Wot I Think: Stellaris

Stellaris [official site] is one of the most eagerly awaited strategy games in years. Known for their historical grand strategy games, Paradox Development Studio have turned their attention to the stars, with a game that attempts to create a sense of sci-fi mastery through its randomisation of everything from the galactic map to the traits and behaviours of individual species. But in marrying traditional 4X systems to the complexities of their previous offerings, have Paradox found a fine balance or a series of compromises. Here’s wot I think.

Stellaris is a true hybrid. Throughout its design, the threads of 4X games are stitched through the tapestry of Paradox’s patented grand strategy style. In that, it’s a success, intelligently recognising which elements make for happy shipmates and jettisoning the rest into the void, or reconfiguring them to find a happy middle-ground. It’s the company’s most elegant and accessible strategy game, with an interface that while not far removed from the likes of Crusader Kings II or Europa Universalis IV, has undergone a nip and tuck to hide unnecessary complications and direct the eye (and the mouse pointer) toward what is essential at any given time.

It’s tempting to assume that if you’re interested in Stellaris, you already know what to expect from a 4X game, and how that might differ from a grand strategy game. Perhaps you’ve been brought here by the lure of dynamic science fiction stories rather than taxes and trade though, and if that’s the case here’s a quick primer on what Stellaris seeks to achieve, and for those in the know, I’ll begin to explain how well it all works.

4X games take their name from the central activities that make up playtime: eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting, and eXterminate. From tiny beginnings, your chosen nation/faction/race explores the world, starting with their immediate surroundings, builds new settlements to expand, exploits the resources that they find and the relationships that they nurture, and exterminates anyone who gets in the way. The balance between the four Xs depends on your playstyle and the particular situations you find yourself in, but the general shape of such games tends to involve uncovering the map from behind a fog of war, and then painting it red/blue/green/yellow/fuchsia.

Stellaris follows that formula but upsets the march toward domination with several tricks borrowed from the less predictable and linear shape of Paradox’s grand strategy games. You begin with a single planet, your species’ home world, and most other players are in the same position. Faster-than-light travel is a new discovery and you’re likely to spend the first stages of the game exploring your own system, searching for exploitable resources on nearby planets and moons as you prepare to head out into the galaxy.

Even before the game proper begins, your choice of FTL technology determines how you’ll explore. You can choose between three possibilities – hyperlanes, warp or wormholes – and each fundamentally changes the way your experience plays out, from beginning to end. A game played with hyperdrive tech can see you bottled into a corner, with dead-ends and angry amoebas all around, while working with warp or wormholes is initially liberating but has its own drawbacks.

Whatever your FTL choice, science ships will undertake most of your early exploration. They’re a combination of scout and research vessel, able to survey new systems to tag resources while also discovering anomalies to investigate. Those anomalies and other discoveries mark one of the larger most obvious interruptions to the traditional shape of a 4X game.

Some are little more than the interstellar equivalent of Civ’s goody huts, providing a boost to resources or research values, but even those lesser events are elevated by the quality of the text that introduces them. One of Stellaris’ great strengths – strange to say for a strategy game – is in the writing. From the humour of the diplomatic messages that encapsulate ethical stances in tidily composed sentences to the longer event chains, and the mysteries and wonder they contain, Stellaris does flavour text so well that it becomes plot.

It’s the best-written strategy game since Alpha Centauri, drawing in ideas from almost every strand of science fiction and giving them space to add colour and interest to the galaxy. While the simplest discoveries play out like goody huts, the more complex event chains are almost reminiscent of Sunless Sea’s stories, with various avenues of possibility, and outcomes that are restricted by and later inform the character of your empire and founder species. It’s in these that the game finds the sweet spot between its strategic systems and its urge to tell every sci-fi story under/in/around every sun.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the late-game crises. These are not so much ‘event chains’ as ‘event bombs’, blowing the game wide open by introducing new dangers and tearing empires apart. They’re triggered by the activities of players, both AI and human, with an element of randomisation to determine if and when they begin. Certain elements must be in play before the genesis event for a particular crisis begins and even then, they can be defused. Strategy games may be built on a foundation of numbers but one of Stellaris’ great strengths – not unexpected given its pedigree – is to elevate words to almost equal importance.

Let’s talk numbers though. The purpose of the crises and other event chains, including the pre-sentient and pre-FTL species that can be discovered across the galaxy, is to add wrinkles to the natural progression of a 4X game. The same is true of Fallen Empires, which are bloated, powerful but stagnant AI entities, each with their own personality type. All of these things interrupt the march toward victory, either by placing speedbumps in the road or – far more intriguing – providing alternate routes. Rather than navigating a path that leads toward victory, avoiding obstacles and taking advantage of speed boosts, you’re exploring possibilities. Sure, you can ruthlessly exploit and exterminate in a way that isn’t always feasible or satisfying in CK II or EU IV, but even though there are victory conditions to achieve, the game encourages you to take the scenic route. There is almost as much value here for sightseers as for those wishing to soldier toward dominance.

Despite all of the plotting and the diverse range of species you’ll encounter, Stellaris is relatively transparent when it comes to the numbers. There are three basic resources, two of which are mined from the map and one that stems from your status and control of your population. The physical resources – energy and minerals – are, respectively, a form of galactic currency and the war material from which ships and planetary improvements are constructed. In simple terms, minerals help to build the foundations of empire and energy ensures that the lights don’t go out.

Both of these resources can be detected on planets and in stars through use of survey ships. Ideally, you’ll want to build a mine to suck up every item within your empire’s borders and the galactic map does a splendid job of highlighting precisely what is available in every system, and whether a construction ship has already built the necessary facility to take advantage of the bounty. Until matters become complicated by conflict later in the game, the shiny green numbers next to your mineral and energy stashes should be ticking upwards at a steady rate.

You won’t have to worry about inflation or exchange rates or the cost of shipping minerals from the homeworld to a distant outpost. If the numbers are going up, you can spend the resources as they arrive and not worry too much about where the next batch are coming from. As a game of resource management and exploitation, Stellaris is extremely easy to come to grips with, and even when new tech unlocks rewarding strategic resources to capture, capturing and utilising them is a simple case of controlling the correct system and building a facility to extract them.

This feels like the right choice for a game that is more interested in the complexities that arise within an empire than the basic infrastructure of that empire. From the very beginning of a game, whether you decide to craft a species and government or play with a random creation, Stellaris places you in a very specific role. You’ll be assigned, or select, a handful of traits – both negative and positive – that define your species. There are only a few negative traits at present, which prevented me from trying to take a pile of idiotic jellies into space, and ethics aren’t classified as either positive or negative. They simply permit/forbid certain behaviours. Are you a xenophobic democrat terrified of every shadow you see in space or the ruler of a pacifist race of religious fanatics? Would you prefer to build a galactic federation of peacekeepers or an ugly alliance of convenience, ready to shatter as soon as the knives grow long enough?

Every choice comes with certain restrictions. Certain ethical codes will prevent you from enslaving members of your own race, which can speed production while reducing happiness, while others will prevent you from making certain decisions during event chains. Everything from the migration of people within the galaxy to the level of orbital bombardment that can be used to soften up defenses prior to a planetary invasion is determined by the outlook of your species. In that sense, Stellaris forces you to roleplay, creating boundaries that cannot be crossed, and the people who get the most out of the game will be those who take that roleplaying ball and run with it.

Because the characters who take up positions within your empire aren’t as numerous or as convincingly fleshed-out as those in Crusader Kings II, Stellaris has much less scope for the kind of interpersonal stories that make that game such a delight. A scientist exploring the fringes of the universe, and the fringes of knowledge, might gain new traits as a result of her experiences, but she won’t have a family to care about back at home. Leaders provide bonuses based on their own traits and different government types have different rules for when the top job changes hands, but the only personality on show is for a species as a whole rather than for the individuals within that species.

From a diplomatic perspective, that makes the game much tidier. You’re dealing with a type of negotiator rather than one person bringing their own motivations to the table, interlaced with the needs and fears of an empire. This is a trend that runs through the whole game – it’s neat, legible and compact. Sure, it’s “grand strategy on a galactic scale” just like the tagline says, but Stellaris is a game that shows its hand at all times. There are surprises, both pleasant and perilous, but it’s possible to keep track of and account for every element in play at any one time. Compared to the rich complexities of its Paradox predecessors, that may make Stellaris seem either disappointingly anaemic or exquisitely lean depending on what you want from the game. While there are certainly areas that I find a little too thin, I find the overall structure an almost perfect fit.

In terms of the game’s systemic integrity, the clarity of statistics and interactions means that everything is on show. Want to know why those molluscoid militants won’t agree to peace? The game can break it down for you in a way that is almost immediately comprehensible, and you’ll be able to figure out what steps need to be taken to change the situation. Noticed a sudden shortfall in your energy output? Hover over the resource bar at the top of the screen and a tooltip will explain all (you’ve almost certainly got too many ships in fleets that aren’t locked in expense-saving orbit).

Combat is the one area where the game stumbles slightly in this regard. Every individual ship has its components and size translated into a single number, conveying military strength. A fleet has an overall strength derived from the sum of its parts. However, there are complexities behind that number that might cause an apparently superior fleet to come a cropper.

First of all, you’re going to lose some military strength every time the enemy destroys one of your ships. That means a single ship with a military strength of 1k has an advantage against twenty ships with a combined strength of 1.2k – that second fleet will become increasingly feeble as the battle progresses, whereas the 1k ship effectively operates at 100% efficiency until it falls to pieces. Further to that, the military strength doesn’t take into account components that might have been put in place to counter a specific threat. Weaponry divides into three basic types – lasers, projectiles and missiles – and certain defenses work better against certain offense. The military strength of a fleet gives a rough estimate of how they’d cope in an even battle, but battles aren’t always even. And because conflicts actually play out on the map – and look rather handsome as they do so – there’s at least a small element of simulation. Slow moving ships will struggle to close the distance which could be a problem if they don’t have long-range weaponry.

All of which is to say, relying on the military strength reading and the “auto-best” option for ship construction and upgrades can lead to disaster. Adjustments are easy to make on the ship design screen – and the ability to simply click a button to automate the process of returning to the nearest spaceport and upgrading is a godsend – but I’ve spent a great deal of time building fleets and often feel that their success comes down to the luck of the draw somewhat. If I don’t have the right tech to punch through an enemy’s shields quickly, military conquest becomes much more expensive and time-consuming.

Tech doesn’t entirely come down to the luck of the draw though. Research is the other area of the game, alongside combat, that threatens to muddy the waters of clarity. Conducted in three areas, tech research provides new options whenever current work in each area has been completed. The new options are randomised, though with weighting to provide a greater portion of ‘cheap’ tech, lower down the ‘tree’. Occasionally you’ll see a rare piece of tech or a costly invention that feels like it should come much later in the game.

Usually, there are three choices but you can open up more slots, either by performing research on the actual map – picking through debris or pieces of dead aliens to discover components and biological info – or by discovering technologies that provide extra slots. At first, the whole system feels like drawing from a trick deck of cards, rolling with whatever might emerge and hoping for the best. However, you can trick the deck even further by switching around the scientists in each department.

Intuitively, you’ll stick scientists who can boost a particular branch of research to work where they’re most obviously useful. But consider swapping the xeno expert in your biology labs for someone with a passion for military tech and you’ll increase your chances of picking out certain types of card (virulent horror-weapons, most likely). It’s one of the few areas in the game where you can push the numbers in your favour, trying to shape the future somewhat, without directly seeing those numbers. Opaque, where so much is transparent.

Thematically, most of these choices make perfect sense to me. The muddle of historical politics and personalities has been replaced by a more monolithic view – the present, for these spacefaring civilisations, is knowable; the future is not. That’s why the mysteries and wonders of Stellaris so often exist at the edges of what is known: in the tech screen and in the extra-dimensional terrors or spiritual awakenings of the event chains. It’s a 4X game that leans heavy on the exploration and exploitation, asking what you will find and how you will choose to deal with it rather than how many new worlds you want to conquer, even if many campaigns will end in intergalactic warfare.

And it’s brilliant. I’d expected something messier and sometimes the edges are a little too clean and tidy, without the room for chaotic simulation that is such an integral part of Crusader Kings II. Stellaris is far closer to its 4X inspirations – Sword of the Stars, Distant Worlds, Ascendancy etc – than it is to Paradox Development Studio’s historical grand strategy titles, but it’s been carefully constructed so that there is room for growth in certain areas. Diplomacy and politics both feel like satisfactory foundations rather than fully-fledged systems at present, and the nature of the event chains opens up all manner of possibilities for new stories.

I say that I’d expected something messier and part of me had hoped for something messier. That messiness may come with expansions and DLC, but for now Stellaris is incredibly assured and confident, if perhaps a little too tidy and streamlined. It’s one of the most accomplished 4X space games I’ve ever played, but it feels knowable. Despite all of the randomisation and the extraordinary influence of Fallen Empires and other features that shake the 4X formula hard enough to make it wobble, this is a game that can be understood, analysed and mastered. Doing so has been, and will continue to be, a joy, and yet I crave the early days of exploration before the galactic map became a place on which to exterminate the competition rather than to find new ways of living.

The great experiment of the game was not so much the change of scenery, from history to science fiction, it was the decision to create a Civ-like game of expansion with some complexities and aspects of simulation borrowed from grand strategy. It’s in the simulation of a living galaxy that most of the complexity has been lost, but what has been gained is a precise and finely tuned machine. Less erratic and surprising than its ancestors, but much more elegant in its design.

Stellaris is out today, 5pm UK time.

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96 Comments

  1. Calculon says:

    Your review helped me make up my mind on Stellaris – as I was sitting on the fence about it.

    One of my biggest gripes about Paradox Grand Strategy games has been the lack of an economic and resource based focus. These areas are glossed over, which is too bad because they can create a lot of room for intrigue and conflict. The other area that I feel is a significant gap for Paradox games is – in EU4 at least – the ‘Ledger’. I bring this up because its a similar complaint. The data that is available in the Ledger makes spying obsolete/not valuable. There are so many interesting mechanics that could be put into the game to gather the data provided in the Ledger, and that hasnt been done for a reason that I cannot begin to guess.

    I feel like they have done the same thing with Stellaris based on your review, and the stream which I’ve watched. They have again – not focused on key areas which make interaction with the AI interesting – and based on previous releases, I have little confidence that they will change their approach on this front.

    Too bad too as I had hoped they could create a very interesting 4X game. I’ll keep an eye on the DLC – maybe one day they will add in the areas Im most interested in.

    • rawardy says:

      A very similar game, Distant Worlds, had a similar problem on release that was fixed by DLC down the line. DLC added proper spying and intrigue and resource management among many other things. Its not a Paradox game but still. If you can get over the old school UI and the steep price you’ll find a very deep and rewarding game to tie you over until Stellaris is more fleshed out.
      Playing Distant Worlds is like having your very own space opera simulator, very much like Stellaris aims to do the same thing. I do recommend playing it with at least the Distant Worlds Expanded mod to fix the goofy looking races and once your used to the gameplay the AI mod. Though it plays great without mods.
      For the record though judging from the streams I’ve watched I’m going to really enjoy playing Stellaris.

      • Erithtotl says:

        So far I’m a bit underwhelmed. I think too much is getting left to the DLCs, but we’ll see. I’d definitely go with Distant Worlds: Universe until a couple of DLCs have come out, at least on my first take of Stellaris.

        • Calculon says:

          That’s what I was worried about. I didn’t buy it but from everything I’ve read and seen – it feels very skeletal – as in purposefully designed to require a lot of DLC to get it into a solid state. I really resent that personally. I don’t mind DLC on top of a solid game with great features – but a skeletal game with large chunks left out so that DLC can be sold is not cool with me. I didn’t feel that CK2 was this way, EU4 was borderline IMO – but Stellaris seems to be designed this way. Might be time to exit Paradox supporter.

          • Catsiel says:

            Stellaris is not skeletal by any definition of the word. It feels very solid to me and so far, very enjoyable. They made it highly modable which ADDS replay value but it definitely doesn’t rely on mods or DLC to “flesh it out”.

          • chromedbustop says:

            I was hoping this game would be a little more CK2. It’s a really nice 4x game, but one the initial distinctions wear off it’ll just be a 4x game. One of the things I liked about CK2 was how it was kind of an RPG thrown into a strategy game. You really didn’t have to spend to much time paying attention to the map. You could just play the dynasty game if you wanted.

            In comparing to CK2 and EU4, this is more similar to EU4. Which is still good; I like that game a lot and have probably played it more than CK2. But there was a certain disconnect.

            It’s perhaps a minor thing, and purely cosmetic, but the lack of any sort of ledger or history is really disappointing. I don’t mind if certain things were kept out of the ledger (fleet size, income & the like) but you really can’t tell anything about the other empires in game. Can I exploit a mineral shortage of another empire? Who knows, cause I don’t have the slightest clue what state their empire is in.

            A lack of history removes flavor that was always nice in other Paradox games. CK2 had the history book and the dynasty tree. You still needed to remember what happened, but having those things to look at always helped. EU4 was a little more bare-bones on this, but even they had some way for you to keep track of the history of your nation.

            Essentially, one of the things that has always stood out for me in regards to Paradox games is the character they put into them, helping to give you to impression that you’re participating in a larger world (galaxy?).

            Stellaris does feel like it’s lacking things and just setting itself up for DLC. But that could just be perception since we’re so used to getting lots of DLC from Paradox games.

            I like what I’ve seen so far, but it’s definitely a Paradox game. Which means you might be better off waiting a year or two to buy it, because usually their DLC makes the game a LOT more interesting.

    • DEspresso says:

      Well in Victoria 1, you could enforce World Peace by gobbling up all sulphur supplies.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Philopoemen says:

    Hmmm…I was was hoping for a spiritual successor to something like Stars!, only less like a spreadsheet, which was both that game’s greatest strength and weakness.

    Only three resources, only three weapon types…I’m already downloading it, but part of me wants just little more.

    • Adam Smith says:

      Three basic weapon varieties and three initial resources, to be clear.

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        Philopoemen says:

        Ahhh, that sounds much better – cheers for the clarification

        • Hyena Grin says:

          I should clarify further;

          The game has additional resources you can discover through tech, and you can use those resources in order to buff certain aspects of your society. Such as building a better power plant, which uses up one source of its related resource, and basically converts it into additional energy.

          But apart from special buildings and starport upgrades, the industrial/economic component never quite moves past Energy and Minerals.

          (I’m not super happy about the simplicity of the economy, myself)

    • Scelous says:

      How are you already downloading it? Did they open up preloading?

    • LionsPhil says:

      Stars! was the Supreme Commander of 4X for its automation tools making large empires managable. It’s influence is not felt anywhere near hard enough in newer games.

      Since EU4 crushes my head into diamonds, the simplifications here sound promising.

      • cosmitz says:

        I’m very keen on seeing GalCiv3 getting fleshed out to the same AI level as GalCiv2, but that’s coming along slowly.. and that’s the only real reason imho that made that series stand out.

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    distantlurker says:

    This reads like a review of GalCivIII.

    That said, I ♥ GalCiv & EU:IV so, sold.

    Thank you Adam.

  4. v21v21v21 says:

    “4X games take their name from the central activities that make up playtime: eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting, and eXterminate”

    After all these years, I finally realized: the “xploit” was included only so they didn’t have to call ’em 3x games…

    • LogicalDash says:

      Sometimes it stands for “eXtend,” ie. nurturing your tech tree ’til it pierces the heavens.

      • Sakkura says:

        And Microsoft would probably sue over similarity to “embrace, extend, extinguish” as well.

  5. derbefrier says:

    Sounds like it’s exactly what I expected and wanted out of the game.

    This work day can’t end soon enough

  6. thelastpointer says:

    How about multiplayer?

    Does it have… PBEM? Or a dedicated server? (Please?)

  7. DEspresso says:

    I have to say I don’t see the innovation here, it seems like a combination of the Best Space Game Ideas, which does not need to be a bad thing. If they manage to combine these parts into fluent gameplay I am all for it.

    So how is it performance-wise?

    • Zenicetus says:

      The innovation I’m looking for is diplomacy interaction with the AI factions that is actually interesting and fun.

      Maybe that’s not actually something “new,” but it’s something that every recent space-based 4X game does very badly, so I end up with just military conquest and minimal interaction with the AI. This game should be very different in that respect.

      • Darloth says:

        Have you tried the expansion to Star Ruler 2? They’ve really taught it to actually play the diplomacy meta-cardgame thing.

        That said, it’s most certainly minigame, resource-driven diplomacy rather than embassies and such.

        • gorice says:

          Wait, there’s an expansion for Star Ruler 2? Oooh, never mind Stellaris, I know which space strategy game I’m playing next.

      • Universal Quitter says:

        Obviously, “fun” and “interesting” are going to be highly subjective, but the changes to alliances alone force more interaction with AI empires than in most previous Paradox grand strategy games.

        Except maybe vicky, but most of that ‘interaction’ consisted of waiting for a bar to fill up so you can befriend and sphere stuff. Here, you divide the spoils among your mates, and can even form mini-HREs.

        I like it, but my standards might be lower than others.

    • LacSlyer says:

      I think the innovation in Stellaris stems from what the other Paradox games provide, in replability. It offers diverse options in race customization, for yourself and other races, which limit technology progression due to not having a tech tree but rather tech choices. To me that’s considerably more interesting than the lackluster generic gameplay from more recent space 4x games (MoO, GC3).

      • Zenicetus says:

        Another thing I’ve noticed is that they’ve built in enough options in faction creation that you can use some favorite sci-fi themes right out of the box, without waiting for mods.

        After a short tutorial game, I think my first game will be as the Kzin Patriarchy. It looks like everything needed for that is in the game, including slavery for conquered aliens. Then a later game as Pierson’s Puppeteers… cowardly, pacifist, very high-tech.

        • LacSlyer says:

          Exactly, this is where the game shines. The amount of customization in the different races is astounding and creates replayability no other space 4x games provide while being extremely familiar to CK2.

          For instance, a friend of mine started a gave as a pacifist xenophile and started a game to find out that the early races he discovered were all xenophobic (meaning that they’d automatically have something like a 50% increased hatred toward him since he’s a xenophile). His home planet revolted due to the hatred from other factions and created their own cult that conquered him.

          This is essentially CK2 in space and I’m all for it.

        • oyog says:

          Now all I’m going to be able to think about all night is a game set in the Known Universe.

          TANJ

      • chauncy50 says:

        I’m skeptical about the claim that the races give the game a lot of replayability. I have been following the development for a while and am disappointed in the number of traits available. There are currently 4 ethos, which while interesting, only have one or two special and interesting effects. All the other traits are unforgivably boring-the only bonus you ability you could think to give to a highly intelligent species is: +10% physics, society, and engineering output. Pretty much all the other traits are just small stat tweaks. An interesting trait to me would be something like “fanatical pilgrims-you must devote transport ships to take religious pilgrims to special planets in your empire or they will get unhappy” or “master multi-taskers-Homeworld and well developed colonies can produce two things at once”

        • chauncy50 says:

          Also this same ting has been a problem in eu4 with really boring national ideas

  8. Drift Monkey says:

    Does this beat out Distant Worlds for you Adam?

    • BathroomCitizen says:

      I was going to ask him the same thing!

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        Harlander says:

        I get a very, very strong “Distant Worlds with a few of the rough edges smoothed out” vibe from Stellaris.

        I went ahead and got it, so I’ll be able to draw my own conclusions soon.

        • Gibster says:

          From what I’ve seen, its got the vast openness and possibilities of Distant Worlds without the spreadsheets and numbers of Distant Worlds. Which is honestly what I wanted, I like Distant Worlds but I find it hard to tell whether I’m reading the numbers and interpreting the galaxy correctly or not. Stellaris seams a lot more streamlined, at a cost but it apparently holds quite well regardless.

          • kulik says:

            In my opition, DW and Stellaris is hard to compare since they offer quite different game experience. DW provides you with a living breathing galaxy and places you before decision how much you want to take part in it.
            In Stellaris you are the supreme ruler, monarch, hive mind or what ever and the game doesn’t simulate anything that doesn’t influence your decisions.

  9. Malarious says:

    Yeah, it’s not turn-based. Surprised this isn’t mentioned in the review somewhere: the game’s pausable real-time, like Paradox’s other offerings, but I can see how someone who hasn’t been following it wouldn’t’ve been aware.

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      Kyzrati says:

      Aw, darn… I would be one of those people. Certainly I’ve been hearing a lot of mentions about the game online, but never looked into it and just been waiting to read a comprehensive review. This review makes it sound pretty great, but I’d only be interested if it were turn-based :/

      • Canadave says:

        I don’t know if you’ve ever played any Paradox games before, but they “feel” turn-based to me. They’re absolutely not an RTS in the sense of needing to frantically click around whenever you’re in a combat situation; they tend to be good if you like slower and more methodical gameplay.

      • Darknote says:

        It is real-time pausable, which means that you press spacebar and it pauses the game, hit it again and you can un-pause it, and while it is un-paused, it flows through the days of a month of a year, with several speed options.
        And coming from turn-based games, this truly has been a god send for role-playing and immersive.

      • ramshackabooba says:

        I am like you, I don’t like Real Time games as I suck at reflexes. Fortunately, Paradox games though technically they would be classified under real time, they are really almost turn based, where each turn is a day. You can pause, issue all orders you want, then let it go for a few days and pause again when you want to change anything.

        • Neolithian says:

          You’re probably confusing real-time strategy games with real-time tactics games. Stellaris is an example of the former; StarCraft, the latter.

      • Shinard says:

        It’s basically turn-based, but you can leave it to run through the boring, “Next Turn” turns.

  10. lagiacrux says:

    as someone who never played grand strategy and only dabbled a bit in CIV 5, is this game beginner friendly at all?
    reading about it, it seems interesting to me, but im not interested in having to watch 20 youtube videos from some fan just to understand the basics.

    • Dudeness says:

      I’ve watched a lot of Stellaris streaming, and I get a real Civ 5 vibe from the ressources, the population management, and the diplomacy.
      I think, you’ll find this easy to grasp if you’ve played Civ5.

    • Catsiel says:

      I’m a complete x4/grand strat newbie and I’m playing Stellaris and understanding it by having the Tutorial mode enabled – it doesn’t mean playing a long tutorial game, it simply lets you play the normal game with a robot in the top right explaining the things you click on and guiding you some of the basic premises, similar to the Microsoft Word paperclip.

  11. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    I know that a lot of people will be disappointed it isn’t more of a grand strategy game, but I’m extremely happy by what I’ve read here. I’ve bought it and can’t wait to begin playing. Thanks for the review, Adam, always a pleasure to read your thoroughness in deconstructing a game and its parts.

  12. DeadCanDance says:

    How is the visual? I can see beautiful stars on the screenshots of this review! Is it anything remotely like elite dangerous?

    • Grendael says:

      In the sense that its pretty yes, You lack the sense of scale however. As you are an omnipresence looking down on a galaxy as if its a chocolate cake

    • Hobbes says:

      This has an offline mode. So no, not like Elite: Dangerous at all.

      ZING!

  13. Vigil says:

    Stupid question but: did you have fun playing it?

  14. Cooper says:

    I was kinda hoping for CKII in space (i.e. a game where you don’t have to control an empire, but be part of it).

    This is clearly not that, more in line with EU or Victoria, or any other of the many 4X space games. Which is a shame. I have Endless Space, I have SotS, I have Gal Civ, I can go back to Alpha Centauri. I don’t really see what this brings to the table other than a variation on a theme. I mean, it’s wonderful that we have a wealth of space 4x games to chose from; there was a time when they seemed to be dying out. But, well, this all looks so familiar it’s difficult to get excited.

    Basically, I want a game that will let me play as Lando, not the Emperor Palpatine, or the head of the Bajor council, not some nebulous leader of the Federation, or Atreidis instead of the Padishah Emperor…

    • oarstruck says:

      For the sake of Shai-Hulud I hope someone makes a Dune mod for this game. With actual random events inspired from the books.

    • LacSlyer says:

      While you control an empire rather than a character, the game’s roots are in CK2 due to the amount of replayability the game has from your experiences playing out so differently every time solely due to the customization of the races. It’s very much like CK2, but more like controlling a large empire at the start rather than starting out as a duke.

    • Sin Vega says:

      I could be wrong (it’s theoretically possible), but I have a sneaking suspicion that they’re somwhat testing the waters with this. Wouldn’t be surprised if one of their next releases is set in a pre-settled galaxy and all about individual skulduggery rather than smashing colours together on a map.

  15. Laurentius says:

    Sound disappointing. I was hoping that Paradox can nail it, but after excellent CK2 it seems that constant dlc-ing their own games get thm dflated and runing out of gas of boldnes and creativity.

    • Grendael says:

      I disagree, Their DLC has always come with sweeping improvements for free, for everyone, and the DLC itself can be niche but generally is interesting. Also you can play WITH (but not as) DLC stuff if you multiplayer with someone who has the DLC (this applies to EUIV, CKII and stellaris (probably))

  16. Rizlar says:

    It’s the best-written strategy game since Alpha Centauri […] people who get the most out of the game will be those who take that roleplaying ball and run with it.

    Take me now you magnificent beast!

    Seriously though, this sounds great. I’m sure there will be rough parts eg. why on earth don’t they have a federation map mode? But very much looking forward to playing it nonetheless.

  17. ScubaMonster says:

    I’m a person who was always intrigued by Paradox’s strategy games but could never get over the initial learning curve hump to get into them. This sounds like it might be more up my alley.

  18. ZippyLemon says:

    Ahhhhhhh awesooooome :D

    I’ve never played a Paradox game, but am thoroughly tired of the TW formula. This sounds like -exactly- what I was looking for next! Thanks Adam!

    • ramshackabooba says:

      A warning though, this is not like TW. I’m talking about combat: Paradox games are not combat simulators, and that’s their selling point IMHO. What I mean is that, in TW you play the combat, you move troops around, order charge, etc. In Paradox games your job is to win the battle before the battle takes place. Once combat starts, you have no control. If the enemy is superior, you won’t be able to exploit the battle AI into winning.

      • ZippyLemon says:

        This is why I want to play Paradox games :D

        I spend so long poring over the map in TW games these days and find battles to be something of an inconvenience. A move towards the scheming and away from the frustratedly moving little men about while the AI acts stupid is exactly what I’m looking for!

  19. Premium User Badge

    magogjack says:

    This review sounds like it could use a little rereading, lots of repeated lines….almost like the game is so fun Adam just wants to get back to it….and I am sold !

  20. Sardonic says:

    Looking at the footage of this game, I can’t help but be reminder of Imperium Galactica 2, which I’ve always regarded as the hidden high water mark of the space 4x genre. Definitely picking this up.

  21. geldonyetich says:

    Great read, especially for those of us who have already preordered the game and are anxiously awaiting the 6PM GMT time to roll around where they allow us to download and play it (no preloads allowed, apparently).

    I will say that I am a little concerned that the combat balance favors luck in research. It would be ideal if I could evaluate an enemy fleet and customize my fleet to be strong against them… but if they’re heavily shield-based and I have no torpedo tech, this is technically impossible. The same goes for knowing my enemies are torpedo based but my research has been averse to produce armor production options.

    I do look forward to the late game events shaking things up. One thing that I feel is a critical weakness of 4X at the whole is when you pretty much own 75% of the galaxy and now all you have to do is mop up. From what I gather, Stellaris makes monolithic space empires prone enough to schisms that the excitement never ends, it simply shifts more to keeping your empire cohesive as expansion continues.

  22. Joriath says:

    Some good news at least: it’s a 18:00 CEST launch, so 17:00 UK time (GMT+1)

  23. Someoldguy says:

    You make no mention of the hard limit of systems you can own directly and needing to control others indirectly, so simply marching across the map turning it all fuschia is not actually possible. Nor your population diversifying as you learn to control different planetary types etc. How did you find these concepts working out?

    I’ve loved a lot of Paradox titles from the very first EU and HoI, but almost without exception the 1.0 release has been characterised by crash bugs and glitches. Is this truly a well polished, stable release? That truly would be something praiseworthy given the complexity of their scripting.

    I’m sure added complexity will come with DLC. One thing modern Paradox can be relied upon is to expand your £40 game with £400 worth of add-ons, if you are mad/enthusiastic enough to get them all.

    • Someoldguy says:

      My only complaint so far is that they seem to have stripped out (or hidden very well) the typical array of pop up message options. I’d be much happier running at a faster speed if I could set the game to pop up and pause on a lot more events. It doesn’t even bother to pop up when you find a decent habitable planet, only telling you if you find an anomaly or it’s finished surveying the whole solar system. That may be multiplayer friendly but I prefer more feedback in my solo games. Haven’t found a way to do that.

      • Rizlar says:

        Yeah, there are some weird oversights, like the lack of customisation for pop up messages or the lack of map modes, most notably a federation map mode since late game seems to entirely revolve around large federations. Stuff that would be easy to patch or mod in but seems odd to have missed.

        There is so much good stuff it is easy to forgive the minor inconveniences though, can’t wait to play more.

  24. Bobtree says:

    I was on the fence, but given that I got a free copy of CK2 and somehow played 80 hours of this thing I’m not sure I liked or really understood, pre-ordering Stellaris for $30 at T-10 minutes to launch seemed like a fair bet.

    • Someoldguy says:

      Paradox games are like that. Even the titles I eventually decided weren’t really for me took many hours of experimentation before I could reach that conclusion. Very like the Civilisation series, there’s never been one I’ve dumped before 50 hours of game play and the ones that end up absorbing hundreds more than make up for the iterations that don’t.

  25. Premium User Badge

    TehK says:

    – It’s a 4X game that leans heavy on the exploration and exploitation
    – It’s the best-written strategy game since Alpha Centauri, drawing in ideas from almost every strand of science fiction
    – Everything (…) is determined by the outlook of your species. In that sense, Stellaris forces you to roleplay
    – a game that is more interested in the complexities that arise within an empire than the basic infrastructure of that empire

    Exactly what I’ve been hoping for :D

    Also… the review was really nice to read and provided a really good picture as to what this game is about and how it plays. Thanks a lot, Adam!

  26. ScubaMonster says:

    So many games. Stellaris, Battlefleet Gothic Armada, Total War: Warhammer. AHHHH!

  27. Microtramp says:

    Yes, but is it better than Ascendancy?

  28. ninjapirate says:

    “I crave the early days of exploration before the galactic map became a place on which to exterminate the competition rather than to find new ways of living”

    I quickly lose interest in these kinds of games once I go from exploration to having everything mapped out and needing to deal with the competition. That’s why I rarely finished any Civilization game that I started.
    While this is certainly not going to stop me from playing and enjoying “Stellaris”, I do wonder if there are any games out there that can scratch that explorer’s itch? Where exploring isn’t just a phase in the early stage of the game?
    I thought Elite was going to fit the bill, but I felt that the lack of depth made exploring a bit unrewarding. Now “No Man’s Sky” has my hopes up.

  29. Vesperan says:

    The latest episode of podcast 3 Moves Ahead covered Stellaris, with one of the concerns raised that the AI was not up to par – as in you can establish your empire, then sit there forever without anyone doing anything to you.

    Personally, Stellaris goes in the same bucket as other Paradox games – I expect excellent DLC support that will make the game twice as good over the next year. Consequently it remains on the wish list for now.

  30. kowh says:

    One seemingly glaring omission from the otherwise stellar* review: How’s the stability? Games like this are usually a hot mess at release and aren’t capable of a reasonably bug free playthrough until ten patches in.

    *I saw what I did there. Pun retroactively intentional. Sorry. :D

  31. pfig says:

    Stellaris’s hype machine made me break The Oath, and at 7pm last night I giddily started the game.

    I love CK2 and EU4 for different reasons, the former for the goofy stories that emerge, and the latter for the pace and strategic options. I can’t do RTSs because I’m old now, and 4X so far has been a disappointment as I can’t handle the pressure (but perhaps AI War is to blame for that).

    Stellaris makes me feel like I’m capable of playing 4X after all, and lets me relax a bit, somewhat akin to a traditional turn-based chit game where I can go over the numbers and make my moves accordingly.

    As Adam noted, the CK2-grade stories aren’t there (yet?), although the humour in the flavour text makes up for it, somewhat. Having said that, it feels very personal, even though you’re playing as the invisible entity overseeing the march of your civilisation – a step removed from the actual ruler, who gets chosen every few years.

    There’s a lot to learn (perhaps because I’ve never really been into 4X?), and it feels deeply satisfying when something clicks and you realise you’ve figured out another system.

    Overall, it is exactly what I was expecting – I got up earlier so I can get in 1 hour of Stellaris before heading to work.

  32. Einsammler says:

    I would like to zoom in on those screenshots, please. Particularly the one that allegedly demonstrates the flavour text.

  33. Arkanae says:

    No mention, at all, of Endless Space? To me this seems to be, with the distinction of RT vs TB, the closest game in recent years. Same resource setup, same weapon/resistances set up…
    Adam, you have probably played that too, how does it compare?

    • Hobbes says:

      I’d not compare it to ES, wait for ES2 to hit.

      At this point Stellaris entirely wrecks pretty much any -current- competition in the 4X space.

      I imagine the people from Wargaming are quietly swearing about the fact they were, until a couple of days ago, looking to release a nice little earner in MoO’s reboot and now Stellaris has rolled up and pretty much dropped the thermonuclear bomb on the lawn. That’s not to mention Stardock, with GalCiv3 still being something of a hot mess, Stardrive and Stardrive 2 which basically Stellaris renders utterly redundant, and a whole host of less capable titles.

      Star Ruler 2 might be different enough that it’s still worth a peek, but I’m struggling right now to see any sci-fi 4x *at this time* that is viable competition. Future releases may change that.

  34. bonuswavepilot says:

    “eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting, and eXterminate”

    Poor old eXterminate, doesn’t get to be a present participle like his brothers…

  35. DeadCanDance says:

    Having played for hours last night, I can confirm the game is very stable with no odd behaviours.

  36. Owl Mark says:

    Definitely it has this “one more turn” feel. Cannot put it down.

  37. Gordon Shock says:

    Don’t want to sound heretic but how “Sins of the Solar Empire” is Stellaris?

    • Hobbes says:

      Not. Stellaris is a huge, beautiful, vast creature. Sins is teensy tiny in comparison. Sins is more a RTS with some 4X leanings, whereas Stellaris is a Grand Strat that incorporates 4x to make it more comprehensible to people who aren’t used to Paradox’s normal Grand Strategy fare.

  38. jonfitt says:

    Thanks Adam. That was really well written.

  39. solar nico says:

    Beautiful and thorough review.
    I only have one question: is the game turn based or real time?
    How does this affect the pace of the game at the different stages of the game (from early exploration to late management of a big empire)?
    Thanks!

    • Someoldguy says:

      It’s effectively micro turns in real time, which you can pause at will. Each day ticks past in about a second on normal time, events can occur on any day. Battles can last many days as the fleets close in and exchange shots, but after a few you don’t really need to watch unless you think it’ll be close.

      Research and your income are handled monthly. The pace is reasonable and being able (ok, forced) to give all but a few of your planets away to sector governors means you aren’t being bombarded with messages about 20/100/200 planets needing attention all the time. I can’t say much about inter-empire battles yet as after playing 80 hours I still haven’t fought one. After a trial tutorial run I restarted in ironman, grabbed so much territory it’s taking ages to exploit it all and the other normal empires are too scared of my military might to start one. I am edging around a fallen empire that hates having neighbours and exploiting the stars behind it. ONce I’ve done that I’ll genuinely have nowhere left to go except into another empire’s space, but there must be at least 80 more potentially inhabitable planets inside my zone that I could exploit if I wanted to genetically engineer some citizens to enjoy arctic or tundra conditions. This is almost certainly not the fastest way to victory, but as a first full game I’m enjoying exploring the tech tree and all the interesting anomalies the game throws at you to resolve.

      My only criticism of the micro turns in Stellaris is that, unlike previous Paradox titles using this engine, there is not a huge list of events that you can customise to pop up a message, pause the game or do nothing. That means I’m spending all my time in normal speed mode rather than hitting fastest speed and relying on my preset triggers to pause it when I want to issue instructions. Hopefully the customisation will come in future updates, since we know the engine is using it now but won’t let you change the presets.