Stellaris Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Paradox Interactive
Developer:Paradox Interactive
Release Date:2016-05-09
Genre:
  • Role-Playing,Strategy
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Introduction

I already covered this in my first impressions article a couple of weeks ago, but Stellaris is Paradox Development Studio's first non-historical title, and it's instead a grand strategy game that is set in the vast frontier of space. It's also supposedly their most accessible title to date, though it's still an overwhelming title in its own right for a beginner.

I was wrong on many counts. Stellaris' systems are overexplained and yet not explained very well, in my defense, but I still outright overvalued resources such as influence and ignored some interesting tactics. That said, after spending many more hours with the game, my gripes still remain. And even the developers know that and have already announced patches that will change the games based on player feedback.

As a result, I'm stuck in a position where I'm giving an opinion on a game as it is now, knowing very well that this review might feel very dated in a few months. This is still a review, then, but I will also make an effort to note where I think the developers are going in the right direction with their recent outlined changes and where I think they're missing the mark.

As a note, I will generally avoid repeating gameplay explanations I've already offered in my first impressions article, unless I feel the need to correct a previous statement.

Beginnings of an Empire

While an important part of Paradox's games is dealing with other empires and political allies and enemies in the world, Stellaris starts with your empire (which can be customized as much or as little as you want) alone in space, right after having discovered FTL technology. It's worth mentioning that there are only two victory conditions to Stellaris. You're expected to either crush all the other independent empires or colonize 40% of the habitable planets in the galaxy. However, because when you start you have yet to make contact with other empires, and because you'll need resources to build a good fleet, the obvious early game strategy is to build mining and research stations around asteroids and planets and colonize as much as possible.

Gameplay in Stellaris moves in real time, with a number of different options for speed that can be changed on the fly, so the early game can be over relatively fast. This is a good thing, because, especially on repeated playthroughs, it can occasionally feel light on decisions. Aside from setting up stations and colonizing planets, at this point in the game the player will also be managing those colonized planets, building up a fleet to manage the occasional threat coming from aliens and automated ships across the galaxy, and researching new technologies for your empire.

Planet management clearly received a great deal of attention and care from the developers. Each planet is divided in a number of tiles, some of which spontaneously generate resources such as minerals or energy credits, and it's possible to create new buildings on top of them to obtain even more resources or other benefits such as an increased empire-wide cap on the resource. To extract those resources, however, it will be necessary to assign a pop to any of these tiles.

Pops grow naturally in any planet and represent a specific part of the population of the empire. They cover a single species and initially follow the ethics of that species very closely, but they can eventually diverge from that. The happiness of a pop determines its efficiency, and factors such as planet-wide famines, divergencies in ethics between the pop and the empire's policies, and even the planet's own habitality conditions will influence the pop's happiness.

It's a rather involved system that rarely feels difficult to negotiate with, especially because the game is set up so that you will almost never have to directly manage more than a few planets. There's a cap on how many planets can be directly controlled, and the game inflicts heavy penalties on an empire that goes beyond them.


There's a secondary but very important reason that makes colonizing planets crucial to the expansion of your empire. When I first played Stellaris, I was under the impression that frontier outposts would be crucial to the title's gameplay loop. These are stations that allow you to claim a system under your borders, but at the cost of significant upkeep in terms of influence. The other way to expand your borders, though, and arguably the recommended one, is to colonize a planet inside it.

The early game is also the densest part of the game in terms of chain of events at the moment. These are special "quests" of sorts that start with a little text box on the screen informing you on some special circumstances, such as the discovery of the ruins of a precursor race on another planet, and add special new objectives to vary up the flow of gameplay. These chains of events can take a long time to conclude (some can last an entire playthrough) and add a nice bit of flavor to the game.

The Middle of a Playthrough

I find the early game of Stellaris enjoyable if slightly uninvolved. It offers a well-paced, wide-eyed introduction that sets the tone for its game of surprisingly optimistic galactic expansion very well. But once the game starts introducing more and more empires, the pacing gets completely lost, and I would be more than willing to forgive a player for not wanting to slog through it.

On first glance, there is nothing particularly wrong with how Stellaris expands on its systems. For example, once you hit the cap on how many planets you can directly control, the game will nudge you in the direction of sectors. Sectors can be created to put a part of your empire under the control of the AI, which will micromanage your planets for you. It's a flawed system, partly because the AI isn't great and partly because it doesn't govern any of the spaceports in the sector, meaning the player will still have to access them manually to build new ships in that sector.

By this point, the game also introduces twists on other systems, such as strategic resources. These can be obtained much in the same manner as other resources and allow, for example, the creation of far more powerful buildings on a planet. A betharian power plant, which requires a particularly rare mineral, will be able to produce far more energy credits than a normal power plant, for example. The tutorials stress the importance of these resources, though my experience with them leads me to believe they are overrated by the development team.

Of course, the major twist on gameplay that happens by the time you reach mid-game is the introduction of other empires in the mix. Each independent empire has its own species, planets, fleets and needs, and can be interacted with diplomatically or, if need be, fought. The game's diplomacy system does its job, in this sense, but I complained before that empires are simply too stingy. Even seemingly reasonable demands, such as the access to an empire's borders for civilian ships, can be met with incredible disdain from empires who you'd otherwise enjoy good relationships with.

Galaxies also get crowded very quickly in mid-game. My first intention with Stellaris was to make a pacifist empire and succeed through the strength of my wits and perhaps a little bit of diplomacy. I even selected the pacifist trait, which gives maluses when in war, to better role-play that scenario. But it was not to be. Granted, I should say that it's not impossible to win a game as a total pacifist. The planet colonization victory condition counts planets owned by vassalized empires too, and it's possible to request vassalization of an empire in the diplomacy window. In my experience, though, it was far easier to declare war on other empires when convenient, even when controlling a pacifist one.

Events also seemingly dried up during mid-game. Very rarely did I encounter an interesting story and, on the contrary, because the empires keep their borders closed by default, it took me a long time to complete chains of events that had started early in the game. I'm not sure whether this was an intentional design decision. It's possible the developers intended to use the early events as a guiding hand for the player and an early resource boost, and it's possible the closed borders were introduced as part of a diplomatic challenge for the players. It doesn't really work well in terms of pacing and flow, however. In fact, one of Paradox's upcoming patches will make other empire's borders open by default, which is a decision I personally welcome with open arms.


Finally, there are fleet battles and wars to talk about. The war system isn't particularly complex. When declaring war to another empire you get the chance to select from a series of possible demands, the sum total of which more or less determines the warscore needed to obtain your goals. At the end of every battle a score is assigned depending on whether it was lost or won and what kind of battle it was, and the total sum of these scores is the warscore. At any given time it's possible to negotiate for peace or even offer for a white peace that would conclude the war with a tie. I've heard a few grumblings about the system, but personally I think it works out more or less as intended and I don't think the game needs anything more complex. Paradox is apparently now tinkering with its specifics, and I'm not sure all their changes are for the best. I very much enjoyed being able to vassalize bigger empires in a single swiping war.

Fleet combat feeds right into wars, however, and it's not quite in a good shape at the moment. I have no qualms with the basic design of fleet combat. It's a rather simple system that essentially compares numbers and is very well-presented on screen in terms of spectacle. The lack of tactical choices isn't necessarily a big problem, but the strategic side hovers between mindless and excessively micromanagement-heavy. I'll explain why. The basic designs of the game's ships are set by default so that they'll automatically be upgraded, but any custom, highly specific design crafted by the player will have to be updated manually. There is no way to automate a design to follow a set path of progression or anything like that, which made me eventually give up on the ship designer completely.

That is a pity, by the way, because there are actually some interesting strategic considerations to be made, and the fleet combat could theoretically be more involved than it is. At the moment, however, I only feel compelled to invest most of my efforts into making one big fleet that comprises automatically upgraded versions of the game's basic designs.

End of a Review... Well Not Quite

In truth, there isn't much more that changes between Stellaris' mid-game and its final phases. At this point, the game runs out of twists on its formula and only relies on handcrafted content for its last hurrah. In one of my games, I was invaded by a large number of aliens armed with organic ships with whom it was impossible to communicate. While the event initially threw me completely off my balance, the aliens eventually stopped expanding, and I could resume playing exactly as I had so far.

After that, it was simply a matter of having to carefully select which empires to target to finally get as many planets as I needed to. It's also worth mentioning that it's possible to play Stellaris after having won a game and, theoretically, expand the empire even further. Personally I find the length of a single playthrough, even with a small galaxy, more than enough on its own, but it's a good option to have for those who still want to experiment with strategies and see what kind of technologies and options they might have been missing.

More Grievances and Assorted Praise

I have other nitpicks for Stellaris that didn't fit neatly in my description of the various phases of the game. Thinking about them, though, I think they stem from the same fundamental issue. While the game doesn't feel unpolished or buggy, it doesn't feel like it has received enough iteration in the design and tuning departments by the time it was released. While I understand why that happened, I also would argue that part of the reason is that the game is simply too system-heavy.

Now, I understand that this might sound like something of a controversial complaint for fans of Paradox grand strategy games, so let me explain it in more depth. I am well aware of the fact that Paradox's titles need a good wealth of micro to major systems to work as they do. They're games that revel in micromanagement and use their own systems to try and fully simulate and depict a certain type of experience. The games can achieve this simulation through many means, though, and the designers already make choices as to what to depict via a full-fledged system versus handcrafted content.

As Stellaris stands, I don't think there's enough meat to some of the systems to make them worth exploring. The faction system, for example, is woefully underused. Similarly, there's a huge imbalance at the moment in the leadership system. Most of the leader types don't provide vital bonuses, except for scientists, who feel crucial to the well-being of an empire. Perhaps the time that was spent  developing the minutiae of these systems or similar ones, could instead have been invested into more handcrafted chain of events meant to depict situations similar to what these systems intend to simulate.


In other words, while I don't want to pinpoint specific areas of the game that should have been changed or propose solutions, I feel like the game would have been stronger if it had focused more on its writing. Stellaris was always going to be an evolving game, anyway, much like Paradox's other products, so these systems could have always been introduced or improved through patches or DLC. Either way, it's clear now that the developers intend to extend parts of the game such as the sector and faction system, as stated in one of their recent developer diaries. I obviously have no access to the game as it will be in a few months, but my hope is that, by then, readers who will stumble on this review for the first time will be confused by my criticism of these systems because they will be much improved by then.

I do also hope that, in a few months, Paradox will have introduced better scaling options for its UI. While it's clear that they're focusing on improving it (see this link for more information), the tiny fonts strained my eyes so much that I don't feel particularly tempted to get back into the game any time soon, with or without any massive patch.

Finally, I want to spend some time to praise Stellaris' writing again. I already did so profusely in my first impressions article, but I was really impressed by what Paradox has done here. Yes, we're talking about a strategy game rather than a narrative-focused RPG, much less a literary work, but there's a nice mix of humor, wide-eyed wonder and creativity that just hit the right spot for me. The game throws new concepts to the player throughout an entire playthrough, and even the throwaway lines are written with gusto. I just wish it was easier for me to read them.

Conclusions

Ultimately, Stellaris as it is now feels like a game that didn't receive the iteration time it needed to fully capitalize on its potential. At the moment it's fun, yes, but also annoyingly both slower and more constrained than it needs to be. I wouldn't recommend Stellaris at this stage, but it will be interesting to see if the upcoming patches and the inevitable downloadable content will eventually make it the game I feel it could be but isn't yet.

And even if they won't, I suppose I might boot it once in a while just to listen to its unequivocally stellar soundtrack.