When Swedish game developers Paradox Interactive announced the development of Stellaris in 2015, there was little fanfare. Built on the foundation of the company’s (frankly) ageing Clausewitz Engine, the idea of yet another grand space strategy game -- dropped pink and wriggling into an already crowded field – felt more like an unexpected homework assignment than anything else.
Its release in May 2016 did little to recentre the narrative. Accessible, polished -- and a little dull, Paradox’s attempt to create a game that anyone could dive into felt top-heavy and sluggish. Sure, it failed to overwhelm new players, which was great. But it was also unable to inspire the old guard.
The initial thrill of forays into the great unknown soon gave way to stagnant repetition. As your empire grew, the challenge lessened. At some point around the mid-game – with every corner of the galaxy tamed -- all that was left was inter-species bickering, territorial disputes, and the soul-crushing grind of endless micromanagement. Building an empire-- it turned out – was a hell of a lot more fun than maintaining one. Paradox took note. By December 2018, the company had released no fewer than six expansions and 11 patches, all of which effectively rebuilt the game from the ground up. In February 2019, console versions of the game were released for both Xbox and Ps4.
Four Ex Machina
When now-defunct Simtex Studios released Master of Orion in 1993, they broke so much new ground that they inadvertently birthed an entirely new genre of games -– the 4x strategy game. The four X’s in question are abbreviations of gameplay elements familiar to all such games: exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination. Although a helpful shorthand, the term 4x often fails to capture the complexity and depth of such titles. Paradox’s focus on the core elements at the expense of complexity is cited as one of the reasons that the game felt a little flat.
But that was before the overhaul.
The first foray into the revamped version of the game feels instantly familiar. Pick a race, pick a map size and then fiddle with a miscellany of settings (difficulty, number of AI opponents, frequency of galactic crises and so on) before finding yourself at the helm of a burgeoning single-system empire. There are several races to choose from – only two of which are human – Galaxies may contain 400 to 1000 stars, and surprisingly – even for a 4x game – you can face off against as many as 30 separate AI enemies at once. The choice is bewildering, but, fortunately, it seems set at a reasonable default. Having chosen one of the two human factions, the starting location proves predictable enough. Colossal Star bases float between the orbit of Mercury and Venus, bathed in the pale yellow light of a familiar star. Close to the centre, a gently spinning Earth lurks, wisps of clouds obscuring the twinkling lights crisscrossing the continents below. Misshapen rocks tumble with asymmetric glee as the camera pans across the asteroid belt and brushes against Saturn’s glistening rings before sweeping outwards to observe science vessels making their way towards the Oort cloud in search of spatial anomalies.
It’s enough to give you the tingles.
Eye candy, of course, only takes you so far. A whole galaxy of opportunity awaits, but the sheer number of menus, icons, and hotkeys is enough to give pause to the most hardened gamer. Fortunately, the tutorial is here to help. Manifesting as a friendly AI companion staring down at you from the top right hand of the screen, its warm reassurance guides you through the basic game mechanics, gently holding your hand and offering stark warnings whenever you attempt to do something potentially foolish.
The Game Turn
Each second of gameplay represents one day, so for every six minutes of play, one-year passes. The clock can be paused or sped up as circumstance demands. It sometimes feels a little hectic, but as the game develops, the design brief makes more sense. Managing your empire is a demanding task, and Paradox has infused build times with a degree of realism. Constructing the colony ship needed to grow your empire to nearby stars takes a whole year. While there is plenty to occupy you during that six-minute wait, there are times when you might want to move things along at a faster clip.
Playing in real-time is a novelty for a genre traditionally more comfortable using a turn-based mechanic. It works, in any case. Managing things on the fly adds a sense of dynamism to the proceedings. Having addressed one crisis point, eyes are drawn to a mundane task elsewhere before flitting back to another flash point. There are a thousand fires to put out over the course of any one game session, and each flame burns with a slightly different hue. Political intrigue finds itself on hiatus as you rush off to investigate reports of a pirate fleet lurking in the nearby asteroid belt, only to turn your attention to a potentially catastrophic worker revolt closer to home. After a few hours of play, as tasks demanding your attention accrue, you slow down or pause the game as a reflex.
Exploration is the first pillar of any 4x game, and Paradox has invested considerable time and resources into this aspect. Each star in the galaxy connects to one or more stars via a hyperspace lane. Travelling between the stars, though, takes time and effort. Depending on the distance of the neighbouring system and the quality of your ship’s engine – more on ship design later -- journeys can take weeks. What might seem like a reasonably benign mechanic is one of the first aspects of the game you’ll need to master.
Because the decision to move out to a new star system isn’t something you can take lightly; with no way of knowing what you find when you get there, the need to hedge bets between resources and capability comes into sharp focus. Should a lightly-armed science vessel do a quick sweep of the system? Is flinging that shiny, new (and expensive) colony ship off in search of a habitable planet a good idea? Or should you delay and refuse to send specialist ships anywhere without an armed escort? Saving the game before taking a plunge into the unknown removes any sense of jeopardy. It removes some of the fun too. Paradox addresses such temptation by providing an ‘Iron Man’ mode, something this Stellaris review made full use of. By default, it is turned off but tick the box, and reloading is no longer an option.
In Stellaris – as in most 4x games – expansion requires no small degree of forward thinking. With everything happening in real-time, the temptation to husband resources to the point of invulnerability does not work. Your empire is a hungry beast, and only by securing new territories can you quench its appetite. The strip mining of asteroids provides the alloys needed to make your ships and the jobs required to keep your citizenry happy. Garden worlds act as the breadbasket of your far-flung empire.
But finding – and holding --such valuable resources takes a great deal of effort, something compounded by the fact that yours is not the only empire in search of a rich harvest. The finite nature of galactic resources creates friction with neighbouring civilisations inducing some moist palm moments that often quicken the pulse of what otherwise might be a staid game.
Dropping into systems bursting at the seams with much-needed resources is one thing; finding out that someone got there first is quite another. The universe of Stellaris is filled with covetous beings, and even during the opening gambits of this Stellaris review, systems changed hands dozens of times. Strategic holdings were swept aside as fleets of ships poured through hyperspace bottlenecks brushing aside skeleton crew defenders with contemptuous ease. As in the real world, lines of communication stretch to the point of breakage. With main-fleet response times measured in weeks, the danger of overextension often takes on fall of Rome-like proportions.
If legendary Chinese strategists Sun Tzu is to be believed, diplomacy is the art of subduing the enemy without fighting. To be sure, it forms a vital part of Stellaris’ core gameplay. Building alliances, offering tribute, trading spies and making demands; where would any decent 4X game be without such in-game mechanics?
Still, when diplomacy breaks down – and in Stellaris, diplomacy always breaks down – there is nothing left for it other than to cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war.
Combat in Stellaris falls into three main categories, space battles, orbital bombardment, and land combat. Most of the time, space combat wins the day, with the latter two modes focused more on mopping up the resistance on the planets of the system you just invaded.
Taking place in real-time, space combat in Stellaris is hands-off; there is no direct control of the ship – something that might be a sticking point for some players. Fleet strength – indicated via a single number– acts as a rough guide to their combat strength. High numbers, however, provide no guarantee of victory. Exotic ship designs often rule the day, and high-tech features such as regenerating hulls or sophisticated countermeasures might prevail over superior numerical opponents. The design of ships becomes ever more critical as the game ticks on, and finding what works – and what doesn’t – is all part of the fun. The presence of well-trained military personnel is also of great help here. Levelling up your captains and admirals is critical to consistent success.
An alert sounds whenever combat is initiated, and by selecting the appropriate fleet, you can zoom in on the battle itself. A sub-screen provides in-depth metrics on how the fight is going. However, at times the sight of ships blasting neon energy at one other while undertaking evasive manoeuvres draws attention away from the bigger picture. Rushing in additional ships risks exposing other systems, but as a last resort, players can order fleets to break off the attack and flee to safer ports.
In the days since Stellaris’ original release,e expansion packs have added depth to an already profoundly immersive game. While this Stellaris review focused primarily on the core gameplay, each expansion came with patches that offer many improvements. Such developments are available to purchase digitally.
Leviathans, Utopia & Apocalypse
Although each expansion pack is unique in its own right, all make some attempt and adding richness to the overall experience. Leviathans, for example, focuses on story-based enhancements clustered around the arrival of powerful space-faring creatures. Paradox’s second expansion Utopia, on the other hand, allows access to breathtaking technologies such as Dyson Spheres – spectacular megastructures large enough to encase a star completely. Meanwhile, Apocalypse – released in February 2018– added capital ships capable of going toe to toe with an entire fleet alongside the somewhat dubious power to destroy whole planets with the press of a button.
Synthetic Dawn, Distant Stars & MegaCorp
Where Leviathan added a compelling narrative to the standard 4X gameplay, Synthetic Dawn sought to introduce new play styles instead. The option to play as synthetic life forms remove some of the delicate balancing acts of galactic management – politics, is of no concern to machine minds. Populations, however, do not grow by themselves. Micromanagement of construction queues eats up the time saved trying to keep organic communities happy.
Distant Stars mostly succeeds in its attempt to add variety to the game. A noted increase in the difference between encountered anomalies marries itself quite well to the addition of unique star system types.
Lastly, MegaCorp allows players to run business-themed empires. The expansion’s shameful focus on limitless greed ushers in the arrival of galactic slave markets and roving bands of caravaneer fleets ever eager to fleece you of your hard-earned currency.
In space, nobody can hear you click. Or at least if they do, it’s the comforting tempo of a relaxed 4X player in full command of the empire they are building.
Paradox’s decision to hard-wire layers of complexity into the DNA of the game seemed like a bold move at the time of its initial release. For many players, the whole thing felt dumbed down. Such complaints were not without merit.
But the Stellaris of today no longer resembles the clunky, overly automated game of the past. Sure, the Galaxy more or less runs itself, but the excruciating minutia of your typical 4X game is not absent; it’s just hidden. The option to stop the clock and drill down to the bare bones of galactic management exists. Hardcore strategy gamers who want to set tax rates, design cities, and tweak and tinker with a thousand and one different metrics are more than welcome to do so.
For The Masses
But then, the hardcore strategy gamer might need to give Stellaris a second because Paradox made a choice, a choice to focus on accessibility. Stellaris is a distillation of the 4X experience. As the clock ticks over, your attention turns ever toward the exceptional. A moment to contemplate grand strategy, another to send a fleet to root out pirates harassing trade routes. An unemployment crisis in your home system that segues into a space battle involving dozens of ships without granting you a moment’s pause.
And pausing is something you’ll want to engage in often. Stopping the clock enables you to waste a few hours tweaking the designs of your ships. Stopping the timer allows you to take stock of where you are and where you want to be.
Stellaris draws you in like that. Paradox’s take on the 4x genre is reminiscent of the one-more-turn obsessiveness of Civilisation, a continuous stream of problems to solve, plans to make and enemies to crush. In truth, it’s a delight to play. At every turn, the forging of a galactic empire fires off the kind of risk/reward neurons that keep you coming back for more. In space, nobody can hear you click, but your housemates might. Tapping your way to the early morning hours is an all too real feature of this game.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you.