By: Brian Gunn
Stellaris is the latest strategy game from Paradox Interactive, a name no doubt familiar to anyone interested in the genre. This time, however, they’ve forgone the usual historical time periods to gaze into the future. Do their talents and formula lend themselves well to sci-fi galaxy conquering, or should they have stayed earthbound?
Stellaris is a primarily mouse-based strategy game, even though it has a multitude of obscure hotkeys for every little action, and so it needs a strong interface in order to manage your empire. Thankfully, it largely succeeds on that front. It’s easy to get lost in these sorts of games, but all relevant info, such as all your various ships and their current tasks, is handily on screen at all times.
As your empire expands, though, things can get a little confusing. The general diplomacy screen is just not very well laid out once you’ve encountered a few other species, and I found myself engaging in diplomacy by interacting from the galaxy map instead. Similarly, it’s easy to forget what the individual planets are up to, though the game will provide a few reminders during dire moments.
Visuals in Stellaris are passable and generally serve their purpose. It’s a game where you’ll frequently be spending time on the macro scale so it makes sense to not be too detailed. That being said, there is some charm to be had, especially with the alien factions. While some are basic humanoids, there’s a variety of space sloths and fungoid races that are very well designed and fun to interact with.
Sound design is similarly basic. It feels like the same song is frequently what you’ll hear, the sort of theme that’s great but fairly similar to other star trekking works out there. There are some useful audio cues for when you encounter a hostile fleet, and the game’s tutorial helper is voiced, which helps to get oriented.
Stellaris tasks players to take on the role of leading a galactic empire during the space age. How you go about this and the race you pick are up to you. Some may prefer peace and diplomacy, while others war and slavery. Just picking your race has heavy consequences on the rest of that game.
In many ways Stellaris feels like it has more Civilization series blood in its veins than it does the likes of Crusader Kings. There are no complicated family members and political machinations are reduced. In fact you can spend a decent amount of time barely encountering any of the AI players.
Things start off small, using science ships as scouts and construction ships to build stations where resources were found, and then slowly creeping outward. Eventually you’ll run out of resources in your domain and will need to expand, as resources not within your borders cannot be claimed.
All the while there’s the typical scientific research going on. These can vary from improving parts of your ship to new ways to deal with the aliens you’ll encounter. One tiny annoyance with research is that your opportunities are randomized, which can be frustrating when you need something that will help with specific resources.
However, there are some neat tweaks as well. When you have a space battle against a mysterious alien race, you can research the debris left behind that can sometimes lead to unique technologies as well as bonus gains toward ones related to the defeated species.
Resource management is often the name of the game, mostly carefully balancing your expansionism to not overextend the energy you’ve got coming in. There’s also the typical currency to spend, this time called minerals, as well as influence.
Influence is needed to recruit important people like scientists and admirals, as well as for important tasks like setting up outposts or declaring edicts. These important people age and die eventually, so don’t be like me and be down to nearly zero when all your governors die of old age at the same time, which let a few revolts grow under my nose.
While the beginning of the game is quite fun, it does sort of slow down toward the middle when you’re gaining a decent amount of power but aren’t quite good enough to take everyone else out. Resources constrain expanding a bit too much, and it’s been acknowledged by the developers already as a problem, with recent patches to address it.
Furthermore, the AI can seem passive and easy at times, and frustratingly random at others. Diplomacy just isn’t as compelling right now compared to expansion and war.
The game does allow you a fairly large amount of customization, from the galaxy size to how many AI races start off in an advanced state. Instead of starting off as a predefined race you can create your own as well with the type of ethics you want, or even mod them in via the game’s default Steam Workshop support.
Stellaris is a fine strategy game; one that’s fairly friendly for beginners provided they start with the tutorial. It does have some mid-game snags, and diplomacy/AI behaviors need some work, but given the developer’s past history with patching in a good variety of fixes and free content, it’s something that will likely be addressed.