by Matt Porter
reviewed on PC
To the stars
Paradox Interactive is well known for making highly in-depth 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) strategy games. The likes of Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis have strong followings of passionate fans, who often put hundreds of hours into their games. As such, Stellaris has been highly anticipated for some time now, and rather than the insignificant politics of historical Earth, this game is turning its attentions to the future, and takes place on a galactic stage.
However before you can start conquering the galaxy, you will have to decide who you’re going to be. There are a number of set races to choose from, however the real fun comes from creating your own. You can choose from dozens of different looks, each with their own customisation options, but these are just cosmetic. Your defining characteristics are your traits, and you have a few points to put into various stats. Some will be beneficial, some will be detrimental, but you might want to choose something bad in order to gain some more points to grab something good. You also need to select social traits, and these will determine what sort of government you can choose from.
My first race, the Vissari Stellar Foundation, were a flock of bird-people who loved physics, enjoyed discovering other races and their society was run by a science directorate. However, they were weak, meaning they were 20% less effective in combat. The Vissari were crippled by the first war they took part in, and never really recovered. Luckily, playing the early game is one of the best parts of Stellaris, as you begin to build up your empire and discover new races. Then, it settles into a steadier pace as you slowly complete well-written quest lines which pop up randomly, before picking up speed again towards late-game.
It’s quite easy to understand after around an hour of playing, which is good because the tutorial needs some work. Tutorial hints pop up while you play, and new “quests” will be added to your event log that will tell you what you should be doing. However, new quests will only appear once the previous one has been completed. The tutorial which teaches you how to manage your resources can take a long time, especially if you’re in a particularly resource barren area. I was already at war with a particularly aggressive AI before I got the tutorial telling me to build way more ships than I currently had.
Once you’ve learned the basics though, it’s easy to get into. You have three resources you need to manage. Energy determines how many facilities and ships you can run across your empire. Minerals are your currency needed to buy new upgrades and buildings. To get these two you will need to explore beyond your starting system, and start mining them from other planets. Influence is for doing political things, like trying to sway populations in your favour or building frontier outposts outside of your borders. There are also special, much rarer resources, but you need to research technology for those to become available.
Learning the ropes
There are three branches of technology that you will be researching at any given time, and Stellaris does away with a standard tech tree which many other games of its type utilise. Instead, every time you pick a new tech, you are given a random selection of a handful of options. There are essentially “decks” of cards, and better cards will unlock further one, however you do have a chance of getting rarer options earlier in the game. It becomes an interesting decision, as you decide whether to research this exciting technology now, or get something more basic that will benefit your empire in the long run.
Combat is fairly disappointing at the moment, however there are some good aspects to it. There is a robust customisation system for each class of ship you can currently build, and you can create subclasses for each of these. When building a ship, you need to choose between bulwarks which will have a number of weapon and utility slots. It then becomes a balancing act of making sure the ship has enough power, while trying to get the most out of it. You can let the computer automate this process, but you might not get the results you want.
All about the numbers
The disappointing part is when all of this information gets boiled down to a single number. Your fleet strength is determined by adding up the individual numbers of each of the ships within it, but it doesn’t actually give a good representation of how strong the fleet is. Certain weapon types are good against certain defences, so if you’re going with a bunch of laser weapons against an enemy who’s well equipped to deal with them, your 500 strong fleet isn’t going to last long against theirs, even if it has an equivalent number.
There’s also an issue with randomness, which is present in a lot of other games like this. In one new game I was in a particularly barren part of the galaxy, and my route to more profitable zones was completely blocked off by a more powerful empire. Going to war wasn’t an option, and I didn’t have nearly enough to offer them so they would open their borders to me. I resolved to simply start again, which didn’t lose me a great deal of time, but was frustrating all the same.
The developers have promised to keep updating Stellaris, as they have done with their other games. Issues with a slightly muddy middle game are on the to-do list, as is an improved diplomacy system. Right now, Stellaris is a very good space-based strategy game, but a few months down the road, it could evolve into a fantastic one.
Well written quest chains, great variety in AI, satisfying space exploration.
Issues with randomness, slow middle-game, combat needs some work.