Stars twinkle in the inky abyss. The night sky beckons, full of unexplored promise and adventure. While here on Earth, in our 21st century world, we can only dream. But Stellaris. Stellaris lets you fly.
Coming from developer Paradox, famous for their repertoire of Grand Strategy games, this game is not for the faint hearted. An individual game is designed to cover a 300 year empire, but can be adjusted to be shorter or longer. The different traits and modifiers that can be applied to your empire create hundreds, if not thousands of different playstyles. Be aware; this is not a short game, and, for me at least, required several playthroughs and false starts to really get to grips with. If you are willing to put in the time however, it will pay off dividends.
Based on the familiar 4X concept (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate), Stellaris starts you off all alone in the galaxy, with a single planet and a few ships to start your eXploration (sorry, I’ll stop now). You can choose from one of a number of preset empires, or create your own from scratch. You aren’t limited to being humanoid either; my first game involved a species of technologically adept penguins, and you can also be reptilian, insect like, or even sentient mushrooms. You can customise your traits and abilities, such as giving bonuses to habitability – how well you can colonise new worlds, or increasing your natural diplomacy. You can also choose your government type; so if you want to be a militaristic but ultimately benevolent dictatorship, go for it. Conversely, you could be a race of bloodthirsty savages with a strong belief in democracy, but also their own supremacy, the choice really is yours.
Once you’ve decided on your empires traits, you can start spreading out into nearby star systems. If they have the resources you can build mining stations to gather them for your own purposes, and if there are habitable worlds, you can colonise them. During this phase of the game, you will start to learn more about the galaxy you inhabit. Each game is random, so you won’t always get the same events and backstory, although after a couple of games you will start to notice the same bits popping back up. I do recommend exploring all the anomalies you encounter, as they not only offer technological bonuses, but also interesting tidbits about the history of your galaxy. You may encounter Ancient Mining Drones, or other similar remnants of an ancient civilisation that attack you if you get too close. This helps prepare you for the future of your empire…
Eventually, you will make first contact. Again, how this goes down is partly random, partly dependent on your empire traits. But you are not alone. This opens up another section of the game: Diplomacy. As with all games in this category, diplomacy can play a big part in how the game transpires, and building alliances can be very helpful in the early to mid game. However, this is not the best diplomacy system I have seen, and although much better now than at launch, it can leave you feeling arbitrarily trapped because an otherwise friendly empire who happens to own one system in your space won’t relinquish it to you for anything, forcing you to go to war.
Once you have a few allies (or are strong enough that you don’t need them), you can start to expand into your neighbours empires, taking their systems and resources for your own nefarious ends. The warfare system is a little too complex in my opinion. It seems reasonably straightforward, but it can get a little finicky. You need to claim systems before you can actually keep them, and although I may just have not been paying attention, this led to a few frustrating early games where I would completely take over an opponent’s planets, forcing them into a surrender, only to discover that they retained all of the worlds I had spent a huge amount of resources capturing. The claim system is so you cannot take over half the galaxy in one war, which in fairness, is a very reasonable limitation, and adds a degree of long term planning to the warfare element.
Having now played a few games though, it became clear how to progress and once you know what you’re doing, it’s great fun watching your fleets decimate another empire. Although the combat itself is limited, to the extent that you have no control over your ships once they have engaged, it is nonetheless very pretty, although my computer did start to struggle a little when I zoomed in (although I should note I’m playing on an older machine, if you have a decent set up this should not be a problem for you). The exact combat mechanics continue to be quite vague, with a rock-paper-scissors system, and only an over all indication of fleet strength, rather than relative strength. This leads to situations where a 20k fleet can be almost completely destroyed by a 10k fleet, due to the smaller fleet having weapons that better penetrate the larger fleets defences. For this reason, many players will initially steer clear of the ship designer, because as with everything in this game, it can be a little intimidating, and the default builds strike a nice balance. If you are seeking to maximise your stopping power against a particular enemy, the ship designer is your friend, and helps set you up for minimal losses (and therefore more resources to spend on research).
The lack of control of your ships tactics can be quite irritating at times though. All too often my fleets would focus on a much smaller, closer enemy, often an unarmed transport ship, all the while the larger fleet is bearing down on them and picking them off from range. Although this can be helped by upgrading your ships computers and AIs, sometimes it does feel like a bit of a middle finger.
This brings us to technology. As with a lot of this type of game, you can improve your performance, militarily and economically, by researching technologies. Rather unusually though, you don’t have the traditional ‘tree’ found in other games. Instead you have a random selection of available technologies you can choose to research, based on previous technologies researched. This means you cannot simply max out your lasers research, you have to work through the tree as it is presented to you. Although frustrating when you want to research a specific technology, again it adds an element of randomness which better reflects the real world situation.
Eventually, you will hopefully become the dominant force in your galaxy. There may well have been a few obstacles in your way, including but not limited to Fallen Empires. These are superpowers empires with ridiculously advanced technology, that mostly keep to themselves but given the right conditions will awaken, and will either help you or hinder you depending on your empire traits. Think Forerunners from Halo, or Time Lords in the post 2005 Doctor Who. If you manage to get on the wrong side of one of these guys too early, you may struggle.
As you move to the endgame however, possibly having dealt with any Fallen Empires around you, possibly not, it all depends on your play style and individual game, you will encounter one of the end game crises. These are huge, galaxy wide events that will usually cause any empires currently in a war to declare peace, as the myriad of species in the galaxy unite to defend themselves and each other. I will not go into spoilers here, as it’s an absolute whirlwind to play through blind, but a quick google will give you an idea of the sort of thing you’ll be facing, and they are unquestionably epic. It’s difficult to describe the actual panic you start to feel creeping in on you as the crisis approaches, but it’s there and it is very real. Bear in mind, if you’ve been playing the game properly and tended to your empire as your own newborn, you’ve probably sunk a solid 40+ hours caring for it and watching it grow, and suddenly this evil alien race wants to destroy it. Depending on your empire strength this may not be a huge issue, but if (like me) your crisis comes relatively early, it can cause real problems, so bear this in mind as your calendar pages fall away.
I really haven’t done this game justice, it is astronomical (no apologies) in scale, and I am still learning about new features and controls after several playthroughs. I haven’t even touched on the beautiful background music, or the plethora of available mods (largely because I haven’t had an opportunity to try them out properly). By all accounts the modding community is fantastic, and significantly expands the scope of the game. From purely cosmetic (Star Wars designs for your ships, anyone?) to actually adding or improving game mechanics (see Space Combat above), there is a huge range that will surely add another couple hundred hours of gameplay if you’re interested.
Adding to the mods though, there are also the ‘official’ mods in the form of paid DLC (although I should note Paradox fully support modding the game, and have actively tried to push it as ‘one of the most moddable games ever’). Again, although I haven’t yet tried them out, I am very excited to and am planning on purchasing a selection once I’ve finished my current play through. It is a shame that the earlier DLC haven’t simply been made free, because as a 3 year old game with a solid amount of support from the developer, catching up on all the DLC will take a toll on the ol’ wallet (although they do often have pretty decent sales on in fairness).
To wrap up then, in terms of value for money, this game will keep you busy for as long as you choose to play it. I can’t see you running out of new things and events until after several playthroughs, and then you have mods and DLCs to keep you going. There are plenty of ways to win, and I continue to enjoy finding new ones. There are a few things I would improve if given half a chance, better automation for the midgame for example, but ultimately they aren’t enough of an issue to stop me from playing more, and if you like Grand Strategy, 4X or even just sci fi games, this is a solid addition to your collection.
While the empire management may get old after a few runs, if you have a half decent imagination, you can easily construct a backstory for your empire that you can play along to. And really, that’s where this game excels. It gives you the freedom to manage and expand your empire however you want. Although as with all these games, there is a certain advantage to piling everything into tech and becoming a war hungry behemoth, there are enough options that you don’t feel you have to.
- Insanely fun
- Epic Scale
- Really pretty
- Very technical
- Steep learning curve
- Limited combat mechanics