Humanity has long dreamt of venturing out into the stars, exploring the vast unknown and escaping the looming entropy of our own world. We have no definitive way of knowing what we would find, whether our galaxy is filled with dozens of other sentient space faring races, or if we’re all alone. Of course, a 4X strategy game tends to lean toward the former, and it’s no different in Stellaris.
It’s only a matter of time before you discover other races and empires, many of whom are also venturing out into space for the first time. There’s also stagnanting fallen empires who have given up their expansionist tendencies but who should not be trifled with until you can match their technological prowess, emerging cultures that you can nurture or squash beneath your heel, and so much more for you to find.
It starts with the rich empire customisation that’s available to you, letting you pick your race from a variety of different biological backgrounds. Mammals of all sorts, birds, tentacled monstrosities and more than a few sentient fungi to choose from. It carries on to the naming conventions, ethical traits, government and starting technology, all of which shape your first few jumps into the void. At the same time, the races that you’ll encounter are constructed from these same building blocks, so that a mushroom-like race might be pacifist one game and an aggressive militarist the next.
Starting from a single star system helps to make this one of the most accessible Paradox Development Studios games yet. Even with tutorials, games like Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron could easily crush a novice player under the weight of having to try unify Spain or prepare your country for World War II. The humble beginning to your empire in Stellaris still gives you a lot to think about and a lot to learn initially, but it doesn’t feel anywhere near as overwhelming, even though it’s built on a familiar foundation for fans of PDS’ other grand strategy games. It all plays out in real time – a fact that’s not unique, but is unusual in this genre – but can be sped up or paused to suit.
That starting point also allows you to get something a little new for a PDS game and their typical historical setting: exploration. For once, you’re playing with no foreknowledge of what you’ll find. Scientists are the real heroes here, who do not only lead your research, but also head out to other star systems to start surveying planets for habitability, valuable resources and interesting anomalies to investigate. You so also have planetart governors, fleet admirals and army generals, with all of these leaders providing various perks and buffs to their charge, but it’s the scientists who come out feeling most influential. It’s always a slight shame when they die and you feel like you have to start over, or find an anomaly that requires an experienced scientist to research it, but are temporarily stuck with a younger generation.
Those anomalies are often the source of some of the game’s rich and varied mosaic of potential stories, which are randomly picked from a pool of such stories. A quest line to uncover and research a precursor race can have grand consequences down the line, but there’s also the much smaller scale events. You could find a subterranean civilisation beneath a colony and have to rush to establish contact in a peaceful manner, try to stall the spread and influence of intoxicating spores across a planet, discover what happened to a star system that’s strikingly like our own, and so on. So long as you don’t fail the investigation – there’s always a slim chance the crew on your science ship accidentally starts a self destruct sequence and blows themselves up – you’re generally rewarded with bonuses that go toward your overarching research goals.
Technology and research is handled in an interesting fashion that eschews the existence of tech trees in favour of a cards system. Across the three broad areas of research Physics, Society and Engineering, you’re presented with a randomised selection of possible technologies to research, letting you choose between improved mineral mining or researching new colonisation abilities, for example. Of course, there’s a lot of emphasis on researching new military tech, whether you plan on being a pacifist or a conqueror of all that stand before you, and it’s in combat that you can often get a bit of a boost. Science ships can be sent to scan debris and potentially advance the discovery and integration of another empire’s tech into your own.
Even without that assistance, you’ll soon have a grounding in most of the technology branches available, and it’s a smart way of distilling and simplifying the research process, but the homogeneity is a little disappointing. It opens the door for adapting your fleet to counter the capabilities of your enemy, in a rock-paper-scissors fashions, but it means that the only point of true differentiation comes from the choice of faster than light drive when you found your empire. For some reason, you cannot switch between the three on offer, and that can have a major difference on how you play.
Warp drives are slowest, but give you the freedom to jump to wherever is in range of your ship’s drives, while hyperspace travel gives you a little extra speed, but sacrifices that freedom and forces you to move along the sometimes awkward star lane map. Wormholes are rightly marked as the most difficult to use, as they might be the fastest method of travel, but require you to build wormhole generators that turn those systems into travel hubs. For a warlike faction, that can provide a unique challenge for mounting an invasion.
Diplomacy only goes so far, especially once you find yourself rubbing borders with empires on all sides and have these tensions affecting your relations. Making friends and forming alliances can be depending on your contrasting ideologies, but can be massaged with the use of your limited embassies and marking races as rivals. Court them for long enough and you might be able to join an alliance or even form a federation, which removes the negative effects on your influence, and sees each member take turns to govern the diplomacy and actions of the collective. On the one hand, you might find yourself in petty wars you don’t want, but on the other, you’ve got willing allies for your own wars.
Alliances and federations add an interesting dynamic to a multiplayer game as well, which is one of the potential highlights of Stellaris for those who can manage it. Certainly, there’s bound to be a lot more cooperation and active discussions between members, and that can add a lot of intrigue and fun in the right setting.
There are a few points where the game falls a little short of my expectations, though. You’re forced to splinter you growing empire into AI managed sectors – unless you can live with harsh influence and energy credit penalties for directly controlling too many planets – and while the AI does a decent job, it’s frustrating not to be able to overrule and micromanage them every now and again. Similarly, there’s little quirks like not being able to issue commands to ships and fleets when they’re in FTL travel, only being able to spend the energy, minerals and influence that you currently have, and the difficulty of figuring out which of your hero characters a death notification refers to.
And then there’s the messiness of war on a grand scale. You’re inundated with countless fleet detection messages, for one thing, but with hundreds of star systems and dozens of empires, even a high end PC will struggle and stutter. That’s only amplified if you speed up the game time and want to zoom in to view the clashes between the vast fleet you’ve amassed and your rival. Another slightly amusing thing to note was how allied AI will simply follow your biggest fleet around like a lost puppy, for some truly overwhelming weight of numbers.
Still, you’ll need all the help you can get with some of the end game scenarios that can appear. My main game has seen the galaxy invaded by an all consuming biological terror, where I’m struggling to build my handful of fleets into something large enough to take this threat on once they’ve reached the federation I’m in. This is just one of a number of scenarios though, some of which can spawn from researching dangerous technologies, and there’s always the fallen empires to contend with. Though you can still get lost and not be sure of what you want to do next, Stellaris provides plenty of options for you to aim towards.
There’s already plenty of content and varied ideas at play, but there’s the potential for growth via DLC and expansions, with more nuance to diplomatic relations, the introduction of trade networks, and more options for waging war. At the same time, there’s extensive modding tools that will allow for the community to come in and add their own content, whether it’s new stories and scenarios, new ship designs or wholesale modifications that transform it into Star Trek, Mass Effect or countless other science fiction universes.
Marrying Paradox’s particular brand of real time grand strategy to the familiarity of space and 4X empire building has worked wonders, making this the most welcoming and accessible of their games that I’ve played. There’s a few minor niggles, but it’s compelling and it’s easy to lose yourself in Stellaris for hours at a time, as you build your empire and explore both the galaxy and the stories that it can contain.