Grand strategy and 4X games are practically non-existent on the current crop of consoles. There’s a few isolated examples like Civ VI coming to Switch, and the Nobunaga’s Ambition games that brought warring Japanese history to PS4, but it’s been slim pickings for fans of these genres without a PC. Thankfully, Stellaris: Console Edition is answering that call.
As the name might suggest, this is a console adaptation of Paradox Interactive’s 2016 release, Stellaris. Up until that point, the company’s grand strategy titles had always concerned themselves with historical settings, whether it was Europa Universalis’ colonialism of the 14-1800s, Crusader Kings’ medieval dynasties or recreating WW2 in Hearts of Iron. Though dramatically different games, there has always been some common ground in how they work, in particular with playing out in real time (though you can pause or fast forward).
Stellaris was a breath of fresh air, in many ways. It takes the core gameplay and applies it to a dramatically different science fiction setting. Instead of starting as an established country with a set historical timeline and story that you can retell or alternate histories to explore, you begin as a race and planet that’s setting out into space for the first time.
You’ve got great freedom in determining your race’s look, from humans and cats to insects and sentient fungi, as well as their political, moral leanings. You can be all about enslaving other races, exterminating them from orbit, or perhaps you just love everyone and want to integrate them into your lovely Star Trek-like Federation?
Either way, you begin by sending your scientists out as explorers, you carve out a small patch of space to call your own, and gradually start to rub borders with other races. Sometimes they’ll be fresh, young upstarts like yourselves, or more established spacefaring races. However, you might also bump into Fallen Empires, these dormant, but incredibly powerful species that are simply happy to let time pass without interfering… unless you get too close.
Bringing the game to console, Tantalus have done a great job of adapting the user interface to work both on a TV and with a game controller. Info panels are now laid out around the four sides of the screen, letting you shift to a particular category of menus and info using the D-pad. At the top of the screen you can view your resources, balancing energy, minerals, food, influence and the unity of your people, while also keeping tabs on the size of your empire and its research output. The left side of the screen lets you engage with all the options of managing your empire, digging into the government and diplomacy, picking research, managing leaders, designing ships. The right hand side gives a run down of your planets and fleets, while the bottom edge shows how time is progressing and any alerts.
It’s all big and clear on a TV screen, though comes at the cost of sometimes covering up a lot of the star or system map. It can also be overbearing when notifications flood in for each construction project’s completion, dimming the entire screen behind a popup that you’ll instinctively dismiss in the blink of an eye, and the robotic advisor is overbearing in how he appears at every single panel of the interface the first time you call things up. Thankfully you can turn off event popups – though more granularity is needed, as some events still intrude regardless of this setting – and decide whether the advisor is set to give all tutorial missions and advice, just provide tips when you enter menus, or is turned off entirely. Some of the soundtrack swells to be a bit too loud alongside the advisor’s voice as well, so that’s another reason to head into the settings menu.
The controls feel natural and intuitive, with the D-pad used for menu navigation, the usual buttons used for selecting and going back. It’s then the dual analogue stick and triggers for moving your camera around and zooming in or out of the map, with the only real quirk being the need to click the right analogue stick to switch between system and galaxy views.
However, a number of compromises have been made to get the game to run at a manageable level on console. The galaxy sizes you can pick from only go up to 600 stars instead of the 1000 available on PC – 600 is still a lot of stars, though – and you don’t have the highest rate of fast forwarding available to you. It makes a degree of sense from the usability perspective, but it feels like a limit imposed by the CPUs in current consoles and means you can’t blaze a trail through the early game quite as effectively as on PC.
The baby elephant in the room is that the Console Edition, as with Cities: Skylines before it, is releasing several major updates and expansions behind the PC version of the game. At launch you can buy the base game, as well as a species pack, the first story pack, Leviathan, and the first major expansion, Utopia – all of this is wrapped up in a deluxe edition. It does feel a bit cheeky that all of this two year old content is being sold separately, especially when Cities: Skylines came to console and had bundled in its first After Dark expansion, but the base game is reasonably priced at $39.99/£32.99.