It felt strange to be so excited for an original space strategy game from a developer with no previous sci-fi experience, or without a well-known IP behind them. But, ever since Stellaris was announced last year, I’ve been looking forward to Paradox Interactive’s latest endeavour, which promised to bring the studio’s famous grand strategy experience to an original sci-fi setting.
Stellaris has been worth the wait, which was made all the more intense by some pretty decent pre-release streams of the game by Paradox developers.
The Rise and Fall of Your Space Empire
So how does a sci-fi game made by a company known for its historically accurate titles work in practice? Surprisingly well.
While Stellaris does come with a collection of pre-made civilizations, the really clever bit is the way it is able to generate any number of aliens for you to play as, befriend, or conquer. Creating a custom species is easy, and gives a preview of what you might face out there after you dig through a generous selection of animated portraits, core values (ethoses), government types, and FTL engines.
For my first game, I created the Bud’ji Commonwealth – a race of bird-people who would boldly go where no bird-person has gone before, meet new alien life, and forcibly annex them for their own good.
A new game of Stellaris starts familiarly enough to fans of the genre. You are given your home system, a very basic fleet, and an exploration ship with which to find new worlds to settle on, anomalies to research, and other civilizations. If you’ve ever played a space 4X before, you will feel right at home.
You will then inevitably bump into hostile alien life, which introduce the game’s combat system, and offer a few neat goodies for those keen enough to keep hunting the big game. They’re more of a tutorial than a threat, but they also help to make the universe feel a bit more lived-in. Even in the late game, migrating gas-grazers give a sense of activity to the galaxy.
Then come the alien civilizations. When you meet aliens for the first time, there’s no way to communicate with them or see their territory. Depending on how you play, this could mean a period of opportunity as you rush to seize lands with your armies, or it could mean in-game months of tension while your scientists struggle to crack the secret of communicating with the xeno.
This is the point where Stellaris diverges from the comfortable, Master of Orion-inspired pattern of 4X gameplay. Once diplomatic contact is established, borders come into play, and the game drifts towards being a lot more like Europa Universalis IV. Like in EUIV, you cannot conquer a large opponent in one fell swoop, and cultural differences – your ethoses and national policies – affect how other empires perceive you.
Choosing your war goals and who you befriend really makes it feel like a Paradox game, even if you are going to war with (for example) a species of lizard-men who hate everything you stand for, instead of say, the French.
War also, refreshingly, does not hold up the gameplay with repeated pop-ups about how you choose to resolve combat. Your fleets and admirals simply engage the enemy, and the battle is simulated based on how you designed your starships. The automatic designer does a pretty decent job of building capable warships, but there is still room for a competent ruler to craft a solid combination of parts – or for an incompetent one to get completely wrecked by an enemy that exploits their weakness.
I’m sure that EVE players will appreciate that trying to use battleship-size weapons on a frigate (corvette) swarm will rarely end well, as will bringing the wrong tank type. Or as I learned in my last game, bringing extremely short-range guns to a sniper fight.
Stellaris makes use of a few more Paradox staples – there are a number of end-game threats which will show up to disrupt the balance of power in the galaxy. These are sort of like space Mongols or Aztecs, but without the known starting point for their invasion. These disasters are generally linked to a number of ‘dangerous’ technologies, which are incredibly useful, but run the risk of unleashing (in Dwarf Fortress terms) the Hidden Fun Stuff.
Not all horrors are from beyond the galaxy. Just most.
Fallen Empires also dot the stellar landscape. These civilizations once dominated the galaxy, but have since stagnated and withdrawn to their core worlds in the intervening millennia. They provide a pretty neat combination of end-game challenge and astropolitical obstacle, a bit like if the Guardian of Orion still had the backing of a civilization behind it, and occasionally ventured beyond its territory to interfere with upstart civilizations that offend it.
All of this barely scratches the surface of what the game has to offer. There is a lot for any science-fiction fan to love, but unfortunately, nothing is perfect.
Fear of a Bug Planet
Stellaris has a lot of Paradox’s design DNA in it at every step. Unfortunately, it also falls prey to some of the issues Paradox’s offerings have on release. Bugs are an unavoidable part of software development, and Stellaris is no exception.
The biggest issue is that depending on how large and complex your galaxy is, the game will eventually begin to slow down and accumulate faults. Battles take far longer to resolve, turns crawl by, and it generally becomes harder to achieve your goals. While this might be unavoidable, it was frustrating to deal with, especially since I was getting really invested in the fate of the Bud’ji.
Some features also have some issues at the moment. Federations are a great idea on paper – the various member nations effectively work together as one, and leadership is passed around regularly so that everyone gets a turn directing foreign policy (i.e. war). In practice, the slow-down effect makes it a slog to rotate through half a dozen presidencies, and the AI doesn’t make use of the main selling point of federations: a federation-wide starfleet, which is controlled by the sitting president.
If you want to fight alongside alien allies, it may be best at the moment to refuse their calls for a federation. It might also be useful to take lessons from the Ur-Quan, either by vassalising your neighbours and forcing them to fight in your wars (there’s even an achievement called Battle Thralls), or by cutting everything around you down to size so that they cannot threaten you.
It is also a little bit annoying that even though the galaxy will generally band together when the end-game threats come knocking, actually gaining access rights from your neighbours so you can fight the threat is nearly impossible. The entire north half of my first galaxy (about 400 stars) was eaten while I waited for federal leadership to rotate back to me so I could declare war on those blocking my path.
There are a few more bugs scattered about. Thankfully, they are either cosmetic, or will not significantly impact your gameplay.
My only big complaint is that the victory conditions in the game (a rarity for Paradox) boil down to just two variations on conquest. While you don’t have to take over the entire galaxy (thank goodness), it does make playing as a pacifist much more difficult. Something like the victory conditions in Distant Worlds, which had a variety of noncombative approaches and some unique victories for the different species, would be a great fit for Stellaris
I fully expect a lot of these issues to be resolved in due time. Paradox is well-known for supporting its games (Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV have 19 major expansions between them, and tons of general patches), but it is worth being aware of what you’re getting into on release day.
As a funny little related note, when looking back at our earlier coverage, I found a comment I wrote nine months ago about how I wanted to play as alien mind parasites. It turns out that one of the fungaloid naming schemes has ‘Cordyceps Force’ as the default name for its slave armies.
While buggy in places, Stellaris has definitely been worth the wait. Paradox has broken free of its historical background to produce a great game that will delight fans of sci-fi 4X’s and grand strategy games alike.
The differences between different empire types aren’t as massive and distinct as non-feudal governments in Crusader Kings II, but it is great fun exploring the clash of ideologies that the game produces. Playing an expansionist, slave-taking empire is just as enjoyable – and an equally valid way to play – as being part of a tight-knit alliance of like-minded species.
Stellaris is engrossing enough that I spent the majority of my evenings playing my review copy since getting it. I can’t wait to see what it looks like in another four years.