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Stellaris - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Surprisingly easy and informative UI
  • Surprisingly gentle learning curve
  • Focus on exploration and discovery
  • Galaxies really do feel vast
  • Deep, sophisticated simulation
  • Lots of management options and flexibility
  • War goals and casus beli
  • Federation allows for peaceful co-op victory
  • Varying FTL methods provide unique flavor to the respective races

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Very little control over battles
  • Passive A.I.s
  • Can't negotiate for open borders
  • Randomized technologies can lead to disparity
  • No "Save & Exit" in Ironman mode?
  • 2.0 update removed FTL options other than hyperlanes

Overall Impression : B+
The deepest, most sophisticated space 4x I've ever played

Stellaris - cover

Developer:
Paradox Development Studios

Publisher:
Paradox Interactive

Platforms:
PC (via Steam) <,
Linux
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $40 USD

Original release date:
9 May, 2016

Genre:
Science fiction grand strategy (4x)

ESRB Rating: N/A

Player(s):
up to 32

Official site:
stellarisgame.com/

Last year, after my initial enthusiasm for Civilization VI began petering out (until the announcement of the expansion), I went on a bit of a space-4x bender. I spent some time with the rebooted Master of Orion. It was good, but I was underwhelmed by its limited scale and casual depth. I also planned on hitting up Endless Space 2. I played the first Endless Space briefly off-and-on, and I liked it, but kept getting diverted to other games and projects and never really allowed myself the time to get comfortable with the game.

But first, before diving into Engless Space 2, I wanted to tackle a game that's been in my library for over a year: Stellaris. This is an epic, space 4x strategy game developed by Paradox Interactive -- the same developer who brought us the infamously complex and detailed Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings series.

A gentler learning curve than Europa Universalis

I was hesitant to try Stellaris because of its relationship to Europa Universalis (and its notorious complexity), but I was surprised to find that Stellaris has a bit of a gentler learning curve. Instead of starting you out "in median res" with a developed European kingdom with armies already mobilized, alliances and rivalries already in place, and wars already in progress, Stellaris starts you out in control of a single planet in a single star system, with just a small fleet of corvettes, a construction ship, and a science ship at your disposal. You send your science ship to explore the other planets in your system, then on to the nearest star, and slowly explore from there at a much more comfortable pace that is akin to a game like Civilization or Master of Orion. Unlike with Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, I didn't feel like I needed to sit down with a history textbook in order to know what was going on at the start of my game.

You start the game with a single science ship to explore your own star system, and work your way out from there.

Don't let this initial apparent simplicity fool you. Stellaris is still quite deep, quite complex, and the galaxy that you'll explore really does feel vast. While the Master of Orion reboot has galaxies with a mere dozens of stars (very few of which contain more than one or two planets), Stellaris features a default galaxy size consisting of hundreds of stars, most with their own planets, which might (in turn) contain moons.

There's still going to be some trial and error, as you'll make a lot of mistakes and miss a lot of opportunities in your first few games. If you left the "ironman" mode disabled, then you'll at least be free to re-load earlier saves and try to play better if anything goes horribly wrong. However, Paradox throws a bit of a curve ball at players by disabling achievements if you disable ironman mode. You won't stumble into achievements in your learning game(s) or by save-scumming; you'll have to earn them in the Ironman mode!

You also won't be able to manually save while in Ironman mode. You have to wait for the game to perform an auto-save (which I think happens every few in-game months, or maybe every year?). This can be very annoying if you don't notice the "saving game" popup and don't know if the game has saved your most recent actions. It's fine to include a single save file for this mode, but they could at least include a "Save and Exit" option in the pause menu!

A masterful interface

What might be even more surprising than the gentle learning curve is the fact that the UI is unbelievably informative and easy to use. Yes, it presents a lot of information to you, and this may be a bit overwhelming at first. It didn't take long, however, for me to start to be impressed by how effective the UI was at keeping me informed about the state of the game, and at keeping everything that I needed to do at arm's reach, only a click or two away. Admittedly, I'm coming into this game a year and a half after it's release, so this finely-polished UI might be the result of a lot of post-release feedback and improvements. That said, it's still very impressive, especially considering that Civ VI still doesn't even have something as simple as a build queue.

The UI provides useful shortcuts that allow you to manage your empire from a macro-scale.

The Outliner log on the right of the screen provides an overview of the status of all of your colonies, space fleets, ground armies, and even internal political factions, and any one of them can be clicked to allow you to quickly provide orders or to focus on their location on the map. UI icons will show you the location of resources, events/quests, and any habitable worlds, and you can right-click on any of them to bring up a context menu that allows you to immediately assign the selected construction ship, research ship, or colony ship (respectively) to build a mine, study an anomaly, or colonize a planet (respectively).

If you're looking at the details of a planet that you want to colonize, you don't even have to exit out of that screen to open up one of your own colony's shipyards to queue up a colony ship. There's a button right there on the habitable planet's overview that you can click to automatically queue up a colony ship, send it to the selected world, and start founding a colony. If a science ship encounters an anomaly in its explorations, a pop-up will ask you if you want to stop and research it, and once the research is done, the science ship will continue on with whatever tasks you had queued it to perform already. The UI is loaded with time-saving little shortcuts like this.

Your science ships can discover anomalies that can be studied for various rewards.

All that is, or ever was, or ever will be

The simple UI makes it surprisingly easy to keep track of what's going on, even as you explore dozens or hundreds of star systems. There's a huge focus on discovery throughout almost the entire playtime of Stellaris. Your little science ships will have to survey each and every star and planet that they encounter in the cosmos in order to find useful materials or sites for possible habitation. Even after you have a sprawling empire, there will probably still be large chunks of uncharted space on the other side of the galaxy, not to mention the occasional new quest or research project popping up in your end of the cosmos.

You can take a risk for greater reward,
or cash-in the quest for a reward now.

As you explore, you'll also find anomalies that can also be studied for various rewards or effects, and these may trigger little questlines that provide you with tasks and busy-work. Many of these quests and anomalies are just simple little bits of flavor text with a Skinner-box-style reward, but there's also some questlines that contain whole narratives and puzzles for the player to solve. Sometimes you might be collecting alien artifacts from within a rival's domain, other times you'll be hunting down seditious militant cultists, and other times you might be sending your valuable leaders on potential suicide missions in the name of science. Some quests even have multiple outcomes depending on how you decide to resolve them.

Unfortunately, a lot of these quests can be prematurely shut-down (or rendered almost impossible) if the next quest marker appears within the borders of an uncooperative rival empire. If that happens, you're only recourse is to declare war on that rival, capture the system(s) that contain the quest(s), and then perform the quests activities. There is diplomacy in the game, but for some reason, you can't seem to bargain for open borders -- not even for your science ships! It seems like a strange omission that I'm surprised is still absent almost two years after the initial release.

I really like that the game gives you so many reasons to boldly go out into the galaxy and look for interesting things to find. Unlike a game like Civilization, your scouts do not become worthless once the majority of the map is uncovered. Science ships always seem to have a steady stream of research to do. Even if there aren't any new star systems to survey, there may still be anomalies to research, quests will still pop up from time to time, and even debris from space battles can be salvaged by your science ships to provide you with research points into the weapons and defenses of the enemy fleets.

2.0 and the removal of FTL choices

When the game initially released, different races even had different methods for getting to those distant planets and anomalies, as the game supported multiple forms of faster-than-light travel: warp drive, wormhole generators, and hyperlanes.

I miss the freedom of the warp drive that was included in the original release, and patched out in 2.0.

Some races started with a simple warp drive that lets you travel to any system that is within a certain distance from the ship's current position. That was the freest of movement methods, and was my favorite of the options. Other races had to use artificial wormholes and can only travel between hub locations. The advantage is that travel between hubs (regardless of distance) is near-instantaneous, but the range was limited by the proximity of a wormhole generator, and you had to return to the wormhole generator everytime you want to go somewhere else. You had to invest in infrastructure to be able to travel between any two places, and if the enemy destroyed that infrastructure, they could completely cut off access to parts of your empire.

Wormhole FTL required moving back and forth between wormhole hubs, and was more challenging to use.

Sadly, with the 2.0 update that was released early in 2018, those two FTL methods were abandoned and condensed down to one: hyperlanes. Hyperlanes were in the original game, and were my least favorite (and most restrictive) of the FTL methods. It's also the most bog-standard of map paradigms, and is present in virtually every 4-x space game. I actively avoided playing as any race that was stuck with having to use hyperlanes. Hyperlanes are lines that connect nearby stars, and travel between those stars requires using an existing hyperlane. As far as I've seen, you can never create new hyperlanes. This leaves the exploration and movement completely at the mercy of the procedural map-generation.

After a lengthy hiatus, I came back to Stellaris earlier this year and was very disappointed to see the removal of warp drive and wormhole FTL. According to Paradox's dev diary, the developers decided to make this change in order to be able to address long-standing issues with wars and military conflict. Static defenses could be easily bypassed by certain FTL types, and it made it very difficult to defend your empire from attack. It's a shame that those of us who played the game primarily as builders and who liked the variety offered by the various FTL methods are forced to give them up in order to accommodate the needs of war-gamers. War is, however, admittedly, a very important element of the game, and war was (in many ways) just flat-out broken. From a gameplay and balance perspective, this move could very well be the right one; but from a thematic perspective, it's a major bummer.

The 2.0 update leaves hyperlanes as the only remaining method of FTL, and it's a bummer.

Each of the FTL methods really did provide a unique feel, and your strategies for exploration, colonization, and war all had to be tailored to the method(s) available to you (though you could research the other methods and outfit your ships with different FTL drives if you felt it necessary). A race that was limited by hyperspace lanes could be very easily bottlenecked. Colonies connected to their homeworlds via wormholes can become completely isolated and fleets or armies can be stranded if the wormhole is destroyed. Warp drives had a limited range and took time to get from one place to another. And so forth.

2.0 also changes other features and mechanics beyond FTL. It significantly alters the way that borders work, the way that starbases work (and how they are built), recruitment of leaders, makes significant U.I. improvements, and revises the Traditions trees. Some of these changes I really like (such as starbases being created from Frontier Outposts), and others I really don't like (such as having to build Frontier Outposts in every system in order to expand your borders). The U.I. improvements are particularly nice, as the Outliner now separates shipyards and starbases from planets, and it uses icons to indicate when planets, starbases, or fleets can be upgraded, or when planets have unemployed population or blockers that can be cleared.

If you don't like the most recent updates, you can revert to an older version.

I really hope that Paradox eventually finds a way to re-incorporate these various FTL mechanics back into the game, because it was a feature that I really liked. I feel that despite the problems it may have caused, the game was better for having multiple FTL methods. If this FTL change is a deal-breaker for you, then all is not lost. You can easily rollback to earlier versions. You'll just have to lose out on any other balance and A.I. adjustments (such as the exceptional U.I. improvements in 2.0), and any other new features that will be added further down the line. It's too bad Paradox couldn't find a way to make FTL modes into a game option (as opposed to having to play with an earlier build), so that you can enable alternate FTL methods and still be able to play with other gameplay improvements, such as A.I. updates, U.I. tweaks, or other new features.

First contact, and last contact

Even making first contact is not a simple cut-and-dry process of spotting an alien ship or colony. Upon first discovering an alien intelligence, you have no way to communicate with them -- except, if you feel so inclined, for the universally-understood laser or missile. In order to establish diplomatic contact, you have to assign one of your scientists to try to decipher their language. In the meantime, they're given a temporary identity, such as "Ickies" or "Dwarves".

Alien languages must be deciphered before you can initiate diplomatic contact.

Once you've translated their language, you'll have access to the game's fairly robust set of diplomatic options that range from non-aggression pacts, to the trading of resources, to mutual research pacts, defense pacts, and even a declared rivalry. Unfortunately, I haven't seen any options for conspiring against a mutual enemy or coordinating war plans. This is a limitation with almost all faction-based strategy games, and it can really screw with how conflicts pan out.

Like with many space 4x games, the technology tree is somewhat randomized. Each time you research a tech in one of the three fields of research (physics, sociology, and engineering), you'll be given three pseudo-randomized technologies of the same level or slightly higher level. These technologies can cycle in and out of your available technology list. This can lead to some frustrating situations, especially in terms of military parity. Being the recipient of a surprise invasion can be frustrating if the opponent has some advanced technology, but you're unable to research that technology (or a suitable counter-technology) because the necessary technology simply doesn't appear on your randomized list. This problem isn't limited to military applications. You might also need a technology to clear out planetary hazards or to conduct terraforming in order to make more room for your colonies to expand, but such technologies just don't show up in the list, and you have to delay your expansion or suffer a budget shortfall or growth stagnation until it finally does. This can be especially maddening if you've seen it in the list before, but ignored it in favor of something that was more immediately useful.

Available technologies are randomized, and you may not get a desperately-needed tech.

This sort of thing can lead to a lot of one-sided conflicts. If you're lucky enough to fend off the invaders, you can send a science ship to the site of battles to scan them for salvage. Salvage can grant you some material reimbursement as well as a few points towards any research projects that were employed in the battle. This can provide a nice little catch-up mechanic if you're lucky enough to utilize it. My experience, however, has usually been that it only benefits the already-superior force anyway, since they usually win the battle, take control of the territory, and have the science ship available to safely perform the salvage. The rich, thus, get a little richer.

Salvage can provide a catch-up opportunity,
but in reality, usually benefits the victor.

You also have very little direct control over battles. You can design and customize your ships (a ubiquitous feature in space 4x games), and you can create fleets and assign admirals to them that have certain modifier traits, and you can assign one of several "stances" to a fleet -- such as "passive" (avoids conflict and retreats if engaged) or "aggressive" (attacks any potential rival on-sight).. When it comes to the actual battles though, you can only sit back and watch. Unlike Master of Orion, you can't maneuver ships to take advantage of battlefield obstacles or exploit enemy A.I. patterns to weasel out an unlikely victory. The only thing you can do is retreat your fleet and live to regroup and fight another day. Doing so even leaves your fleet "missing in action" for some in-game period, as they lose contact with your homeworld, before they eventually re-appear in your territory.

This lack of control isn't a problem per se. Stellaris (like Paradox's other strategy games), is focused more on the big picture strategy, rather than the unit-by-unit tactics of combat. You build stacks of fleets, slam them into each other, and then check back later to see who won. You'll just be stuck mostly with brute force and raw numbers, and will never really get the feeling of cleverly out-maneuvering an enemy to pull out an unlikely win.

You have no control over space battles. Just throw your fleet at the enemy's fleet and see what happens.

The good kind of galactic Skinner Box

Even though I've spent several months with the game, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what Stellaris has to offer. I've yet to even come close to actually meeting a victory condition. I'm still learning the game's various diplomatic features. There's probably also still a lot about the sectors and edicts and policies that I've yet to experiment with. There's a whole set of buttons on the bottom right of the UI that I don't think I've ever even clicked. There's just so much on offer that it's hard to be able to review it all.

I also didn't have much need for the sector mechanic (which allows you to group neighboring systems under the control of an A.I. governor). Apparently, the initial release of the game had much stricter rules regarding how many planets you can directly control, and sectors were much more necessary. Since then, these restrictions seem to have been lifted (or at least, they're easier to work around). From what I could tell, sectors weren't particularly useful for reducing micro-management anyway, since the A.I. governor didn't do much in the way of building ships or improving starbases. They'd do a pretty good job of building Construction ships to harvest resources, and they'd keep my population employed, but that was about all they were good for.

I feel like I've barely touched the surface of factions, edicts, governments, and other features.

Despite not being turn-based, Stellaris has the same "one more turn" addictiveness as games like Civilization and Master of Orion, except in this case it's more like "one more task". The game is constantly inundating the player with little rewards, quandaries, and tasks to complete. I often find myself playing that game well past my bed time, waiting to save up enough production for that next colony ship, or waiting for that next research project so I can upgrade my fleet, or wanting to send my science ship out to discover the next anomaly in the next uncharted star system over. This is how a video game Skinner Box is supposed to work! Not by forcing the player into endless busy-work grinds like No Man's Sky, or trying to entice them into buying into a pay-to-win economy like Battlefront II.

After the disaster that was Master of Orion 3 (15 years ago), it seemed that the space 4x genre was effectively dead. In the meantime, the only big space 4-x that I remember were Galactic Civilizations and Endless Space. Well not only is this genre resurging, but between Stellaris, Master of Orion, and (hopefully) Endless Space 2, we may be seeing the beginning of a golden age for the genre. The Trekkie in me is not only happy to have these great new games to play, but I'm also giddy with the idea that the success and popularity of these games may, hopefully, lead to a spiritual successor to Star Trek: Birth of the Federation! Hey, a guy can hope... At the very least, I'm hoping the total-conversion Star Trek mods will start rolling out soon!

The Earheart went missing? I guess I'll have to keep playing to find out what happened to her!

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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