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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a space faring species of birds with a severe dislike of foreigners but who love to trade? If you pick up Paradox Interactive’s new grand strategy game Stellaris you could do just that. Billed as an evolution of the grand strategy genre it sets the bar high for itself which could set it up for a hard fall. Given Paradox’s history in the genre you would think they could easily make this a reality and they almost get there.
In some of their previous games like Crusader Kings II war was at the centre of what the world was doing. Everyone was fighting for land and power, there’s even a mechanism in the game that helps you find a reason to go to war. Whilst alliances existed the more likely scenario was that vast empires emerged, ruled over by one person and one person alone. In Stellaris your species be it human, avian or any of the myriad of others on offer has specific randomised traits. These then set up how your species responds to newly discovered celestial neighbours. It then baffles us that given you could easily be a Xenophile Pacifist the only two win conditions of the game will, at some point, involve a battle for supremacy.
These two conditions are either wiping out all of the other species in the galaxy or owning 40% of the planets that are open to colonisation. When you can create a game with 1000 stars and 30+ species all procedurally generated the size of this task suddenly sinks in. In our playthroughs we found that there came a point whereby to expand further you had to go to war. There was no way they were just going to give up planets even if they were equally as pacifist as ourselves. Federations and alliances were great to keep the peace for a while but at some point the game slowed to a trudge and the only way to inject life was to unceremoniously declare war on a poor and hapless neighbour. If you wanted to role play this game as your species then this very fact alone means that you will have to go against everything you stand for just to “win” the game. It seems poorly executed on Paradox Interactive’s part not to include conditions that can satisfy the traits of races that are not hell bent on wiping out every species who happens to look mildly different to themselves.
The beginning of Stellaris is a relatively peaceful one and the game urges you to explore. The in-built tutorial courtesy of VIR, who bears a striking resemblance to Destiny’s Ghost, allows for differing levels of involvement. You can have him interject at almost every junction and offer quests to help familiarise yourself with the game’s core or you can turn him off and figure things out for yourself. It’s a great inclusion and if it’s your first play through we highly recommend that you turn VIR on. Given that Paradox’s games are renowned for their complexity, and Stellaris is no exception, this addition makes the game far more accessible than any of their previous games. As you explore your science ships - which to do anything useful must have a commander - will discover anomalies, habitable planets and resources the latter of which you will need to mine in order to grow and expand your empire. The three main building blocks are energy credit, minerals and influence. The first two are minable and are, generally, easy to come by however we found that getting any meaningful influence income was difficult to achieve.
The main hog of influence points tend to be frontier outputs which you use to expand your borders. This is crucial to grabbing nearby planets just out of your reach which your science ships may have discovered are rich in the mineral resources you need to build your fleet and power your empire. Speaking of which one of our main gripes with Stellaris is that once you have more than a certain number of planets under your control you are forced to create a sector. If you don’t you’re hit with harsh penalties which are very much worth avoiding. This wouldn’t be so bad if we hadn’t found the sector AI to be a bit iffy. You can direct what each sector is meant to be focused on for example minerals. The AI will then proceed to make sure that their sector outputs the maximum amount of minerals it can - to the detriment of almost everything else.
On the surface this doesn’t seem too bad however every planet has what Stellaris calls pops, essentially inhabitants. Each pop occupies a tile on the planet’s surface and works diligently at whatever job they’re enlisted to do. However, we noticed that the AI will not care that our pops need food and on tiles which would benefit from a farm built a mine instead. This then caused our pops to go hungry and inevitably start to get a bit annoyed at the ruling elite. From there an uprising started and out of nowhere they suddenly had cruisers and tried to liberate their planet. We couldn’t blame them really, but it meant we had to commit our fleet to something that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Occurrences like this do leave a sour taste in your mouth and at the moment, if you misclick and accidentally add a system to a sector by accident it then costs 25 of your ever precious influence points to remove it.
You will inevitably meet other space-faring species. You can then, if you choose, start to form alliances and friendships and establish embassies on each other’s homeworlds. Doing so increases your friendliness with them which will improve your chances that they’ll accept the trade deal asking for star charts. It’s a very straightforward system and does exactly what you expect. Depending on how you’re conducting yourself you may find they’ll start to withdraw themselves from your space, even ending deals and alliances if you’re declaring war left, right and centre. Overall though if you played other grand strategy simulations the actions and machinations of other species in this area of the game will be very familiar.
Visually Stellaris is very pretty game to look at and move around in. Space battles look suitably epic no matter the size of your fleet and if you zoom in on colonised planets you can see continents and swirling weather patterns. The interface is also easy to navigate and rather uncomplicated. An interesting inclusion is the ship builder, which we found fun but rather superfluous as you can instruct the game to improve the base designs every time you research a new technology. Whilst this does require your fleet to return to base and upgrade at a cost it’s a far more efficient way of making sure your fleet is at the cutting edge of technology. Still it’s a nice little addition that I’m sure will appeal to sci-fi fans but don’t expect anything approaching the ship designer one might see in Gratuitous Space Battles.
You can easily spend many hours in Stellaris exploring the far reaches of the galaxy all the while trying to peacefully expand your empire. It’s a game that begs you to explore the procedurally generated space that it has laid out before you. While it’s fun to begin with once you’ve explored all you can the mid-game becomes a grind with little enjoyment. Unless you decide to become a war mongerer you’ll find, just like we did, it’s a rather boring affair. Hopefully this will be addressed by Paradox Interactive over time and if they do then Stellaris could be a great game. Till then, however, Stellaris will remain a game of great potential. The erratic sector AI, trait conflicting win conditions make it a confusing and at times boring game to play.