by Derk Bil
previewed on PC
Where no grand strategy game has gone before
If you’re wishing for a Paradox ‘Grand Strategy’ game that is as historically plausible as they have been to date, then you may want to move along. We’re heading into space! Yeah, baby, yeah! This time around it is not history books that are the inspiration for the game but a magnificent potpourri of science fiction books and movies worth their salt. In Stellaris, humanity is “quite positive that we’re definitely not the only intelligent life out there” and is venturing out into space. Rather than knights and castles, we’re talking spaceships and meteor mining stations.
The game will ship with eight playable races that can be picked from the standard roster ‘as is’. Alternatively you can custom create one to suit your play style. To keep things fresh, there will be around one hundred animated portraits - ranging from the somewhat familiar to fuel for nightmares - to match your space-race of choice. You also get to project your own religious, political and cultural views on your people. You can go completely crazy here and play as some insect-like race of religious pacifist zealots, or whatever else you can come up with.
Just because you picked one of the races, it doesn’t mean you will be encountering the other seven in every playthrough. In Stellaris, everything will be quite random as an immense number of variables affect the generation of your space exploration experience.
All parties involved will start the game at a level playing field. There won’t be massive sprawling space-empires already dominating the galaxy but while all races are created equally, some will be more equal than others and this is one key to Stellaris’ randomness. Races are created to have specific traits which may give them a head start for rapid growth, a bonus to scientific progress, firm religious beliefs or just a simple penchant for waging war.
Given Paradox’s track record we can expect a robust diplomacy system which will really start to kick in mid-game when empire borders start rubbing together. You can set up or take part in a galactic federation of sorts, engage in direct diplomatic relations with competing empires, or just pretend they’re not there for as long as you can. How well you will fare with any of it depends on what you’ve been up to in the other parts of the game - your actions are remembered for a very long time.
At a planetary level you get to choose a local representative whose personality traits will affect the development of the planet he or she is governing. The planet’s surface is represented by a number of tiles, which you can manage individually by assigning workers to them or - if you’re into that - robots. Some tiles may not be suitable for industry or habitation due to aggressive local wildlife or existing sinkholes. If unaddressed, some subterranean alien race might even crawl out from said sinkhole, to purge the surface of the infestation that is you. It may happen that you are waging war with an intergalactic neighbor and find yourself surprised by an invasion deep within your own safe zone.
Pointy bit forward
Unless your entire neighborhood consists of “let’s hold hands and sing kumbaya” races, you’re going to have to prepare for war. If you won’t be the one who will come knocking, then someone else will. To survive, you build a fleet and research new technologies that will aid you in combat and allow you to customize your ships. The latter is somewhat limited but on the positive side, you can customize not only your armada but civilian ships as well.
Combat is done in a sexy and intuitive way. Everything takes places on a single plane and Paradox is working hard to not bog it down with complex mechanics. You guide your ships into range, let your cannons fire and cause the resulting debris to float through space. With any luck, not too much of it will be yours. The debris may contain alien technology which can be collected by your scientists scavenging the battlefield. Once the haul is in, you can reverse engineer the technology so that it can be adapted to be used on your own ships.
Blinded by science
Those scientists are the real heroes in Stellaris. Their personality traits are of great effect on the course of a game. There are three fields of research available: Social, Engineering and Physics. Each field is headed by a lead scientist whose personality directly influences the advancements you will make. A deeply religious scientist will offer an entirely different technological path than a nutty professor. Because of this, interstellar travel will not necessarily be conducted in the same way for each faction. One race may rely on wormholes, another may travel around using faster than light travel or some variation to that. The same is true for every other field.
Scientists will spend more time outside of their laboratories than inside - their science vessels will be your hero units. The initial use of their vessels lies in exploration but their usefulness continues for long after as they find asteroids to survey and anomalies to study. WIthe time, scientists will level up as well. A level one scientist may have a greater chance of failing, or maybe even critically failing at a task than a level two scientist. In time, the intrepid scientist will discover the prehistory of your race and cause a new story to fold out before you.
A big drawback of playing long, drawn out strategy games can be their endgame. You’ve managed to become the dominating force, or you’re at least very comfortable on the throne of your empire, and there aren’t really any challenges left. You’re just going through the motions and burning through your turns to get to the finish line.
That’s not good enough for Stellaris. Somewhere in the end game a cataclysmic event will create a big mess and make things interesting again. Some wormhole could open up, unleashing who knows what on the galaxy. Or maybe those robots you have working for you will rise up against you. It’s hard to tell - no two games really will ever be the same.
Paradox’s vision of strategy gaming translates beautifully to a space setting. It’s gorgeous, intricate, and seems to be set up quite intelligently. This is not just the most stunning game in their strategy line-up, but perhaps one of the more accessible ones too.