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Stellaris PC Review

Death came to the galaxy as an unstoppable wave of machine consciousness. Our peaceful allies in the Twax’ldhar League were renowned for their kindness to other organic species – but hadn’t extended the same courtesy to their artificially intelligent robot ‘servants’, who were rapidly throwing off the shackles of enslavement and turning their masters into a fine red paste.

My own race of spacefaring mushroom people had, in fact, granted full citizenship rights to AI lifeforms decades before – but our new robot overlords announced over the comms channel that this wouldn’t be enough to save us. All organic life in the galaxy was marked for subjugation and eventual eradication. So it goes.

The galaxy map: it's all yours for the taking, if you're ruthless enough.

The galaxy map: it’s all yours for the taking, if you’re ruthless enough.

Stellaris is veteran developer Paradox Interactive’s long-awaited blend of their much-loved ‘grand strategy’ gameplay with the expandy, explorey pleasures of ‘4X’ titles like Master of Orion and Civilization – and while it might currently lack the polish and fine detail of their triumphant Crusader Kings II or Europa Universalis IV, the above anecdote shows that it’s well on its way.

Grand strategy is a fairly niche genre, and while Crusader Kings II enjoyed some crossover success, it’s still under the radar of most gamers. As the name suggests, in these games the strategy takes place on a huge scale: rather than simulating individual battles or campaigns, grand strategy games generally see you taking command of an entire nation, usually over a period of several hundred years.

In CKII, for example, you lead a medieval family dynasty through dozens of generations, seeing your holdings rise from humble county to towering empire (and often back down again) as the years (and heirs) roll by. EUIV, on the other hand, sees you controlling the abstracted ‘spirit of a nation’ in early modern Europe – tangling with the messy issues of nation-state diplomacy, colonialism and the dawn of international trade.

While it’s easily more accessible than either of those titles, if anything Stellaris has an even grander scale. You take command of an entire species – either pre-made or one of your own creation – which has just discovered interstellar spaceflight. You’re tasked with exploring the galaxy, starting with the nearest stars to your homeworld, but eventually expanding to the limits of accessible space.

Along the way, you’ll colonise planets, develop new technologies and encounter alien species – all of whom are attempting to carve out their own galactic stomping grounds. From there, war, diplomacy and fierce competition for resources take centre stage.

And that’s where the ‘4X’ angle comes in. Typified by the Civilisation series, 4X refers to ‘explore, expand, exploit, exterminate’. It’s a rather different style of gameplay to the typical grand strategy experience – typically turn based, for starters, whereas grand strategy (like Stellaris) opts for pausable, variable-speed real-time.

So, how does Stellaris fit the two together? Surprisingly well! In fact, it really does take the best features of each. More so than in most strategy games, Stellaris breaks down into distinct stages: there’s a clear beginning, middle and end to each campaign.

You start by creating your species. You choose a physical type – including mammalian, reptilian and even fungoid – and then a specific appearance. Far more interesting, though, are your choices of ethics and values.

These determine the types of government and policy available to you, your relations with other species, and the type of narrative event chains and special missions you’ll encounter throughout the game. For my first game, I chose to create a race of pacifist, xenophile mushroom people – obviously.

With your species created, it’s time to reach for the stars. The beginning has more of a 4X feel: alone in the universe, you tentatively probe nearby star systems for exploitable resources, potential colony sites and mysterious anomalies.

Scanning a mysterious asteroid for anomalies. Who knows what's inside!

Scanning a mysterious asteroid for anomalies. Who knows what’s inside!

It’s these anomalies that give the game much of its flavour: your science ships might discover a mysterious alien inscription, incredible geological formation, or even a whole new species. These discoveries set off fascinating, highly thematic event chains – often with meaningful choices to make, informed by the ethics you chose at the start. These are, without exception, brilliantly written – there’s an incredible sense of exploration and discovery, just the right touch of humour, and the feeling that you really are defining and developing the character of your species as you decide your course of action.

The gradual start makes the game more immediately accessible than other grand strategy titles. Start a game of CKII, and you’re immediately surrounded by threats and nefarious schemers – meaning you struggle to survive while simultaneously grappling with the notoriously overwhelming interface.

Stellaris, on the other hand, lets you learn the ropes at a more leisurely pace. To be fair, the UI is still fairly complex. Grand strategy veterans will pick it up pretty quickly, but new players may find it a little frustrating and unintuitive at first. To be fair to Paradox, they’ve got a great track record for improving this sort of thing through free updates – but for many, it’s likely to be a stumbling block.

As the game progresses, the focus shifts from discovery to the expansion and management of your fledgling empire. You’ll develop your colony planets with special buildings and units, encounter other galactic races and, of course, construct a fleet of scary warships, ably assisted by the game’s ship designer interface.

Unfortunately, it’s here – in the midgame – where things start to fall a little flat. By the time your empire’s a decent size, you never really struggle for resources, making their collection feel a little meaningless. The main incentive for expansion is to build research outposts and speed up your progress through the game’s increasingly advanced technologies – but compared to the early game, it can feel like a rather dry and mechanical process.

Once your borders are mostly established, interesting event chains and side-objectives are few and far between – and the game’s diplomatic options are, frankly, underdeveloped, lending sadly little character to the various colourful alien species you’ll encounter in your game. Right now, there’s none of the fantastic intrigue that emerges from CKII’s tangled web of family ties. War, though, is inevitable. Depending on your neighbours, you might have it thrust upon you – and after a while, there’s no other way to expand.

Large fleet battles are pleasingly chaotic – but further diplomatic options would be nice.

Large fleet battles are pleasingly chaotic – but further diplomatic options would be nice.

Winning in combat is generally a matter of having a bigger fleet – each of which receives a generalised ‘strength’ number – and while certain weapons perform better against certain armour types, in practice I didn’t really notice too much difference. The real skill in warfare comes in positioning your fleets in the right place at the right time to rout your enemies and cut off their retreat while capturing key positions. It’s decently strategic – but not too difficult if your forces are strong enough.

War also adds some currently much-needed action to the midgame. Even though I’d intended to role-play my avowedly pacifist mushroom people, I felt compelled to start a war with my next-door neighbour just to spice things up a little. I justified it by invoking their xenophobic ethics and tendency to insult our people – but as isolationists, they posed no real threat. All the same, they were conquered and eventually subsumed into my empire, making us terrible fungal hypocrites. With better midgame events and diplomatic options, it may not have felt so necessary – which was honestly rather disappointing.

Indeed, this lack of midgame content is already a widely acknowledged problem – not least by Paradox themselves. Game director Henrik Fåhraeus has claimed in a recent statement that they spent so long on the beginning and endgame events that the midgame fell by the wayside somewhat.

If nothing else, that’s refreshingly honest – and the good news is, Paradox have excellent form for supporting their games post-release. Their regular DLC expansions are invariably accompanied by major updates that are free to all users, improving the interface, integrating new mechanics and adding more flavourful events and options. Indeed, a series of free major updates have already been announced for Stellaris – and I have no doubt that Paradox can deliver. By the end of July, the game should already be looking quite different.

But I don’t want to talk Stellaris down. The midgame can drag a little, but it’s still incredibly compelling – and the ability to fast-forward time helps a lot. And it doesn’t completely lack flavour: I had particular fun observing, and eventually uplifting to the space age, a planet full of aliens with a medieval level of technology. More devious empires even have the chance to infiltrate the governments of these planets in a sinister sci-fi fashion – but my people’s xenophilic beliefs forbade it.

Alien species are colourful and varied – but tend to lack a little character after their initial introduction

Alien species are colourful and varied – but tend to lack a little character after their initial introduction

And whether the midgame drags or not, by the time the galaxy is completely colonised by the various interstellar empires, things are about to start getting interesting again. As mentioned, Paradox have given particular love to the endgame. Typical grand strategy games end abruptly at an arbitrary date – but after a few hundred years of in-game time in Stellaris, you’re hit by one or more dramatic ‘crises’ that threaten the galaxy’s stability. These are triggered by the research of one or more dangerous advanced technologies – or simply by random chance.

I’ve already mentioned how the empires of my galaxy fell to an all-conquering AI. Other fates include the reawakening of advanced alien empires intent on tearing the galaxy apart, or invasion from another galaxy entirely. These provide real sci-fi flavour, necessitate clever combat strategies and vast galactic alliances, and generally give the late game some much-needed urgency, purpose and direction.

And it all adds up to a frankly fantastic game. Yes, it has its bare patches, but it’s a great foundation to build on – and it’s already achieved so much. In a year or so, it’ll be a truly world-class game, but it’s still easy to recommend to any fan of grand strategy or 4X gameplay. If you’ve ever found yourself bleary-eyed at four AM after several hours of ‘just one more turn’, then you’ll no doubt be able to lose yourself here. There’s already a ton of variety, masses of sci-fi wonderment and widely varying play styles and species traits for genuine replayability.

If you’re new to the genre, then this is no doubt an excellent place to start – but there’s a clear argument that it might be better to wait until a few of the planned expansions and improvements have been released before taking the plunge.

Not for me, though. I sunk more than 24 hours of gameplay into my first week with Stellaris. An entire day! With more than 500 hours clocked on CKII, I’m clearly susceptible to this sort of thing – but the fact is, Paradox have done it again. Stellaris is already a deep, compelling and hugely atmospheric game of strategy on a galactic scale. It’ll only get better as time goes on – and I’m thrilled to see where it’ll go next.

8 out of 10