Released almost two years ago, Stellaris introduced the world to a fantastic game that combined elements of turn-based strategy, real-time strategy, and role-playing in a unique, engaging experience. Paradox Interactive has stuck with their title throughout the years, releasing additional expansions and updates to the core game. The update that released alongside the most recent expansion, Apocalypse, completely changed the way the game is played, warranting a second look.
At release, Stellaris offered three distinct modes of space traversal. Players could travel by warping to nearby systems within a certain radius of their fleets, by building wormhole generators and slipping into systems within the range of the wormholes, or via static hyperlanes between the stars. The latest updates removes all methods of travel except for hyperlanes.
The decision to do this seems to have been made to enable choke points and improving the usefulness of defensive structures. Before the update, fleets could simply bypass systems with heavy defenses with relative ease. Now there are structures that can be built to hinder an enemy's progress through your space. A fortress on an inhabited world will prevent an enemy from leaving the system until they conquer the planet. This gives players precious time to move their fleets into position for a counterattack.
Invading worlds works differently, too. The old way gave each planet a static fortification bonus. Once that number reached zero as a result of orbital bombardment, an invading army could very easily come in with a handful of soldiers to steamroll the defenders. The update gave defenders more of a fighting chance. Now orbital bombardment causes damage to the defending armies, which scale automatically with the population of their world (and more armies can be used to reinforce their numbers), but it doesn't diminish their effectiveness. That means you'll have to have a more powerful army and should expect to take losses if you don't have the time to bomb every single defender into dust when invading a planet.
As for the meat of Stellaris' combat, the clashing of space navies, players will now run into limits on how big a single fleet can become. This sidesteps the problem in the original version that had players massing all of their fleets into one giant death ball to roll through enemy territory and the player with the bigger death ball won the day. The update breaks that death ball into several smaller balls adding to the strategic depth and satisfaction of pulling off a successful maneuver against an enemy.
As a backdrop to all of this, the way empires expand might be the single biggest change to Stellaris. The old "sphere of influence" system has been ditched as many players complained it was too ambiguous and confusing. Instead, players expand their territory by building space stations in the systems they wish to claim. That station controls the system and whoever owns the station controls the system. Once an empire becomes large enough to be bordering a rival, players can go to war to claim systems from enemy territory.
This massive change to the way territory works also adds to the strategies of space warfare and is bolstered by the splitting up of fleets. Players are encouraged by the various in-game systems to have multiple fleets engaging with the enemy. Perhaps one fleet spearheads the invasion of an enemy, traveling through territory as fast as possible to conquer as much as possible while another fleet is tasked with engaging the enemy fleets and another sits with the land armies, bombarding defenders in an attempt to successfully pull off a ground assault. This rework invigorated what had previously been one of the blander parts of Stellaris.
Up until this point, all of these changes have been to the base Stellaris game. The Apocalypse expansion brings even more to the table.
Planetary destruction stands as the main selling point of Apocalypse. As a game progresses, players will have the opportunity to undertake large research projects and construction efforts that culminate in a weapon capable of devastating entire worlds. These super weapons have no combat power on their own, but they can do quite a bit. Players can obliterate planets to bypass a lengthy invasion or test it on uninhabited worlds to access additional resources. These weapons present the opportunity for a variety of role-playing and tactical advantages. Players can use them to crack open worlds for mining, create an impenetrable, permanent shield around a world to study the inhabitants for science, wipe the minds of the population, cleanse a world of sapient life with a neutron sweep, or even instantaneously turn the creatures on the surface into cyborgs and connect them to the mechanical consciousness of your empire.
A new non-player faction has been added to the game, too. Called Marauders, these factions go on raids against the various denizens of the galaxy with powerful fleets that dominate the early and mid-game. Players can pay off raids, redirect them toward other empires, hire mercenary admirals to lead their own fleets, or even hire entire an entire armada to fight under their direct command.
One of the coolest aspects of the marauding factions is that there's a chance for them to become an empire in the mid-game. Paradox compared them to the tribes that united under the leadership of Genghis Khan. If such an empire forms under the leadership of a Ghengis Khan-like figure, players might have to either submit to their rule for a time or fight a mighty foe. A series of other special events populate the rule of these space warriors that all add color to the mid-game, which some players found to be a bit slow in the base Stellaris game.
Empires can now also build titan-class capital ships, a new size category of vessel that had previously been restricted to powerful non-player factions known as Fallen Empires. These ships can bestow helpful auras on nearby fleets, impose penalties on enemy fleets, and possess weapons capable of destroying entire battleships in a single shot. They represent the apex of what a player can bring to bear in battle - and they feel like it.
To compliment the new system where players expand their control of systems via building star bases, Paradox has included a shiny, new option in their expansion. Players are able to upgrade these into ever larger and more easily defended bastions, a feature that replaces the space fortifications previously in the base game. Apocalypse, however, opens up the possibility of building a Citadel, a colossal space station that can house powerful cannons and assist in stopping enemy fleets in their tracks.
The new upgrade to the base game of Stellaris certainly diminishes some of the role-playing aspects inherent to it's pre-2.0 patch days, but the game overall gains a better sense of tactical weight. Building star bases everywhere to expand your borders might sound tedious on paper, but in practice it means you can focus your empire's growth in certain directions to block other empires and obtain critical resources or worlds in a sensible way. The changes to navy sizes mean that players can now break apart their powerful fleets to pursue different objectives without risking a crushing defeat. All of these feel like incredibly welcome changes to an already solid 4X strategy title.
On top of that, Apocalypse stands out as a must for players who are looking to get the most out of the game. While it doesn't hold much content for the early game, players who stick through to the mid and late game will find a wealth of new options at their fingertips. New ships, colossal space weapons, towering fortresses, interesting technologies, new diplomatic opportunities - Apocalypse stands as an answer to a long list of fan requests that have been collected over the past two years.
Stellaris: Apocalypse is available now on PC.