Review: Stellaris

Paradox has had a long history of making grand strategy games which push the boundaries of the genre, and Stellaris is the pinnacle of that accomplishment. Drawing from years of experience with games such as Europa Universalis, Stellaris is as in depth as one would expect – with an added bit of fun while playing. It’s the type of game I’ve been waiting for since I’ve been a kid (imagining massive strategies and economic schemes while playing Age of Empires), where every decision takes time and careful consideration, and where they actually make a difference. A game where you and your friends will talk for hours about your specific strategies and, if you’re playing in multiplayer, can make massive alliances that will make conquering the galaxy even easier…until you turn on each other. It’s the kind of grand strategy game that will turn friends into foes. It’s the first time a Paradox Strategy game broke away from the historical, to embrace the future, and they do it perfectly.

Stellaris is set 200 years into the future, where mankind and other civilisations finally perfect the art of interstellar travel. It offers the player a wide array of choices on which civilisation you would want to play as, and true to form gives you the freedom to choose and modify your own civilisation to match your unique personality and play style.

Stellaris, like it’s forebears, will realistically take hours upon hours of playtime to complete a single play trough, and unlike bog standard strategy games such as Age of Empires, won’t allow you to get through a single match in just an hour. Stellaris is the gold standard of Strategy, and here’s why:



Do you want an extended appendage, or six?

Getting off the bat already takes careful consideration if you’re just starting out as each choice you make will alter the gameplay so dramatically that it could mean the difference between life and death. The game offers you not only a set of unique characters and races like Arthropods, Mammals, Avian and others but also a massive array of choices between character traits (rabid breeders, Pacifist), whether or not you like foreigners or how you would feel about slavery. Each of these choices grants you benefits and negatives.

For instance, if you choose to be a ‘Molluscan’ with a slight inclination for Xenophobia and a tolerance to slavery you will have an increasingly difficult time to gain allies in the universe you play in. Foreign nations will be wary of you and foreigners will opt not to migrate to your planets even if you grant access. However, there is not ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ way to optimise your civilisation, as being a Xenophobic bigot will benefit your own people to the extent that all work assigned on each planet will only be granted to locals. On the other side of the spectrum, if you opt to be inclusive to all races, you might end up with a mutiny on your hands as they opt for independence under your rule, demanding autonomy. This happened to one of my enemies, where half their kingdom was split in half after a fierce war.

Just from the get go the game offers so many options that it’s nearly impossible to play them all, and they all offer a unique experience that is unrivalled. Even if you opt for the standard templates issued by Paradox, there are enough to satisfy any gamer. You can even decide how many intelligent lifeforms should be out there, how much of an advantage they should have and even what shape the galaxy will be you’re playing in.

Exploration Mode On.

Once you finalised your nation and how you would treat your fellow aliens, you’re set in your local solar system, which by the way you can choose the name of. The game seems daunting from this point on as there are so many things to consider when you start off. From diplomacy to micromanaging each planet under your control. However, the game starts off slow and before you know it you’re spending 3 hours just ensuring that every person on each planet you control has worked.

The local solar system has ‘habitable’ planets set on a spectrum between 0% and 100%, and each planet has unique benefits for the player. Other planets such as Gas Giants and smaller rocky worlds offer minerals and energy that you can mine. Your home world offers ‘tiles’ which you can populate with workers and build farms, silos and power plants which will increase your yields on that specific planet, in excess of the basic amount of resources you can syphon from space.

Non-habitable planets can be terraformed, given that your technology level is high enough. Specific beings have a tolerance to different kind of worlds, with humanoids being able to quickly adapt to most worlds if not all. Molluscs might have a difficult time in Arctic and Desert worlds.

You start off with a small fleet of military, science and construction vehicles that each fulfil a specific task. On each habitable planet, you can recruit even more military (assault and defence) which performs unique tasks. The military and science fleet needs to be headed by a General or Scientist to unlock even more abilities, such as studying anomalies in space or effectively outmanoeuvring enemies in combat situations.

As you start off you won’t be met with any diplomatic issues as you haven’t discovered any alien races as of yet, thus you will only be tasked with sending out your science fleet to discover alien worlds. As you go through each system you will likely find strange (and they are strange) alien creatures that you can use to improve your own technology. You might even find stone age civilisations which you can study. You can, of course, invade the nation and enslave these stone age people, but that might upset alien nations as this is usually frowned upon. A funny thing did happen when some rogue agents in my empire decided to descend upon these primitive beings, and they worshipped them as gods and even built pyramids in their honour. That didn’t play out well, as you can imagine.

Depending on how you’ve chosen your national traits and belief systems, you might be met with locals rioting and other diplomatic issues that could throw a wrench into the proverbial gears. Like any Paradox game of past, managing the happiness of your own people is as important (if not more) than conquering your foes.

Investing time and money into developing your own technologies is as important, and sending scientists on excursions to study and map extra-terrestrial worlds will benefit your civilisation. If you don’t do it, other alien nations will view you as a ‘lesser’ being and trade and diplomacy will become ever more impossible.

Once you’ve completely colonised your own solar system, moving out into the void is interesting. The entire milky way (or whatever type of system you reside in) is open to exploring. The system I played in had more than 100 stars I could explore, if not more and each one of those had unique planets to colonise. I even found a couple of black holes in the galaxy. The game is as detailed as it is complex, and spending hours reading up on each alien species you encounter makes you feel like you’re more astronomer than coloniser.

Aliens (insert meme here)

Once you’ve started to colonise other solar systems, you’re met with alien beings (some look hilarious), and this is where the interesting bit starts. Based on how you’ve set up your civilisation, this will affect how aliens view your incursion into their space. Even the initial responses to their ‘hails’ will be replaced with either positive or negative. Alien nations based on your diplomatic skill, and based on how they view aliens, will allow you to travel through their space, or completely ban you from entering, even if it’s just scientific. The reaction from your own population is sometimes quite funny when you first discover intelligent alien life, with my population quickly panicking, probably burning their vehicles in the streets and looting poor Mr D’Ul Pthagh down the street.

Spending time meticulously going over each decision is daunting at this point. I found myself spending hours deciding on the way to gain a specific system, as going to war is usually an expensive and time-consuming endeavour, and based on your traits this can become even more daunting. I did once go to battle to limit the scope of the expansion of an alien race that was spreading like the flood in Halo, however, after being at war for 4 hours, I agreed to a white peace between us. Combat in the game is classic ‘Paradoxian’, as it takes as much intricate planning, and ensuring that your forces can and will outweigh whatever your foe can throw at you. I found that the easiest way to spread is to slowly expand your space with Frontier outposts, and each system gained will house a new one.

The game makes researching the forces of each one of the alien races quite easy, as it offers you quite a detailed look into their affairs. It also gives you updates on their diplomatic changes, and if you’re paying close attention, give you a great time to go to war to gain access to that specific planet you’ve been eyeing.

However, if you go to war, you might upset their allies, and will cause other alien nations to view you differently regardless of the hours you’ve spent building good relations. When I went to war with this mollusc type being with no eyes, my galactic neighbours retracted all access to their airspace which left me unable to continue my invasion. Combat in the game is extremely satisfying, allowing you to zoom in on the action to see how your fleet is faring against the enemy.

Flood!

The game also features ‘universal events’ that causes certain game-changing things to appear or happen throughout the galaxy. In my case, after playing for 29 hours, a strange and powerful signal appeared in space. Well, little did I know the damn Flood from Halo was about to start consuming a neighbour in my immediate vicinity. This parasite was intent on consuming all life it encountered, and can practically survive on any planet.

Seems like all you can do is to prepare for all-out war since there is no diplomacy with these creatures. They’re pretty ugly too, and I told them that…they didn’t seem too impressed. However, I remained on guard as they slowly crept closer to me, having my entire fleet on watch ready to take on this scourge.

When they finally breached my borders, their fleet was ten times the size that mine was and they made quick work of me. I had the same feeling with them as I’ve had when the Flood appeared in Halo 2, they’re impossible and breed like rabbits. These events give the game a sense of urgency, as it gives you a looming threat that you will have to prepare for.

You’re living in a simulation

Graphically the game is quite basic in its design and execution, as there aren’t much to render other than the high-resolution planets and stars. The vehicles (which you can fully customise) is rendered in high detail and combat situations are satisfying visually which will make you feel like you’re in a rendition of Star Trek. Star systems are exceptionally accurate in detail, giving you a fairly realistic view on how outer planets and extraterrestrial worlds would appear. It will also feel like you’re a higher being, toying with the lives of billions of lifeforms.

Sound on the other hand is impeccable and beyond amazing. In Europa Universalis the game-play music was a mix between classical and heavy metal which made me cringe, resulting in me rarely wearing my headphones. Stellaris breaks from this mould and gives you suitable music, over the intense battle scenes you encounter throughout the gameplay. The game has so many periods in where literally nothing is happening while you wait for your resources to build up again after spending it on improving your fleet, and the music in the background makes waiting so much better.

Verdict

After spending what seemed to age, and literally not getting any sleep making me feel like a zombie during the day thanks to the intensely addictive nature of this game, I can officially say that I cannot find a single thing wrong with this game. As far as Strategy titles go this is the best I have ever played, and it is set in space was a nice change to the usual European conflicts. The game offers enough choice to be replayable and the only negative is that you will literally be spending days/weeks/months in one game, that you might forget that there’s a life out there.

For the price of admission, and the impeccable track record Paradox has with supporting their games with ongoing patches and content, you will have an improving gameplay experience that will get better with time. The game offers a unique look at managing a government, and give you a great escape into a time where you will be zipping across our massive galaxy exploring new and interesting species. Besides the fact that you’ll experience a far flung future where Warp drives exist, you’ll spend hours discussing diplomatic relations with other species with friends who also play the game. Multiplayer gives players an even bigger base to play with, opening your world to play up against real world gamers who might not be so forgiving in their strategy.

In a world where most games are half-baked misfired cash grabs, this game is a must buy.

Original review posted for www.ticgn.com. The code supplied by Paradox.