its clever and careful design and dedication to detail. It isn’t the most intuitive game to get around though, and probably isn’t the best entry level grand strategy for new players to attempt. These gamers may find that they are put off by the sloggy mid-game, particularly if this results in their ultimate defeat. For fans of Paradox’s strategy titles and general attitude towards games however, Stellaris will likely impress. Grand strategy fans will also find plenty to enjoy. Others outside of these categories may be better off waiting for Paradox to finish moulding the game into its final form before giving it a go in the future.