Platforms PC
Developer Paradox Development Studio
Publisher Paradox Interactive
Release Date May 9, 2016

There are three things you need to know about Stellaris. Firstly, it’s an utterly fantastic real-time grand strategy/4X game. Secondly, you don’t need to pay attention to the win conditions because they really just don’t matter, and I’ll tell you why in good time. Thirdly, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to fit everything into this review because there’s an absolute ton of game here. Seriously, this is a jam-packed game and the things I don’t mention you’ll have more fun discovering yourself. Developed by genre-veterans Paradox, in Stellaris you start off in the year 2200 as a fledgling race attempting to colonise the stars. How you do this is entirely up to you.

From the get go, Stellaris encourages you to play a role. Almost as if it were some sort of role-playing game. I know – nuts, right?! After all, aren’t these types of games all about resource management and conquering all that stand before you? No time for this poxy “but what would my characters really do?!” decision making, right?

Wrong.

When you begin a game, you have the option between selecting a preset race or creating a new one. You choose the type of planet their homeworld is, the general species (both of which has enough variety to keep things more than interesting), and, crucially, their moral ideals and goals. I’m not being funny, but I have spent hours playing around with the race creation mechanic – even without the plethora of mods already available, the range of combinations possible is staggering. The real crux of it though, the real meat of the game, all begins here. You have the option to select races with militaristic/pacifistic tendencies, whether they’re xenephobes or xenophiles, materialists or a divine-thinking race content with their lot and much, much more. You can combine any two non-contradictory traits to create a deceptively simple code of ethics before you begin your campaign. Then it gets deep.

Whereas most GSG’s or 4x games may encourage you to go on a full offensive, Stellaris insidiously sets you on the path your race has taken – you get certain bonuses for certain codes of ethics which help dictate your path to superiority (if you so choose). If you want to “win” Stellaris, you don’t really have to achieve the two win conditions available (at time of writing), which are to either dominate and absorb all other  empires or to gain control of 40% of the colonisable planets. In Stellaris, I have found that you merely have to play the game. This is by far the most attractive trait – in one game, I’ve played a pacifistic, secular people with just enough firepower to hold their own little corner of space and happily let galactic events take their course. In another, I’ve played a fairly aggressive militaristic people, making vassals over less powerful races and democratically twisting the arms of others into joining my empire, taking control of the galaxy in whichever way my whims dictated. I found that I rarely thought about the victory conditions so much as what the next thing my people would do under the doctrines and ethics given to me at the beginning of any campaign.

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These guys got wiped out fairly soon. Some folk have no manners.

I’ve gotten a touch ahead of myself, however. At the very beginning, you have in your control your territory’s homeworld, an engineering vessel, a small naval fleet, a space port, and a science ship along with your races mode of FTL transit (three distinct options are available, each with benefits and drawbacks). Your main focus in early game is to (you guessed it) expand. While your science vessel will explore neighbouring systems to discover the most suitable planets to house your race and your engineers construct orbital mining facilities to fund your expansion and growth, you have a team of research leaders who will work towards unlocking new technologies and armaments. It’s incredibly important to keep these positions manned; as time marches on, your leaders will age and eventually die. It’s critical to maintain momentum as there’s nothing like seeing a ludicrously long lead time on a technology which you’ve bet your entire next move on just because you haven’t the resources to hire a successor to your long-time lead physicist, but more on that later.

As the game progresses and you discover other races, the diplomacy mechanic will come into place. In my opinion,  a solid diplomacy system is something that’s been sorely needed in most strategy games and Stellaris absolutely nails it here. Other factions react to you in an expected way, the pacifists won’t declare war on you, the militarists will laugh at your attempts to strong-arm them in any other way than with superior firepower and the religious lot are just nuts. Like, seriously cray-cray. In your time with Stellaris, you’ll discover a myriad of different races – ethically, physically and politically. You’ll spend a good deal of time balancing relations, and while it’s entirely possible to play through the game without ending up in open warfare, the option is left open for you to play as you feel – it’s by no means necessary if you’ve developed your defences enough, but if you’ve a mighty fleet behind your harsh words, you can roll over anyone if you’re smart about it.

Thankfully, the diplomacy menus make it clear whether you’re outgunned with simple comparison indicators for their naval power and technological capabilities. Additionally, the ability to form alliances (at the cost of influence) followed by empires (eliminating the influence drain) allows you to team up with like-minded factions and races, with the leadership alternating between members as time goes by, letting you play politics as well as military leader – and both are as fun as the other.

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This coming from the Cthulu-spawn.

General combat aside, you have to actually have territory to defend. I’m going to go ahead and assume you’re familiar with the standard genre archetypes – explore, expand, build, repeat ad infinitum – and again, Stellaris does abide by these standard rules. Stellaris also takes those rules and adds several extra chapters, bylaws and amendments. In every strategy game, there’s resource management and in Stellaris you have your basic resources – energy (your overall power reserves), minerals (currency) and influence (politial clout). Additionally, you have your physics, engineering and society research levels, food and special resources you may find once you have the technology to discover them/find them under your old carpets, so to speak. These can add a great deal of value to planets already under control or, once you have the capability to find and mine them, change your entire gameplan in a second. Planets that were worthless, lifeless dustbowls suddenly become a secondary economical and political goldmine if you unearth a valuable Engos Vapour deposit, for example, or turn a struggling colony into a prosperous tourist destination upon the acquisition of some alien pets.

One of the most interesting mechanics in the game is the fact that as you colonise planets further away and differing in environment from your home world, your race will also evolve – they’ll take on different physical characteristics and ethical standpoints as they migrate closer to the borders of other races which can lead to some unique conflicts later on in the game. This means when you build a colony ship originating from those planets, their natural morals and physical traits will differ from your original race, giving you a broader range of planets available – meaning you can adopt that particular set of genetics for your entire empire if you so choose, or diverge even further to expand your range of potential colonial targets.

There really has been a massive amount of thought put into this in terms of making each world unique, compounded by the constant development of technologies to not only turn uninhabitable areas of your colonised planets into habitable ones but to terraform planets entirely (with the aid of the aforementioned Engos Vapours) to more suit your race. Here is where your choices in regards to ethics come into play. On some planets, you can find less advanced life forms – these you can observe passively, or if your methods are within the bounds of acceptability to your race, totally abduct and aggressively experiment on them. Further to that, if you have the technology, you can genetically modify some of your own people to match the indigenous species and infiltrate them if not uplift them entirely. This can have some unintentional but disastrous (if hilarious) consequences.

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Also warfare.

This didn’t happen to me, and due to the century-spanning nature of the game this is fairly amalgamated, but I watched over the shoulder of a friend while he showed me how his carefully placed spies fell prey to their more “human” (for lack of a better word) instincts. Having infiltrated the race, his spy promptly fell for one of the natives, abandoned his mission and disappeared. Shortly after, he began giving them technology so ludicrously advanced compared to their own that a significant number of the population began worshipping him as a god. Every attempt to retrieve his agent ended in failure.

This is another fantastic facet of the game – while he looked away for a short time dealing with galaxy-wide events (a decade or so in-game), the planet divided in religious conflict, some accepting their new technological overlord and others rebelling to the point that when attention was refocussed on this one colony, the entire planet was blowing each other to pieces. This caused generations and generations of grief and upset for my buddy’s empire, and upon trying to deal with the situation by removing him from the planet, the indigenous race pushed their way into space-travel era using his own technology and declared war on him, destroying his observation post and generally wreaking havoc around a corner of his territory that should have been self-contained and peaceful. But that’s where meddling gets you.

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I wish I had been the red lot. I wasn’t.

Stellaris also addresses a big issue most have with games of this nature, namely mid-to-late game balance. It’s common once you’ve played a certain amount of a game like this that you will end up being so much more powerful that much more quickly that it can very easily become imbalanced, leaving one faction so far ahead that it’s basically a waiting game until they’ve got a majority share of the entire galaxy. Here, however, Paradox have thrown a few spanners in the works. Aside from the usual faction friction, there are what i suppose you would call side-events that can help or hinder any one faction as time goes on. Namely, non-communicative species can be docile or hostile depending on your early game choices, leaving entire areas inaccessible to you but leaving your rivals with free-movement should you decide to provoke an ancient fleet of sentient space-crystals. At other times, whole chunks of your population could disagree with your decisions and secede, forcing you to take a considerable amount of your fleet out of the game while you chase around and mop up the rebels – assuming you have access to the territory they’ve occupied by the time you get there, otherwise you’ve got some serious bartering to do.

On top of this, galaxy-wise crisis events can occur. In one playthrough, we had certain signals suddenly appear from outside the galaxy. It sent our precariously-balanced diplomatic landscape into turmoil while everyone scrabbled to bolster their military forces, all the while these possibly extra-dimensional signals increased in frequency. The next thing we knew, some sort of gigantic parasite hive-mind worked its way into our galactic borders and started infecting whole star systems. We organised a heroic defense (and by that I mean we bit ankles while the big dog utterly chewed through the invaders), and ultimately came out on top, but not before whole swathes of planets were rendered barren and uninhabitable, reducing the already over-crowded space. This had the side-effect of reducing the quantity of colonies/worlds required to meet one of the win conditions, but the fact that I only just realised as I typed that sentence should tell you everything you need to know about that.

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Demonic parasite hive-mind horribleness invading from the beyond. Not a pretty sight.

I should also address the reason I used the plural pronoun we – you can play Stellaris with friends. This adds a level of fun and immersion into a game that’s already absolutely chock-full of it; me and mine spent a great deal of time building our collaborative empire, trading favours and manipulating other factions into doing what we wanted while we furthered our own separate goals. While I was pursuing habitable technology and rare resources, one of my partners was manning and strengthening a strategic border while the other was furthering their goal of attaining the AI singularity (as of writing, we’re still working on it – by all means ask me in a month what happens when he gets there). Stellaris let us play the way we wanted to – as individuals working towards a common goal, with all the options available to betray if the fancy took us, but instead our shared ethical codes and beneficial territory holdings allowed us to take control of a fairly sizeable chunk of the galaxy early on, leaving us able to adequately fend off the aforementioned threat to galactic safety.

I suppose the reason I’ve been focusing so much on the events occurring during the various games I’ve played is because that really is what stands about Stellaris. What you have here is a ridiculously immersive, incredibly fun experience that not only does justice to the GSG/4x genre but adds so much more by way of the world it lets you run rampant in. Technically the game runs fine, looks great, sounds great and is easy to navigate once you’re used to the way the UI works. What I’m trying to say is that it’s so well designed that the UI/graphical aspects of the game don’t even come into my thoughts – it’s that well done that you don’t notice they’re even there. There’s a lot of plate-spinning involved, from keeping your various colonies happy, busy and well-fed to consolidating them into numerous self-administrative sectors, allowing you to focus on the broader picture at hand, but none of it detracts from what is a fulfilling experience. My final point will be that the developers, Paradox, never stop at release. More content will be coming, more improvements will be coming and with the mod community let loose on the game at launch, there’s depths here waiting to be plumbed by your valiant selves. Let loose, strap in and seriously, stock up on rations, because “one more year” has never been apt.


Summary

Stellaris rewrites the rulebook on strategy games. I’ve been trying for over two-thousand words to get across to you just how much fun this game is – if you’re a fan of the genre, this is a must-buy, even just to experience the depth of the gameplay. There’s so much I haven’t even touched on, but I guarantee the best way to enjoy this game is to play it for yourself and thank me later. The added roleplay aspects are absolutely phenomenal, not only in the subtlety of implementation but in their effectiveness – I found myself playing the role before I realised that I was doing so. If you’ve got a few friends who are into strategy games, round them up and get them involved. Stellaris is a time-sink, and like other stalwarts of the genre, you’ll struggle to tear yourself away.  

10

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