Stellaris review – *Imperial March plays distantly*

Stellaris HD wallpaper“May Terra guide you Admiral Wei, treat those Raltek’s to the indomitable might of a Human Imperial fleet!” my voice is clear over the interstellar radio, carrying all the way from Earth, the cradle of our civilisation, to the distant fleet of Terra’s Fury. Half a dozen cruisers, 20 destroyers and the same and a half again of corvettes, it is the greatest fleet we had been able to marshal to date. Moments ago, we sent a communique to the Raltek’s, a mammalian civilisation neighbouring ours in the Galaxy, declaring full-out war. Their borders had been pressed against ours for decades and recently our peaceful, if wary, understanding had descended into rivalry. The United Nations of Earth may be understanding and accepting of other alien races, but we have learned through centuries that in war sometimes it is better to strike first.

Our fleet wings through the warp, the advanced warp drives carrying them right to their homeworld in the centre of their space. They blaze into existence several million kilometres from the planet, and already the response fleet of the Raltek’s is arcing through the darkness towards us. Their fleet is weaker than ours by a significant margin, a gap made greater by our tactical placement of weaponry on our ships, but the presence of an orbital defence platform bristling with autocannons still makes it a hard-won battle. Mere days after the last of their ships, a flagship grand cruiser, is blown from the sky, a heavily armed landing force warps in. Armed to the teeth, an army of humans supplemented by combat droids begins the perilous process of landing and then securing their homeworld for our Empire. Normally an exceptionally difficult task, the presence of our entire fleet bombarding their military installations makes a potentially difficult fight much, much easier.

However, it is as this landing is going on, as small reserve fleets from other corners of the Raltek’s empire come buzzing in to attempt to combine and defeat Terra’s Fury, Earth receives a desperate transmission. “Mister President!” the voice is even but evidently breathless and scared, “This is the Governor of Eden Prime. Our astronomers have spotted a gigantic asteroid flying through space toward us! It will collide with the colony and utterly obliterate us in months!”

Panic. Curses. Frustration. Admiral Wei can’t be recalled because that would be abandoning the war effort, allowing our foothold to vanish and give the Ralteks the chance to retaliate. One planet is not worth the Empire. Eden Prime though, is one of our first colonies, almost as densely populated as Terra itself. Money and materials are quickly sent, ordered to rapidly assemble as many warships as we can. Thankfully we had already began constructing ships to rearm the losses Terra’s Fury had received.

So it was, as furious war on ground and in space occurred millions of light years away, one solitary cruiser and two corvettes spent the better part of a month hammering away at the immense asteroid until finally there was nothing left but space dust, which is different from normal dust because it’s in space. Victory and success on two fronts!

Part of what makes Paradox’s Stellaris so great is the simple fact that it provides something that I feel me and many other gamers have been searching for years. A 4X game set in space, and one which does it well. It is a game of exploring the galaxy, making first contact with alien races, designing and building warships, forging alliances, dealing with sci-fi events, terraforming, war, observing primitive species. Honestly, it has just about everything I could want and would think of including in a game like this, and so it actually makes it seem like you are in control of your own Interstellar Empire.

And let’s be fair, who DOESN’T want that?

The unstoppable Empire of Humanity has endured many trials and tribulations to reach it's current indomitable might.
The unstoppable Empire of Humanity has endured many trials and tribulations to reach it’s current indomitable might.

The first impressions of the game are great as well. The Galaxy Map is a 2-D visualisation of a Galaxy of up to 1000 systems and thus many thousands of planets to investigate. Despite not being a 3-D “cloud” as perhaps I would have liked, and of the likes of which games like No Man’s Sky promise to use, it is actually pretty ideal for its purpose. It is clear, provides you with the information you need and actually succeeds in looking rather pretty as well. Zooming in to stars is usually pretty nice as well, most planets and stars classified in a way to give you a little bit of stellar knowledge and designed to continue looking just pretty damn good and, well, space-y! Likely it is the clarity and ease of use which made them choose to have an almost (for one can pan and tilt a little) 2-D map, as a “cloud” might have proved unnecessarily cluttered or difficult to navigate.

In close one can see how it is possible to tilt the map on its axis, also showing the resources and names of all the systems.
In close one can see how it is possible to tilt the map on its axis, also showing the resources and names of all the systems.

Coming from a background of someone who loves Crusaders Kings 2 (but also could not get into Europa Universallis IV) let me also immediately say that Stellaris is easily the most accessible Paradox 4X game yet. The in-game tutorial is clear, concise, provides you with the information you need as you check out your various options and also tutorialises the early stages of exploration and expansion so that you can get to grips with the game. Perhaps by other standards it is still a rather complex game with an awful lot of options, but it felt very straightforward to learn the ropes and easy to carry things out after that. For balance I would like to mention that I know that RPS had an editorial saying that the author found the game incomprehensible, but let me make this clear: he’s an idiot, it’s not. Of course, you cannot expect to know immediately what all the buttons do, so it is fairly important to pay attention and to try and absorb what you are being told, but as you have several hours where things tend to be pretty forgiving, you are given plenty of time to learn what you are supposed to be doing.

The early game is one of exploration and discovery, you send your science ships to survey systems, revealing resources on planets. You can then send out construction ships to build mining stations to harvest the mineral ores and energy credits (the two primary resources of the game), as long as the systems are within your interstellar borders of course. You build colony ships to create new distant colonies, but only on worlds that any of the species in your Empire are capable of living on (after all, YOU try and get some humans to live on a completely ocean planet). Of course you can also research ways of making inhospitable planets habitable for your various species, but they won’t be that happy on some of them. Meanwhile you are able to build a variety of buildings on your worlds, power plants and mining stations to further expand your production. You hire governors for your worlds to gain bonuses in administrative regions and you hire scientists to crew your science vessels and to lead your research in three different tech trees of Sociological research, as well as one for Engineering and one for Physics. These allow you to expand your empire, upgrade your buildings, hire new leaders, and learn about new components for your starships.

At the late game you start seeing repeatable technologies which slowly increase in their requirements. (P.s. You can indeed name the scientists too!)
At the late game you start seeing repeatable technologies which slowly increase in their requirements. (P.s. You can indeed name the scientists too!)

Designing the spaceships is something that actually immediately reminded me of my review for Lords of the Black Sun. I said it back then that this is something which I feel just about everyone could enjoy, the ability to customise one’s own spaceship, and I then said that Lords of the Black Sun failed to deliver because it did not have enough meaningful variation. Stellaris is oddly like LotBS in that over the course of the game you will learn how to build four different classes of ship: corvettes, destroyers, cruisers and battleships. You also can equip these ships with shields, engines, and the three options of starting weapons tech are missiles, lasers or projectiles. This is where the similarities end though because Stellaris just has so much more depth to its ship designing.

Each weapon class has a particular strength, and while admittedly some are of more use than others, this doesn’t immediately make the other ones pointless. The weapons also have the sort of effects I was hoping to see from things like this. Rockets have the highest damage, but can be blown up in mid-air before hitting the target. Projectiles have the highest straight dps, lasers have bonus penetration against hull armour. It’s all very tactical, and encourages the use of several different classes of weaponry because focusing on any one can be enough to get you killed. Shields are not massively better than armour because they provide a straight health boost as opposed to a stacking damage decrease (I.e. a shield that gives 100 health is great on a corvette with 300 base health, but not quite so worthwhile on a Battleship with 2400) and because of their demand for power, which you have to supply through reactors on board the ships. Plus, it has been pointed out to me that because of the AI’s tendency to rely on shields one can also learn to counter them. While you will always have just four classes of ship as well, these ships allow for the inclusion of different modules to further increase variation. Corvettes for example give you a choice of three modules for their hull, lots of small weapons, or a mixture of mediums and smalls, meanwhile cruisers and battleships have three separate chunks which each have numerous potential modules, which can include lots of small, medium and large weapons as well as the option of hangers for strike craft.

One of my current favourite Battleship designs. The Annihilator-class is equipped with 6 of the biggest, baddest, longest range guns in the whole fucking game.
One of my current favourite Battleship designs. The Annihilator-class is equipped with 6 of the biggest, baddest, longest range guns in the whole fucking game.

Now up until the release of the Asiimov update (1.2, sometime in June) there WAS actually a cookie-cutter build, and likely there still is, however even knowing this I have very little desire to follow the instructions of it because I am far happier designing my own ships, and indeed often go out of my way to play around with the designer. Plus, the build, while technically superior also sounded just exceptionally boring and frustrating to utilise. Some choices MAY be superfluous, but the difference is that here these weaknesses are a lot more subtle, and a great deal more balanced. Plus, Paradox have a reputation for regularly patching and updating their games, so one can expect constant tweaking of the balancing.

Actually the mention of LotBS is interesting, because re-reading my review I cannot help but draw a lot of similarities between the games. Stellaris simply had a lot of the same ideas as LotBS but then actually went and did them properly. For instance, it’s super cool being able to research primitive non-spacefaring civilisations. Even better is that you can command your scientists to become more active and involved in the research, basically abducting samples and the like, and this can lead to some rather hilarious events for the poor inhabitants of the planet. You can also raise pre space-age species to space-faring status where they will become a helpful species within your empire, and absolutely love you for enlightening them so.

You may have numerous races within your empire, which you can treat differently depending on policies you can enact. For example one can allow slavery, or have only xeno slaves or have it be completely illegal. Another similarity there to LotBS is that you can enact Galaxy-wide policies and edicts as well as planetary specific ones for the cost of influence, providing strong buffs and far-reaching effects, bonuses to happiness are good at preventing rebellious factions but also cause massive reductions in production. It all adds together to make one feel very much like you are leading this burgeoning interstellar empire with numerous peoples and opinions across it, because once again the choices simply feel more meaningful.

As you can see, the United Human Nations is now only comprised of 25% actual humans. The remaining 75% made up of dozens of other species, synthetic beings and even different forms of humanity.
As you can see, the United Human Nations is now only comprised of 25% actual humans. The remaining 75% made up of dozens of other species, synthetic beings and even different forms of humanity.

I have to admit that for the longest time this seemed like this was simply an intention, but in reality actually did very little, because it seemed pretty straightforward to maintain a core set of similar beliefs across worlds, and it really didn’t seem like there was anything that could actually change that. However, it is also true that even if you are as careful as I am in choosing colonists with a similar ethos to your homeworld and central government, the distance between worlds means that slowly differences do begin to appear. Admittedly, it would be nice if there was a little more variation here, if certain things caused drastic changes in your empire and its central beliefs. For example it would be nice if colonists who work together with xenos on one world would learn to like and be friendly with the subjugated race, whilst perhaps another colony would continue to distrust and dislike them, just off the top of my head.

As an example of the subtleties which took me a while to notice would be in my current game where I am playing an idealistic future of Humanity where we subjugate and then integrate whatever alien species we come across, treating them as our equals in all respects. However, a few populations across my Galaxy have, simply through time, developed the Xenophobic trait, providing them with massive debuffs to their happiness because of their discontent with how the Xeno SCUM are treated. And each one of these populations tends to coincide with a faction seeking independence of some of my sectors. Now, because of my care, these populations are few and far between and the threat their factions pose is absolutely minimal. But one can easily see that if anyone was a little less stringent with choosing colonists, it could lead to massive problems down the line.

Just some of the policies you can change and enact, which actually allow for rather differing styles of play.
Just some of the policies you can change and enact, which actually allow for rather differing styles of play.

The alien races themselves are also gloriously varied. One can, if you are boring like me, go as some humans from Sol, but you also have the opportunity to go a Zealous race of fungi with a Fanatical devotion to some kind of Super Pope. Or perhaps a race of Militaristic and Xenophobic molluscs who want to crush and enslave everything that does not understand that salt-water is the best nutrition. If one also then makes some attempt at roleplaying as your chosen race, even ever so slightly, it can lead to those wonderful situations in Paradox games we love where the stars align and things go according to your grand plan, or everything blows up in your face, making for some excellent stories in the process.

Serious props to Paradox for making so much variation in their species design interface.
Serious props to Paradox for making so much variation in their species design interface.

There are, however, several major downsides to the game that one cannot avoid. Compared to something like Crusader Kings, the diplomacy feels remarkably simplistic, with very little to offer. As well as this, negotiations that you begin often seem designed to be pretty much annoyingly impossible. For example, after being in an alliance with another race for several years I suggested a tech treaty between us. This essentially means that any tech one of us has that the other doesn’t can be researched with one third of the time removed. It’s mutually beneficial and a very nice little addition on its own. However, because of the base modifiers for negotiation in the game, despite the fact that these guys loved the pants off me I still had to “persuade” them with some minerals to actually get them to agree to the trade. It’s a commonly repeated story, getting your way in negotiations invariably means having to bribe the other side. Forget “mutually beneficial” or “you are MUCH stronger than us so we should agree” it seems to always come down to that if you want them to agree to something, you have to offer more than what you’ll get. And that just makes it feel not worth even trying!

Despite the fact that I liberated these guys, despite that they loved me, despite that they even have the same ethos they still wouldn't accept my offer of vassalsation.
Despite the fact that I liberated these guys, despite that they loved me, despite that they even have the same ethos they still wouldn’t accept my offer of vassalsation.

As well as this, there feels like there are some elements which are simply missing and deserve to be present. There is no method of setting up interstellar trade-lanes (or sending privateers to those of enemies) and worse, there’s absolutely no elements of subterfuge or espionage. You cannot examine an enemy’s strengths, weaknesses, you cannot poison the saltwater tea of their admiral. In the end, your interactions with the aliens will be limited to allying with them, vassalizing them (usually through war because they never agree to shit like that), or fighting them.

There are a few smaller elements that I also feel ought to have been included. For example it would be nice to be able to set up some kind of Death Star/Exterminatus cannon to utterly annihilate enemies, it would be cool if terraforming was an easier technology to use and actually obtain (having terraformed one planet I can confirm that it is cool to use, but I only obtained it at around the 30+ hour mark), plus it would have been pretty awesome to use terraforming on enemy worlds before they can stop you from utterly ruining their precious ocean world by turning it into a desert. Just very little things here and there where one might think “aah, I wish I could do THIS particular sci-fi thing”.

And victory can only be achieved through war as well, which is I think one of the biggest shames. Admittedly there isn’t much else that I can think of that wouldn’t feel out of place in this game, the classics of cultural or scientific victories would just feel unrealistic. But there’s not even options to incite rebellions or in any way tear their empire apart from the inside. It’s all laser to the face and not much else. Admittedly the combat IS pretty awesome, as are some of the other aspects of interaction with the aliens, such as integrating vassals so that they actually become part of your empire. But one cannot help feel that, at the end of the day, one has less options than would suit a game of this scale.

Now imagine another fleet of similar size firing lasers, rockets, bullets and strike craft at this one and you can begin to imagine just how vivid and outstanding the battles can feel.
Now imagine another fleet of similar size firing lasers, rockets, bullets and strike craft at this one and you can begin to imagine just how vivid and outstanding the battles can feel.

While the battles themselves are awesome, war is distinctly less-so. In declaring war one can choose numerous objectives to be part of the “war goals” each providing a set amount of war score. From vassalising a whole empire to annexing or simply “liberating” individual planets (creating new independent empires). This is a system Paradox have long used in both EUIV and CK2, where it made a lot of sense. After all, it seems reasonable to me that medieval and colonial Empires would expand slowly.

In Stellaris though, it causes a few issues. First up is that the goal of occupying a planet “costs” around 15-25 war score and the maximum you can attempt to fight for is 100. War score is gained by winning major battles and occupying worlds (for the biggest bumps), again all very similar. However, in practice this means that you could be up against an Empire of, say 20 planets, and in theory you could literally occupy every single one of them and then win the war only to come out with 5 or so changing hands. The other options of vassalisation or creating a tributary also isn’t possible for the larger empires as the war score can be way above 200.

In theory some of this seems quite reasonable, I mean an Intergalactic Empire of dozens of planets will never allow itself to simply become a vassal “state”. In practice however It makes the goal of space domination (which, let’s not forget is the only way of winning) that much harder to achieve without a lot of patience, which is a common factor in Paradox games, but with the downside that there isn’t much to occupy your time in-between fighting wars. It is a very repetitive cycle of declaring war, chipping off a few planets, waiting for the truce period to time out so that you can chip off a few more (and trust me when I say this is EVEN MORE frustrating when you are in an Alliance who also will want some of that newly conquered territory).

The other real major problem also stems, I think, from this lack of things to do! In the early stages of the game, exploration and constant quick advancement means that you will repeatedly discover new anomalies and minor event chains which can occupy your time. These can actually build to series of quests which continue across the time of the game, giving you something else to think about other than just building new colonies or telling other Empires to stop being twats. One such example of a random event includes the asteroid I mentioned in my story at the start, which was a rather amusing and fun little addition, especially given the reference to Crusader Kings 2, but these have also have a chance of occurring every time you explore and scan a planet.

However, come mid/late-game, your Empire’s borders tend to be pressed right up against other Empires, meaning that in reality you can only traverse your own, already explored and scanned space, without declaring war. As well as this, through a system of sharing star charts via trade, one gains the scanning knowledge of other systems, even all the way across the Galaxy, so you couldn’t scan them yourself even if you could reach them. This means that come this stage of the game, you are completely limited to the rare random event which has a chance of occurring just on its own (like the asteroid).

By late game you can expect your active missions to look a lot like this, absolutely bare.
By late game you can expect your active missions to look a lot like this, absolutely bare.

Of course, it makes sense that an explored Galaxy will have less mystery and exciting events to unfold for you, but the downside of this is that once you get to this stage, you really ARE limited to just a cycle of declaring war on enemies, vassalizing them and expanding your Empire. It’s an unfortunate facet of all too-many Empire-building games that the late game can just feel frustratingly routine, repeating the same cycle of actions until you inevitably win.

[EDIT: The majority of this review was written prior to the Asimov Update. Since then there actually seems to have been a massive surge in the number of events which happen in the late-game, and this also includes the potential of “diplomatic incidences” between borders.]

A final element of frustration is in research. Research works in a semi-random way with your three scientists being given a choice of 3 (or more if you have other techs researched) techs to choose from to research next. It is weighted though so that as you proceed through the game certain early-game technologies will appear more and more frequently, but you still have the chance of discovering some rare and late-game tech. Some techs are required in order to research later levels of things, providing a tech tree of sorts as well. Some issues with this however are that there is no telling what techs are actually vital and important to research early. In my current game I have only just discovered one specific type of rare resource which essentially everyone else has been using for basically the whole game. Also frustrating is that if you research one later-game tech it does not remove all previous incarnations from the research pool. For example my physicist is repeatedly asking me if I want to research level 1 space torpedoes, despite the fact that all of my warships are equipped with level 3 space torpedoes. Don’t get me wrong, I like the way the randomness provides another element of emergent gameplay and makes it seem more like, well, REAL scientific advancement, but it also makes planning ahead simply difficult.

Despite these rather apparent flaws, the game is still excellent and by far the best 4X spacefaring game I’ve ever played, as well as simply one of the best strategies. For all that you might end up frustrated with a lack of options, this does not prevent that feeling of having your own interstellar Empire for you to forge your own stories of glory and excitement in. I can promise you that it is more than just an enjoyable game, and that sending your fleets across the deep blackness of space never ceases to feel just pretty epic.

Rating: B+

Transparency Disclaimer: We received a review code for Stellaris from Paradox.

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