Reach for the stars.
The latest strategy game offering from Paradox, Stellaris is a real time 4X title that blends accessible genre mechanics with the vastness of space.
The first thing that struck me about Stellaris is its sheer size. It can seem overwhelming at first but, thanks to a superb tutorial system, there is adequate hand-holding available for the player’s first tentative forays out of their own star system. The tutorial is built into the main gameplay experience in the form of an AI robot companion, and the player can choose to what degree this tutorial will interfere. New players – both to Stellaris and 4X games in general – will find this to be extremely beneficial. There’s a built in flexibility that allows the player to turn off messages they don’t want to hear again, yet retain tips they’d like to be repeated in future. I found the system to be extremely intuitive, allowing me to soak up the basics and go it alone when I had a solid understanding of a particular aspect of the game.
Length: 100+ hours
Mix and match
Before the player even gets that far, a wealth of customisation awaits when deciding the foundations of a future intergalactic empire. The player can choose their starting race from numerous different species. Regular human beings with an extremely militarist ideology? Sure thing. Pacifist birds? Go for it. Xenophobic cats? Do your worst. Races can be further customised by tinkering with ethical traits and starting technologies, or even just changing names and flag colours. This customisation is also present later in the game itself – the ship designer, for example, allows players to adapt the standardised models, change equipment loadouts and rename the ships in their fleet as they see fit.
Once everything is finally set up and ready to go, Stellaris throws the player right into what it does best: exploration and expansion. With the superb tutorial to nudge me in the right direction whenever I required a little guidance, my first actual gameplay experience was genuinely pretty awesome. I built my first science ships, which I sent out to survey neighbouring star systems and research any anomalies that were encountered. I built construction ships to mine the resources of neighbouring planets in my own solar system. I slowly saved up and built my first colonisation ship. I sent this ship out to a neighbouring system, where I colonised my first planet. I built frontier outposts. As I zoomed out of my solar systems to view the universe of my game, I saw my borders slowly expanding outwards with each foray I made.
The game will introduce quests and events as the player progresses. Anomalies are randomised, and really work to create a sense of historic scale for each game’s particular universe. Whether the player’s science ships stumble upon the wreckage of an historic space battle or discover a primitive species on a nearby planet, these stories – some of which hold consequences both small and large – contribute well to Stellaris’ majestic scale. They provide the player with a wider sense of context that spans not just the present space they inhabit and explore, but time as well.
Any successful empire in Stellaris requires some decent planet management, which is, alongside exploration and resource gathering, a key strategic component of the game. Colonised planets are a valuable source of resources and currency. Stellaris breaks down the surface of each planet into tiles, some of which generate certain resource bonuses. Some tiles will need clearing before they are able to host buildings, be they related to engineering, food production or mining plants. Once the tile is clear and a resource building has been constructed, players will still have to assign a ‘pop’ to the tile in order to gain the requisite resources. Pops develop over time and will also drain resources (namely food). They can even be enslaved, should the player really require a production boost. Recruitment is also an important management facet: the player will need to acquire generals for their fleet and governors for their planets, to ensure everything runs as smoothly as it should.
The way Stellaris handles research is also a little different to a traditional 4X game, such as Civilization. Instead of adopting a standardised research tree through which players can progress, research in Stellaris is broken down into three central categories: Science, Physics and Engineering. When the player’s physicist (for example) has finished researching a particular project, the player must select the next research project from three randomised choices. This adds a further element of the unknown to each game: the dice role mechanic works to force the player into adapting on the fly and making a particular choice on the spot, rather than planning a specific research path right from the word go. It took me a little while to get used to it, but it’s a mechanical quirk that feels appropriate within the context of the game itself.
Stellaris is not without a few drawbacks. There are moments where progress can get a little bogged down, after the initial rush of expansionist excitement that comes with colonizing a few planets. The ability to trade with other AI empires is present, but I found it to be one of the most cumbersome, counter-intuitive aspects of the game. This was both surprising and disappointing, given how well Stellaris both presents and explains the rest of its governing systems.
To boldly go…
One of Paradox’s best achievements with Stellaris is the way in which it has managed to create a comprehensive strategy experience which contains the inherent complexity of any strong 4X game, while simultaneously retaining a sense of complete accessibility throughout. The content on offer is vast. With the flexibility afforded by Paradox’s open encouragement of mods, combined with the game’s multiplayer component, Stellaris will continue to offer infinite possibilities when it comes to replay value and fresh gameplay experiences.
Ultimately Paradox has created a brilliant and lasting experience in Stellaris; one that allows players to cultivate an empire that spans entire galaxies. It is both wonderful and appropriately grand.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.