Reviewed with help from Jonathan Brown (Yogdog)
Stellaris’ release in the middle of last year saw Paradox Development Studio turning over a new leaf. No longer were their grand strategy games confined to the history of our planet, but they were branching out into our potential future and interstellar conquest. However, much like all of PDS’ games, Stellaris felt more like a foundation for the team to grow and build upon and now, coming up on a year later, they’ve done just that with the major Utopia expansion and the associated 1.5 ‘Banks’ update.
As is typical of Paradox games, there’s a paid expansion and a free update. The expansions get a lot of the flashier changes, but that doesn’t mean that there are slim pickings for those with the base game, and Banks has some significant changes and additions of its own.
The underlying civics and ethics that your empire’s government has been built upon have been reworked to allow for greater customisation, and that’s fed into the main part of the game with the overhauled factions. These groups have certain desires and political demands that you ought to try and satisfy. Some will have unreasonable demands, but successfully balancing the factions that pop up can maintain the status quo, and even let you adopt a new set of ethics and form of government, while seriously neglecting a faction can lead to an uprising. The Utopia expansion lets you push to new extremes, with the singular Hive Mind and the diplomacy shunning Fanatic Purifier government.
Similarly, deciding species’ rights within your empire has been reformed to give you more options when expanding to encapsulate another species. Certainly, you can give them equal rights, trying to integrate them, but you can also purge them in new and cruel ways – processing, neutering or forcing them into labour – and there are three new types of slavery.
One thing that Banks really helps to foster is a feeling that your empire can evolve and change over time. Alongside factions and species’ rights is the new Traditions system and the Unity resource that you need to foster to unlock them. Split into seven different mini tech trees, these effectively amount to boosts and perks, helping you to push a particular path, whether it’s engendering a sense of discovery and exploration or enabling your empire to get the most out of vassal states.
The Tradition trees tie in neatly with the Ascension Perks that are a big part of the Utopia update. Completing a particular tree’s unlocks lets you pick from a list of perks that your empire satisfies; a perk that could be anything, from letting you build Megastructures through to letting you implant your mind in robotic bodies, or master your biological evolution and so on.
The Megastructures are easily the most eye-catching new additions to the game, letting a relatively confined empire built ‘tall’ and continue to grow within their borders. It starts with creating space stations that can be substitutes for small planets, before you pick up the relevant technologies that allow you to then construct Dyson spheres to siphon all the energy from a star, ring worlds, massive sensor arrays and so on, each of which have to be built in stages over a period of years, if not decades. Though not unique, as with Civilization’s wonders, they’re satisfying, if time consuming, to work towards creating.
Ascension Perks allow you to really focus your civilisation’s growth in a particular direction, which the Traditions don’t let you do on their own. In fact, the Traditions cut against the role playing nature of the game, where you set out to play in a particular fashion. You’ll undoubtedly earn enough Unity to unlock each and every option, but while you’d think that Harmony would nullify or lessen the Domination and Supremacy trees, you can simply unlock them all and they remain constant between playthroughs. It means you end up with boosts that do little to nothing for your style of play, similar to how your scientific research ends up encompassing all possible technology, without branching you off in any specific direction. It’s a minor point to raise, but it detracts from the overall feel of the game and the system.
While Utopia and the Banks update expand and rewrite some significant parts of the game, Stellaris is still left sorely lacking in other areas, and I’m keen to see Paradox push on in those regards sooner rather than later. The entire diplomacy system needs to be torn out and rewritten from scratch, in my opinion, as it’s often far too restrictive and limiting. In a game which ought to be rife with interstellar intrigue, you can’t make a deal with the devil or use “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” as a justification. If your morals and ethics aren’t perfectly well aligned, it’s difficult to really get much traction.
That in turn makes it difficult to break out of the familiar end game of grand empires butting heads in combat, smashing two huge “Doom Stack” fleets into one another in a decisive manner. The galactic crises still help to spice up the mid-end game to a certain degree, and the stories that you can explore are still enjoyable to me – that said, I’ve spent nowhere near as long with the game as some people – while the Ascension Perks can give you new end goals to aim for, but I still find myself feeling that I’m heading toward a kind of stalemate that can only be decided one way.
Utopia and Banks amount to a significant improvement to Stellaris that rewrites and overhauls a lot of the game for the better, adding yet more ways to try and build your empire. However, it also feels like Paradox are still just getting started with exploring everything that the game can be. It might take time for them to get there, but it’s a journey I’m looking forward to taking with them.