Stellaris is a grand strategy ‘4X’ space game developed by Paradox Interactive. It places you as the leader of a species just entering the greater galaxy and using warfare, diplomacy and empire management to chart their future.
I’m going to assume some familiarity with the genre as I will be discussing how this game does them in relation to others in the genre.
Stellaris is a mix of Paradox’s grand strategy games. It mixes the empire management of EU4 with the character interaction of CK2 and the warfare modelling of HOI3. In addition to your leader, one has scientists who research technology and explore systems, generals and admirals to command your forces, and governors to rule your planets.
Right off the bat, Stellaris looks, sounds and feels great. The game artwork is very impressive, and the score doesn’t get tiring even after many hours. The presence of spoken alerts rather than just sounds is unexpectedly welcome. The visuals in game are extremely strong, though you will need a good GFX card to take advantage of all the sights.
Planets, stars, ships and battles are all extremely beautiful to look at and the interface is pretty to look at (even if it’s not the most functional, see below).
Creating a new species is handled very well. Although there are prepared nations such as Earth most people will choose to make their own species. The variety of choices and options here are very extensive. You choose your government type, species traits, ethics and appearance. There are multiple name lists and many different appearances. This is all handled very well and gets a player deeply involved in creating their game.
Another thing Stellaris does well, and shows its Paradox roots, is the anomaly and quest system. As you explore the galaxy you find anomalies, or specific little quests your scientists uncover. These can give bonuses or uncover future quests. It’s all handled very nicely, even if they’re not absolutely essential for the game.
Next, the technology system is innovative and very useful. Although Stellaris has a tech tree, you can only research from a certain list each time. These ‘cards’ are based on previous technology, the scientist you have and your governing ethics. There are three categories of science; Physics (covering lasers, shields and AI), Society (covering colonisation, military and empire) and Engineering (covering ships and stations along with robots). Science is produced by building research stations in orbit over stellar bodies or by research facilities on planets. Since science is a vital part of getting ahead in the early and mid-game it’s important to balance this.
The game itself is stable, and although there are performance issues, it’s probably Paradox’s most stable release yet. CTDs are very rare, and whilst naturally there are bugs, few of them are game-breaking.
Finally, ship design is well handled through a design screen. There, one can build from the four models of ship (corvette, destroyer, cruiser and battleship) and apply the different weapons and equipment to them. This is all reasonably straightforward.
Using these ships in combat is entertaining, and there are clear counters to different designs.
Overall, the first 20-30 hours of the game are exceptional. The universe, aesthetics and design draw the player in and mean they are captivated by it. Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to has rated the first 10-15 hours as exceptional.
The first impressions of Stellaris are really strong. It looks, sounds and feels amazing, and looking at species creation a new player is going to feel there is a huge galaxy of opportunity open for them. However, beyond that point and even before, one starts to notice the downsides, and they are considerable.
Internal management and empire building is strangely shallow. Your planets are inhabited by ‘pops’ who occupy tiles, running the buildings there. These pops require food and grow over time, and planets and their buildings can also be updated as the population grows. Pops have their own ethics and these can conflict with the government’s, especially if you conquer other species.
This is fairly innovative, and yet is quite hollow beneath the shell. Pops have ethics, but there is little sense of them as actual populations. The growth of pops is necessarily fast because of the game, but when one can fill an Earth sized planet in 20 years the suspension of disbelief does grow. Further, there is little sense that one is running an actual empire; as almost all pops are engaged in resource extraction. In the end, the pops have the same individuality and personality as an Age of Empires villager.
The economy, vital to a grand strategy game, is also lacking. There are two major resources; minerals and energy credits. The former is primarily used to build things whilst the latter is mostly used to maintain things.
However, one soon hits a wall when one realises that energy credits do not represent true money, but actual energy (though the game can’t really decide about this point). Perhaps for the same reason that Starcraft has minerals and gas – aliens might not necessarily use currency – Stellaris uses minerals and energy. Energy credits are a very messy solution to the problem. At the one hand it is created like electricity by power plants, but on the other it’s used to clear tiles, pay soldiers and maintain ships. It’s a mess.
The result is a very shallow economy.
One can only directly administer a certain number of planets at once. Any number over this amount (starts at 5) decreases your efficiency and income. One is therefore forced to place planets in ‘sectors’, AI governed areas of your empire. The AI here is really quite poor, and giving a planet to an AI sector is only done once all buildings are constructed. Though you can set priorities for AI administration the results are at times uneven to say the least.
Next, trade and commerce are almost entirely lacking. There is no way to transport food between worlds, even in the same system, so farming worlds as a concept are useless since the food can only be used on that planet. Unlike in Victoria 2, the pops of your worlds have no taxation applied, there is no trade between your planets and so forth. Trade with other empires relies entirely upon trade agreements, most of which the AI cannot or will not use. Whilst the AI will happily spam you with useless offers they refuse anything useful you offer.
On the gameplay side the User Interface is quite poor, prone to long scrollbars, hidden information and multiple menus. For instance, there is no list of known colonisable planets, one must check each system with a habitable planet icon in order to determine the best target. Leader pictures are large and make any number of leaders a hassle to scroll through, especially since they are usually in alien names which are hard to remember. Although some things are clearly explained, others are not, so whilst there is a breakdown of your energy budget, there is no similar concept for your mineral income and upkeep.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock in the game though is the AI. AI programming is hard, I am completely aware of this. However, in games such as EU4 it is somewhat masked by the fact that there are large and small countries operating in vaguely historical ways. Stellaris though starts with all players pretty much the same. In this way the AI’s deficiencies are fully exposed. The AI is poor at research, does not use optimal strategies and ship design and just generally is not a match for a good player. In war the AI is usually inept in attack or defence, favouring death-charges or outright passivity to actual tactics. Further, the AI is poor at handling the economy, meaning they cannot keep pace with a human.
One can increase the AI difficulty which is basically a cheat mode giving the AI more income and ships. Even this merely increases numbers rather than making it more difficult.
Overall then, the game starts off well, but where Stellaris fails is the mid and late game. Once the systems are explored and the empires form their borders, the mid-game becomes somewhat dull. The AI usually cannot compete with the player, and so eventually the game turns into a series of wars either of conquest of vassalisation. Once the player gets battleships and high level weapons around year 40-70 the game rapidly becomes a cakewalk. By year 100 of the game only the end game crises and Fallen Empires (large, stagnant starting empires which don’t expand) are any challenge. This makes the game simply less interesting, whilst in EU4 the game runs for a set 380 years, most players stop before they reach Stellaris’ victory conditions.
If this posts a grim picture, then there is a good side to it. Stellaris is a great framework. As yet it lacks the fleshing out to make it great, but the basics are there. Through DLC and patches the game’s potential will come out and make it more interesting for longer.
However, as presented now, Stellaris loses its lustre quickly and becomes merely okay rather than the great it could have, and might still be.
Should you buy it now? I think so because it is entertaining, but perhaps waiting for a sale or some DLC might be better. It’s not an automatic pickup now except to fans of the genre.