Yesterday, an animated trailer heralded what Stellaris fans have been waiting for: The game’s first full-fledged expansion, titled Utopia, will be released on April 6. Similarly to the Leviathans story pack, and other Paradox DLC releases, a major patch will accompany Utopia. Patch 1.5 is named after the late science-fiction writer Iain M. Banks, known for his utopian Culture novels that narrate the interactions of a hyper-advanced civilization (the Culture) in an universe full of aliens on various points of the technological spectrum. In a patch that spices up the game by livening up the game’s intra-imperial politics and adds support for ‘tall’ empires, Stellaris’ developers could have hardly chosen a better name for their patch.
But what exactly comes with the 1.5 patch and the Utopia expansion – and is it worth your time and money? Let’s look at what we know so far and its impacts on gameplay. The expansion totally revamps the internal working of space empires, and adds mega-structures: the ability to build and maintain ring worlds, Dyson spheres and space habitats. Those who buy the expansion will also benefit from Ascension paths, different ways in which your civilization can attain transcendence by focusing on technological progress, psionic powers or biological evolution – an idea straight out of the Culture novels.
Building Tall and Ascending
The headline feature of the expansions are orbital habitats and mega-structures. Both features are intended to provide a benefit to those players ‘building tall’ – favoring a small number of highly advanced systems over vast star empires – and are exclusive to the Utopia expansion. Habitats are giant space stations that players can construct around non-habitable planets, providing twelve population slots with 100% habitability, the same as a small Gaia world. Habitats will have their own special buildings that cannot be upgraded, but provide a bonus similar to an upgraded planetary facility. They are also technologically expensive to obtain, requiring an Ascension Perk (more on that later) and maximum-level spaceport technology. While habitats are similar to building a new city, mega-structures are unique, multi-stage construction projects that require a significant investment of technology, time and resources to build and are more like world wonders. Currently, we know that players will be able to build Ringworlds, Dyson spheres, a Sentry Array and a Science Nexus. Ringworlds provide the equivalent of four fully-sized Gaia worlds of population space, Dyson Spheres will give you huge amounts of energy credits, while the Science Nexus and the Sentry Array give science points and galaxy-wide sensor strength respectively. Additionally, Dyson spheres and Ringworlds will render the rest of the system barren and lifeless.
Erecting those megastructures will require an investment in their corresponding Ascension traits. Those traits are part of a system called Unity & Traditions that will – with the exception of the Ascension mechanic – be available to all players, regardless of whether they bought Utopia. The system is essentially providing you with traits for your empire, similar to talents in RPGs. The Banks patch introduces a new resource called Unity that you generally obtain by constructing government buildings (thus forgoing resource-creating buildings). There are seven traits each grouped into the seven Tradition trees of Expansion, Domination, Prosperity, Harmony, Supremacy, Diplomacy, and Exploration. Every time a player who has bought Utopia completes one of the trees, they unlock an Ascension perk slot. There’s currently well over 20 different perks, so you can expect to be able to customize your star empire to your liking. From those 20+ perks, two each are reserved for the ‘Species Endgame’ path of achieving a sort of transcendence through biological (more gene modding), psionic (make all your empire pops psychic, being able to communicate with the otherworldly Shroud) or synthetic means (replacing your pops with synths).
Of those paths, the developers have to date only enlightened us on the psionic ascension path. While all will stay the same for those who have not bought the expansion, for those that did, psionics no longer is a technology to research. Instead, you can choose the ‘Mind over Matter’ Ascension Perk to unlock psionic abilities. This is part of the Psionic Ascension Path, thus locking you out of the synthetic and biological options. In exchange, latent Psychic powers are now present in your primary species, giving you access to Psionic Armies and the Psi Corps building. Also, some leaders will have the ‘Psychic’ trait, giving them unique bonuses. A second stage, the ‘Transcendance’ perk, will make all of your primary species psychic, and all your primary species leaders will have the corresponding trait. Doing this will also make you aware of the Shroud, the otherworldly dimension that is the source of all psionic power. For a large cost of energy, you will then be able to explore this dimension.
While Paradox have not given us a glimpse into the other Ascension paths yet, they did give us a detailed look into their plans for internal politics and government reform. And Hive Minds. Yes, you read right. Ready? Let’s dive right in.
In the old system, you would distribute three ethics points on a range of ethics, such as individualistic, materialistic or spiritual, this system has now changed. Under the new system, you choose your empires Civics, the old government ethics, and additionally the way authority changes hands in your empire: democratic (frequent elections), oligarchic (infrequent elections), dictatorial (elections on death of a ruler) and imperial (appointed line of succession). However, civics and authority have become fluid, rather than fixtures of your realm. Owners of the expansion will be able to choose from additional new, and highly specialized Civics and a new Authority form, and also be able to indoctrinate non-spacefaring pops to their ethics. For example, you could start with an empire whose primary species have evolved with a subservient species or robot mining pops, or be fanatic purifiers, a Civic that removes all diplomacy options and forced you to exterminate all xenophobe pops. A rather cool little feature reminiscent of the Borg is the Hive-Mind authority, whose pops are interconnected drones that ignore all happiness and cannot join factions, allowing players to ignore internal politics completely, at the cost of reduced Influence gains – and being forced to eat conquered pops.
“But”, the veteran Stellaris player might now pipe up, “what internal politics is he talking about”? Internal politics currently consists of either enslaving your pops or spending influence to control factions or to just put enough military on planets to quell yearly revolts. In Banks, factions have gotten, let’s say, a bit more intricate.
The old rebel factions are gone from the faction system and have been renamed to ‘Unrest’. Each planet will have an unrest score determined by local conditions, primarily being increased by unhappy pops – and decreased by happy pops and garrisoned armies. Enslaved pops contribute less to the Unrest score. When Unrest is high, political events will fire – pops might produce less, go on (hunger-)strike, destroy buildings or even full-on revolt.
In place of the old rebel faction system, there is now the new political faction system. Factions might represent interest groups, political parties or popular movements. Faction will emerge over time, when their interests become relevant and will consist primarily of groups belonging to a certain ethic. Those factions have certain goals, and – depending on your reaction with regards to those goals – a happiness level. The faction happiness will affect the base happiness of each pop belonging to that faction. This means that if you displease a large faction, it might severely impact the amount of energy and minerals you get from your empire. On the flip side, acting in the interests of a faction will provide an Influence boost to your empire. If a faction grows strong enough, you can embrace their goals and change your governing ethics incrementally. For example, you start out as a xenophobic empire but conquer a large, xenophile empire. Those empire’s pops might want to change your outlook on galactic life forms, and thus you might decide to embrace their xenophile faction to keep your house in order, and thus lose the xenophobe trait over time. But that is mostly if they are citizens and have a voice in your empire. If you are so inclined you can prevent that by modifying their Species Rights.
At the core of the new Species Rights system is Citizenship. Full Citizens are able to vote in elections, become leaders and you cannot enact population controls on them to prevent them from procreating. Citizens that are organized in Castes will be free when they produce energy credits or scientific output but will be enslaved when they work on farms or in mines. Limited Citizenship means that you tolerate a race in your empire, but have not integrated them. They might not be enslaved, but they don’t have a say in your politics either. Slavery, on a species-wide level, is pretty clear and known from the game so far. Undesirables are species that, for whatever reason, you do not want in your empire. You can either drive them off or purge them.
In addition, this system will allow you to set the living standard of each species, determine the military service obligations and put migration and population controls on them. Species rights – mainly citizenship and living standards – will affect the happiness of the pops living in your empire and the migration attraction of your empire to this particular species.
Tightly interlinked with species rights and the idea of living standards are Consumer Goods. Essentially, you will need to (automatically) pay a percentage of your minerals to maintain a happy population to produce consumer goods. Pops with high living standards cost more, so you (finally) have an economic incentive to choose slavery as a viable option.
It’s Good to be Bad
But what if you are, in fact, a fanatical purifier or just an all-around evil space emperor? Now, if you bought Utopia, you will have a lot of freedom to create a gloomy dystopia for the species under your sovereignty. You will be able to choose whether your slaves still ought to be Chattel slaves, producing minerals and food with efficiency – or whether you would like to keep them as domestic slaves (no boost to production but a happiness increase to free pops), battle thralls (stronger armies) or – lo and behold – livestock. They will produce a certain amount of food per tile, but will not be able to produce anything else. Empires specializing in genetic manipulation have a few more options.
To get even darker, let’s take a look at the different extermination features. Next to the classical purge that is already in the game, expansion owners will be able to displace a population, destroying their home and send them running from the empire in order to prevent the outrage a purge would create. Evil space dictators are also able to work undesirable pops to death, creating large amounts of minerals and food. The slowest method of purging is neutering, which prevents pops from procreating, essentially leading to their natural demise. Or you could send them to ‘processing’ for further food.
While it might seem that there is a potential for emperors to create a grim, dark future full of war, Paradox also adds a refugee system that does not require the expansion, where targeted populations might flee your empire in swaths to an empire more welcoming of them. Or, on the flipside, you may profit from a xenophobic exterminator on your borders if you provide shelter to such space refugees. You will get the option to choose which pops are allowed to settle on your core (non-sector) worlds, and which species rights they will enjoy.
So, what to make of it? It is clear that Stellaris suffered from a replayability issue since it did not give enough unique gameplay options to try beating the game over and over. Utopia and Banks set out to change that. As usual, I consider the main features to be in patch 1.5, allowing players to achieve a variety of playstyles that they have not before. I am particularly excited about the ability to build space-habitats and megastructures since I would love to ‘build tall’ and manage a rather peaceful empire in Stellaris. Yet, this is a feature locked to the expansion, together with the Ascension traits.
Personally, I think the new dystopian features of working undesirable species to death in a labour camp, biologically neutering them or processing them as food go a bit too far in the level of detail, though I understand that Paradox want to bring in more options to design your empire. In a way, it has the potential to be a social experiment like artfully killing off your Sims in the Maxis series of games.
Overall, I think the features give a lot more incentive to play our empire as a space-state surrounded by other states and let the game evolve more like a game of Crusader Kings 2, where you react to different events on the way to eventual domination or demise. Until now, the road to victory was very single-faceted, locking you into rapidly expanding outward until hitting an endgame crisis or a victory condition. Now, you are more able to roleplay your empire depending on the population interests of conquered or evolved pops. The update also is likely to spice things up to a ‘fun’ level for those who like to play a peaceful diplomacy-styled Federation game. Especially combined with the xenophile ethic and democratic authority, you stand to experience some interesting shifts in your empire from the influx of species. Personally, this is what I will be playing in the expansion. That, and build a Dyson sphere. They just look cool.
Let us know what you think about the host of features in the biggest patch to date – and what you are going to be playing – in the comments below.