With the advent of faster than light travel, the void of space suddenly seemed to teem with life. Human, alien, synthetic, and organisms that defy classification found new homes in the cosmos. Players step in to lead an empire at the dawn of an exciting new era as creatures of all kinds reach for the stars. What awaits in the cold vacuum of space and the worlds orbiting foreign stars? Only those bold enough to go forth into the unknown can tell. Stellaris, though ultimately flawed in a number of ways, might just be the best 4X game of the last few years.
Breaking free of more traditional turn-based shackles, Stellaris presents players with a fluid real-time strategy system. Within that real-time framework, the title asks players to manage an every expanding empire. Players will need to choose their priorities and balance the need to develop planets and galactic infrastructure against building a deadly fleet to defend their people against the various threats that they will encounter in the galaxy. Now, as one might imagine, there is a fair amount of micromanaging that can become too much once an empire gets too big. Developer Paradox understood the need to simplify the micromanagement and implemented a sector system. Once an empire has hit a certain size, it can begin sectioning off portions of the empire into sectors, autonomous regions that manage themselves and send the player resources. While this significantly streamlines play, especially during the late game, the overall pace of Stellaris seems a bit off. It can occasionally turn between everything happening very quickly to long stretches of waiting. Paradox does provide game speed options, but even on the fastest setting common activities like ship building or research seem to take long periods of time to finish.
Players choose from a handful of pre-made spacefaring races or create their own, customizing everything from their people’s philosophy and system of government to their genetic dispositions. From there, every game presents its own challenges. Each galaxy that a player loads into is randomized with different races and events. This element of unpredictability leads to a kind of emergent history for the various fictional factions that make up each galaxy. For example, in one of my campaigns I created a race of snout-toting mammals called the Sneeb, religious zealots in a military dictatorship that lived to be over 200 years old. Early on in the game, my defensive space fleet was caught out by a neighboring empire and destroyed, leaving me at the mercy of their armada. My enemies then bombarded my planet from orbit for almost a century. However, they lacked the armies to successfully invade on foot and my people live for so long that the population being bombarded simply waited for the enemy government officials to die of old age and end the war.
Random events can also be encountered in the vastness of space. Derelict space stations, large-scale space animals, paradise worlds, planet-destroying asteroids, and more can be found. I’ve discovered deserted ring worlds, abandoned ships that made my scientists go insane, and ceramic objects that have puzzled my philosophers and researchers for decades. All of these things have consequences, whether beneficial or disastrous. As far as I can tell, every game also has some kind of randomized end-game crisis that can conquer the galaxy if left unchecked. I encountered three crises during my time with Stellaris: The Prethoryn Scourge, a race of hostile creatures from beyond the reaches of the galaxy; extra dimensional entities that invade through a dimensional rift; and the ever-present threat of AI research leading to unshackled sentience and the rise of a robotic revolution against organics. If unmanaged, all of these can prove devastating to the entire galaxy.
The diplomacy system creates decent interaction with AI players. Each political system and racial outlook grants different bonuses that make every faction’s reaction to other cultures different. The way you improve standing with other societies is by establishing embassies, having common rivals or enemies, trade, and by projecting military might. However, these interactions can sometimes be handicapped by an empire's natural inclination, that often can't be overcome by negotiation and leads to some frustration. Empires can ally with one another and, if enough empires are in alliance, form a federation. On the more aggressive side of negotiation, often it isn’t beneficial to outright conquer another empire when at war. Instead, Stellaris gives players the option to vassalize their enemies. This essentially forces them to be your ally and allows players to slowly integrate that empire into their own without the negative consequences like rebellion or sabotage.
While Stellaris might not represent the pinnacle of RTS visuals, it proves to be more than adequate on the eyes. The models for the various races are nicely detailed and move with a life-like energy. Zooming in close to view stars and planets presents pleasing and unique worlds and vistas floating in space. The ship models are also well made, if a little lacking in differentiation. It is hard to tell the difference between most ships and weapons beyond the particle effects being used and the size of the vessel.
This brings us to perhaps the most lackluster part of Stellaris: Combat. Engagements are automatic when fleets of warships enter firing range. Each fleet has a number indicating its combat strength and 99% of the time the fleet with the bigger overall number wins. This leads to players stacking up “fleets of doom” with all military strength in one massive death ball rolling through the cosmos. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it isn’t as interesting as the tactics players can use in games like Sins of a Solar Empire or StarCraft. Perhaps those who have entered high levels of RTS play can more effectively split fleets, but the game’s AI encourages this behavior, too. Even though the AI will break into different fleet sizes, any AI allies a player has will just send all their fleets to follow the player’s largest fleet. This actually causes some degree of lag, even on beefy computers because so many ships can be flying around in a bajillion different fleets. Beyond that, the AI just generally makes poor tactical decisions and often seems to become inactive outside of sending their fleets to follow the ever growing death ball.
Remember those potentially game-ending crises I mentioned earlier? The AI does almost nothing in response to those. It can be frustrating when an extra dimensional invasion starts on the other side of the galaxy because about fifteen empires can stand between you and the rift and none of them will lift a finger to close it, even as their civilizations crumble into ruin. Pray that you or a neighboring empire is the one to begin the robotic revolution or you will have almost no chance of stopping it when it hits full swing and has enslaved half the galaxy before you can reach it. This seems like such an oversight that I have a hard time believing it wasn’t caught during QA testing. If I had to guess, end-game crises were an idea that entered late in development and Paradox didn’t have time to fully iron out the kinks before shipping it. I’m hoping for an extensive AI patch in the coming months that addresses AI inaction in the face of certain death, but it is a shame Stellaris didn’t ship with that functionality in the first place.
If the AI proves to be a huge turn off, I’d recommend grabbing a couple friends who will stick with Stellaris for the long-haul and playing online. Having allies (or enemies, if your friends are particularly competitive/prone to backstabbery) that can react to situations in a human way really does add to the experience significantly. The only hurdle is time. Even at the fastest game speed, a full campaign might take 24-30 hours on a small sized map.
All the randomized elements Stellaris brings to every galaxy it generates really absorbed me. Much like when I play Civilization and lose hours of my life being engaged in strategic decision-making, I found myself captivated by the emergent narratives of my alien empires in Stellaris. This review has only scratched the surface of the sense of discovery Stellaris holds for those with imagination. Primitive alien worlds can be observed, researched, guided, genetically altered, and uplifted to be allies in some unforeseen galactic war. Ancient ships might be discovered that might possibly be resurrected as weapons capable of setting an atmosphere ablaze. Sure, the pace might be slower than ideal at times and the AI might not be up to all of the tasks asked of it, but I had an undeniably great time exploring the stars and conquering my enemies through war, diplomacy, and manipulation. Despite lacking a story-driven campaign, Paradox included all the tools necessary to forge unique stories with every playthrough and I’m hoping Stellaris goes on to influence more games, directing them in how to create an effective emergent narrative on a grand scale.
Stellaris was reviewed on PC and is now available