Space Pew Pew
Paradox Studios has had a busy period, releasing Hearts of Iron IV in June and Stellaris just the month before. They are both fantastic achievements – two high quality products in close succession. Stellaris, specifically, represents a new direction for Paradox, which is known for its historically grounded games such as Crusader Kings, Victoria, and Europa Universalis. This time someone in Paradox must have decided, “let’s make some stuff up and put it in space” – and it’s a good thing they did.
Stellaris is a venture into space, in the tradition of games like Galactic Civilizations. Stellaris is more or less a traditional 4X game – you send ships out into space, find planets, colonize them, and then go shoot at your neighbours and take their planets. What Stellaris does, it does beautifully in many ways. The galaxy just feels like a playground waiting for you to discover it and break things. I won’t get into the details of what the game’s about – the overall concept is nothing new and the goal of strategy games is always to expand. These games are separated really by the little things.
In the early game, Stellaris does a good job and making you feel like a lonely species entering a giant, untouched galaxy. The story of your people is yours – their ideology, history, and method of space travel (all chosen by you) will shape your interactions with the galaxy – but you are free to pursue your own approach to galactic rules. You can use a premade race to get you started or create your own, then off you go into space.
These stories are unique in the sense that every play through, aliens you encounter will be randomized. They will appear as one of several families, such as mammalian species or plant-based species, but each unique species will have different attributes about them. With that, different species have different characteristics that suit them better to different things – some are physically big and make good soldiers, some are bad at understanding physics, some are xenophobic, and some are just ugly and offensive to other species.
What does this mean exactly? Well, my war-mongering Empire of Man was not well suited to ‘tundra’ planets, yet, I wanted the resources more planets offered. So, as an evil empire, I found a planet with an industrial civilization and infiltrated their governments at all levels so when they were ready to join the interstellar community, they happily accepted their proper race as a subject of my empire. At that point, I used them to strip mine tundra worlds and sent them out as my shock troops to protect my Human troops.
Good concepts – Stellaris excels in the earlier phases of the game for allowing these non and semi-scripted events to occur. Where it starts nose diving, unfortunately, is later in the game.
I played through several games and only once did another Empire ever attack me. In fact, most other Empires said ‘Hello!’ and then I never heard from them again. When I did try to make deals – like flying ships through their territory, it was very rare that anyone was even remotely, regardless of my empire’s ideology. I was able to make an alliance once, and then turn it into a Federation – however, that didn’t seem to accomplish a whole lot other than giving away my war-making powers to the President of the week.
Domestic politics is something that needs work. In the example above, my subject nation was happy as clams (they might have been clam-descended people, in fact) despite their planet being rapidly usurped by humans, their culture suppressed, and being refused voting or leadership rights in my empire. The most difficult domestic problem I ever experienced was a fringe colony asking politely for independence (Must be the Canadians).
Ship combat is nothing special, really, and all automated. You have a ship designer to change your configurations and can tailor your fleet to meet what threat you are facing. Some defences after all work better against missiles than lasers. I never got that in depth and it was never clear to me what works best against what. Instead, I just put my fanciest toys in the ships and hit go. I was suprised that you were limited to equipping the ships (in the style of putting on different pieces of armour in an RPG game) and could not change the look of the ships themselves and work outside the pre-defined classes. Galactic Civilizations did that years ago, after all.
Finally, the big kick in the teeth. I understand the most recent Clarke patch worked to address it, but, I was Stellaris’d out by the time it dropped: Stellaris has a concept called ‘crises’ in that a threat of galactic reach enters with the ability to wipe out all players if they are not united against and struck out at. This could appear in the form of an AI rebellion in one empire that spreads to all the others, or extradimensional space monsters coming to eat everyone in the galaxy. In several games in a row, I was the only one even concerned as Empires were gobbled up, unwilling to react to the situation. I had to watch helplessly as space was swallowed up by the ‘Undine’, unable to send fleets to stop it before it became an unstoppable threat because the AI was unwilling, as discussed, to make any deals. They didn’t seem to be a workable mechanic in play to unite people against this universal threat. Apparently the AI fix was addressed by the Clarke patch, but because this bug was so game breaking, I’m hesitant to dive in too much and fruitlessly spend hours only to encounter it again – the same thing happened when I was playing on the Beta patch. The AI fought harder, but still didn’t get any help and got destroyed.
All in all, Stellaris is fun, and that’s what matters at the end of the day. I would argue that Europa Universalis IV and Hearts of Iron IV remain the company’s best games and are their ‘flagships’, however, Stellaris is a valiant effort. However, the diplomacy and handling of crises need to be addressed (and the most recent patch notes suggests Paradox is doing just that). The early game is fantastic, but it slows down and gets a bit stale later on since the AI doesn’t seem particularly threatening at any points.