Stellaris is a wonderful experience in exploration, adventure and expansion.
This game is a delight for fans of sci-fi of all stripes, I strongly urge anyone of said persuasion to pick up this game and experience it for yourselves.
Now that I’ve gotten that gushing out of the way:
Stellaris is the newest in Paradox Interactive’s line of real time grand strategy games, and Paradox’s first foray into 4X space age gaming. My initial doubts about Paradox’s ability to make a space exploration game were dispelled upon my first contact with the game. The game looks and feels fantastic to play, with well designed artwork and a great soundtrack really making the countless years of conquering the galaxy whiz by.
In the game itself, you are tasked with bringing a fledgling space-faring race from it’s first explorations out of it’s own solar system all the way to galactic domination. The way in which you achieve the latter is largely up to your play style, as well as down to the choice of alien race you chose to play as.
The level of customisation for your race is varied and interesting. Deciding their appearance, starting planet, biological and personal traits, their government type and so on allows you to greatly control the kind of experience that you want to have in the galaxy. Lead a race of peace-loving cat people who worship the stars as gods? You can! Play as a race of warlike, slave driving super bugs? I sure did! In trademark Paradox fashion I believe the levels of customisation, especially in terms of government type and traits will be expanded greatly in later DLC, but the initial level of choice is certainly enough for a solid experience.
Another way that the game allows you to control your empire’s destiny is through your control of the technological development of it. Focusing on building up your fleet and military power, or perhaps your empire’s defences and societal research are all viable options. Of course you will have to keep up to some degree with military tech as with Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings, but sporting a few reliable allies can often offset this
The UI is both parts easy to navigate and clunky and obtuse. I find myself using more toolbars and tabs than I ever have in a Paradox game, and yet I wish they would include more shortcuts for certain actions. Dividing up ships by class with a touch of a button was such a great addition to EUIV, but sadly does not make an appearance in the game, despite the fact it is far more dedicated to ship combat that Europa is.
The major improvement over previous Paradox titles is the overhaul of the game’s multiplayer net-code. Typically focused on the singleplayer experience over that of multiplayer, Paradox games have often lacked stable multiplayer hosting. In each game from EUIII onwards that I have played, I have experienced multiple bugs, de-syncs and even crashing to desktop completely. The common occurrence of these bugs is usually attributed to the massive scale and multiple calculations occurring within a real-time grand strategy game, and sure enough the ‘Clausewitz’ engine is impressive to be able to allow such complexity. It ruined so many of my multiplayer matches with friends however -to the point of corrupting save files- that it was frankly unplayable at the best of times.
I can with great joy however report that this has been greatly improved for Stellaris. Jumping into active games is smooth and fully functional; I have yet to experience a crash in multiplayer (or single player for that matter) so perhaps the advent of faster-than-light technology has also brought acceptable online experience! Go science!
The look and feel of the game is a thing of brilliance simply put. The look of the ships as you send your fleet to explore or exterminate, the radiance of a pulsar or the foreboding dark of a black hole. The character avatars for your own and alien races are detailed, sound effects of battle and travelling through the galaxy are fitting. It is all encapsulated with the games phenomenal soundtrack, which combines Vangelis-style electronica with the sounds of science fiction classics such as Alien, Star Trek and even snippets of Star Wars here and there.
I found the game to be a lot more forgiving than previous grand strategy games. Games like Europa generally start difficult and get easier as you gain land, wealth and power, whilst Stellaris is forgiving enough for you to experiment a little. Of course you will still have to gather minerals, energy and research points, as well as being mindful of your tile placement on your starting planets and beyond. But at the same time the game is forgiving enough for you not to simply start all over if something goes majorly wrong, which I find quite refreshing.
Another nice addition is a continuation from both Crusader Kings II and EUIV: random event chains, and trait determined outcomes and responses. If you decide to play as a society focused on science and understanding, a discovery of another space faring race might be met with cheers and anticipation to study them. Playing as a militaristic, xenophobic empire however might see your people sickened by the existence of contenders to the stars, meeting them with guns and evil laughs.
It’s not at all perfect however. A.I. empires can often be tough to deal with, often not co-operating with you for arbitrary reasons. In war, allied fleets will stick with your largest fleet which is nice, but enemy A.I. will often attack you piecemeal, allowing you to defeat much tougher opponents by destroying their fleets in detail much too easily. The crucial sector A.I. is often hard to manage, with seemingly no difference between letting them redevelop building tiles and barring them from doing so. Added, sending science ships or constructors on missions is often a repetitive chore of clicking over and over and over, when it could be resolved with buttons to allow ships to research all stars in range, or build all mining stations in your influence bubble.
A nice edition to the game are the so called ‘game ending events’ that occur randomly, or when empires start to mess around with dangerous technologies. Basically these events spawn new empires, or waves of revolts across your own that are incredibly powerful and numerous. It is a good idea in principle as it allows the game to become challenging again, even after you have fully established yourself on the galactic scene. The problem is that other empires do not seem to fight against the new threat -or even acknowledge it- at all. I fear that the cause of this is due to diplomacy not being an option with the ‘game ending’ factions that appear to challenge you, and so you are effectively constantly at war with them. The A.I. therefore has no long term goal in defeating the threat as they cannot impose peace terms or even set them as a war goal, which effectively breaks the game if you are unable to meet the threat before it’s too late.
A few other annoying features are related to economy, energy credit income can fluctuate for no obvious reason, forcing you to keep your fleet docked for most of the time. Also the borders between empires can be difficult to work out if empires have similar colours, as borders are not outlined well enough.
The small problems are evident, but as with all Paradox games the problems are something to be improved upon with mods and later DLC. I have no doubt that nuances will be added later on as we have seen before, and so for those concerned with the problems I have mentioned, perhaps look at picking this game up a few updates and expansions into it’s life cycle.
As I said at the beginning of this review, and subsequently throughout it… This game is great experience for fans of space exploration and the sci-fi genre. It’s soundtrack, it’s look and feel, and it’s attention to detail really grab and hold your attention while still offering a satisfying experience, with a decent level of strategy to boot. Highly recommended for all those that wish to make space great again.