Wot I Think: Stellaris – Leviathans

Space dragons, wars in heaven, awakening gods, secret enclaves and (most delicious of all) user interface improvements. Stellaris: Leviathans [official site] brings some gargantuan beasts and big features to Paradox’s sci-fi strategy game, but is it a small step forward or a great leap into the unknown?

With Leviathans, and more notably the free Heinlein update that arrived alongside the paid-for story pack, Stellaris shows sure signs that it will fulfill its early promise. I liked the game far more than many other critics around the time of release and while I think the game as it stood on launch day was fantastic (if flawed), I was open about my expectation that it would be a foundation for greater things. That’s how Paradox grand strategy games tend to work. No matter what the state of their release, they’re going to be much-changed a year or two down the line.

The trick of Stellaris is its knitting together of two genres that are adjacent to one another, but unaccustomed to intermixing their inner workings. By taking elements of grand strategy and planting them firmly in a 4X structure, Paradox created something fascinating, though not without rough edges and areas where the design is so taut as to wear thin. The density of a Europa Universalis or Crusader Kings, with a world packed full of characters creating and springing from history, is not there.

In the Fallen Empires and many of the stories that science ships can discover there is a sense of the past – of the millions of years that have lead to the point at the start of the game when you begin with the 4X staple of a single territory to develop and expand from – but the world is full of gaps waiting to be filled. That’s not true in a historical grand strategy game, where the map is already written and is waiting to be defaced and/or amended. In Stellaris, the points of interest are in place but they’re unoccupied, for the most part, and the shape of the galaxy is yet to be decided.

As mentioned, Fallen Empires are the exception. In the base game, they’re big bastard blockades, often preventing expansion for the smaller galactic newcomers (yourself included). They divide the galaxy into sections, so powerful as to be effectively impassable, like a mountain range or ocean. Though they have their own personalities, from peacekeepin’ police of the galaxy to wannabe-worshipped faux gods, I tend to think of them all as something between boss fight and barely sentient terrain feature.

Leviathans goes a long way toward making Fallen Empires the unpredictable beasts I’d hoped for. Central to their new appeal is the introduction of an additional end-game crisis called The War In Heaven. This sees two of the monstrous empires deciding to clobber one another, and it’s as if the titans themselves were clashing and you, as the equivalent of a mere mortal watching the sky tear itself apart and punch itself in the face, either need to pick a side or run back to your cave and hide.

It’s great to see sleeping giants waking up a bit testy, and figuring out how to react when you realise they’ve got out of the wrong side of the bed and decided to punch a hole in the wall is exciting. That’s not all Leviathans brings to the table though. Paradox have labelled it a Story Pack rather than a full-fat expansion (there’s one of those on the way though), but it does add three major features along with the splendidly written plotlines that are threaded around those features.

The War in Heaven is one of those features. The others are Guardians, another type of boss-level encounter that you may recognise from pre-release art, and Enclaves. It’s in the latter that the true value of Leviathans can be seen. Flashy and impressive as they are, the Guardians and changes to Fallen Empires only impact on the game in its later stages; Enclaves do the more difficult job of making the long stretches a little more appealing.

They do so by allowing trade of basic resources. That might seem like the most boring feature imaginable but it goes a long way toward making the somewhat arbitrary allocation of resources less of a hindrance. There’s a new flexibility in empires now that they can dominate in one area of resource gathering without cutting themselves out of the loop entirely, and that creates more possibilities when it comes to deciding both short- and long-term goals.

There’s more to Enclaves than trading but some of their functionality is best left as a mystery, as are the storylines surrounding the Guardians. Sadly, in the case of Guardians, the stories are more interesting than the creatures themselves, who are powerful and exciting on first encounter, but become, like Fallen Empires, system-blockers. Researching them and learning about them is more interesting than throwing an enormous fleet at them, but either way, they’re not going to impinge on your plans until the late stages of a game.

Leviathans is a worthwhile addition if you enjoyed what Stellaris had to offer, but it’s not the leap forward that might win over those who felt the base game was somewhat lacking. As with Europa Universalis IV’s recent expansion, Rights of Man, the meat might actually be in the free patch released alongside the expansion.

Paradox have been delivering hefty free updates to their internally developed games (and some others) for a long time now. It’s part of what makes the sheer volume of DLC palatable, though I’d argue that the quality of the vast majority of that DLC is the main reason I’m happy that there is so much of it. With Stellaris’ 1.3 patch though, named Heinlein, there are not only some decent quality of life improvements that address issues with the UI, there are also some suggestions as to what might be coming in future updates.

First of all, Federations have been made vastly more important thanks to the addition of a victory type associated with them. We’ve covered the disappointment of the base game’s victory conditions https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2016/07/06/stellaris-victory-conditions-flaws/ and while Federation victories are by no means a complex addition (if 60% of habitable planets are within Federation members’ borders, victory is won), they allow for deeper roleplaying within the game’s systems. Behaving benevolently feels like a legitimate course now and Star Trek is a greater possibility than ever before.

The UI looks much as it did but under the hood, there are some useful additions. Auto-exploration cuts down on the time spent herding ships around the galaxy and an expansion planner provides not only a handy list of habitable planets discovered, but the means by which to carry out large-scale imperial ambitions without dragging and clicking your way around a big stack of systems.

Most striking is a change to Fallen Empires that has made its way into the base game. They can wake up now, dusting themselves down and deciding to become active in the galaxy again. Without Leviathans, they’ll never follow the storylines that lead to a War in Heaven, but they will interfere with other empires’ business.

It’s that awakening of Fallen Empires that makes the worlds of Stellaris feel much more alive. It still doesn’t have the living history of a grand strategy title but is finding its own way of bringing dynamic, emergent events to its galactic maps. The 4X side of the game is improved by the Enclaves and by the UI improvements, and the grand strategy side is expressing itself more eloquently through the medium of those Fallen (and Awakened) Empires, and the stories that are written for them as well as the ones that they write themselves, through the game’s code and its interaction with a player’s plans.

As I said earlier, this isn’t the expansion or the patch to convince those who weren’t already convinced by what Stellaris has to offer, but it brings plenty of alterations and additions for those already on board. More than that, it’s an indication that the studio have ideas as to how the universe can become more lively, without making it more cluttered at the same time, and that makes the future of Stellaris very exciting indeed.

Stellaris: Leviathans is available now.

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56 Comments

  1. itchyeyes says:

    So here’s the big question I’m wrestling with right now: should I pick up Civ 6 or Stellaris + Leviathans?

    • manio22 says:

      Why not both?

    • Smoof says:

      I played the base Stellaris when it released for around 60-hours. So far, I’ve put 5 into Civ 6 and haven’t been able to go back in; the AI is just so frustratingly bad, I can’t find the wont or time to invest in the game, as it feels necessarily broken.

      The biggest complaint I had about base Stellaris is that there wasn’t much to do starting around Mid-Game, but I’ve picked this DLC up and already put in another 5-hours.

      Civ 6 will shape-up to be a great game, I’m sure, but right now, it’s kind of pants.

      • Hunchback says:

        I can’t agree at all with your comment, but i am too lazy to go into details.

        In short, Civ 6 > Stellaris, hands down. IMO, at least.

        • klops says:

          You can’t agree that the AI is bad in Civ 6? Hmh. But still, it’s a very good game, I agree on that.

          • brucethemoose says:

            Horrendous AI is a Civ tradition these days. Ever since V, something about their decision making has been seriously messed up.

          • sithalo says:

            thats nothing that should be just accepted as tradition… just because the game series has had something bad in it for a while doesnt mean we should just be ok with it

    • cardigait says:

      Civ6.
      Got about 50hours in Stellaris but once i reached the mid game it became very boring and repetitive, as in Civ5 late stages but with less automation.
      Got around 30hours in Civ6 and i’m still very happy and addicted, sure the AI is often erratic but the changes they made are all between good and great so… Go!

    • Longestsprout says:

      You might want to pick up Stellaris later down the line when they’ve had time to flesh the game out with the free patches and expansions. Got into EUIV late in the game and purchased all of the dlc out at the time, and I like to think that was the right decision. Doing the same right now with Stellaris and Hearts of Iron IV.

    • shde2e says:

      I’d reccommend to hold on both.
      Both games are pretty good, but with some serious flaws (AI for civ VI, mid game drag for Stellaris, UI for both)

      Both will probably be much better in a few years.
      If you do want to play one now, it will probably depend on your personal preferences. Neither game is bad, but neither is truly great (yet).

    • SaintAn says:

      If you have an older Civ game don’t bother with VI. Stellaris is the best 4x game I’ve ever played so I recommend it if you’re into space themes and RP. I’ve heard if you research a rare technology to give your droids AI to better harvest your resources there is a possibility for them to rebel like the Geth.

    • KingSnorky says:

      I’m in the same boat! Right now, I’m thinking “Complete some more of Witcher 3 and then go try out Civ 6 after a patch or two”

  2. Zenicetus says:

    Many great improvements in both the Heinlein patch and Leviathans DLC here, but there is still one big gaping hole in the middle of the game, and that’s the terrible Sector AI. These are provincial AI governors that the game forces you to use (although it can be modded out).

    In theory it’s a good idea to reduce micromanagement when your empire gets large, but the AI is often incompetent, and the player is locked out of correcting bad decisions without actually removing planets from sectors. The game is still playable and fun, but can also be maddening when the Sector AI misbehaves.

    • EvilMonkeyPL says:

      Being able to take out individual tiles from under sector control’d be nice. Even for some influence.

      • A Wanderer says:

        And would make sense too.
        I mean, why can’t the leader of a galactic empire tell a governor : “Yeah, you can run all of this system, but that crucial military planet I need to supply my personnal fleet ? No fucking way.”

    • Regicider 12.4% says:

      Sounds like they wrote an AI so incredible it’s simulating real life appointed officials 1:1.

      • SaintAn says:

        I live in Louisiana and imo the sector AI is better at running its sectors than the government here can run the state.

    • Premium User Badge

      Alfy says:

      Argh. I came to the comments specifically to ask about this issue. It’s a bit of a shame the article itself does not address this: having to deal with an absolutely horrendous (and often bugged) AI to manage your own ressources is not a minor issue in a 4X game, and if that has not been sorted out, then the various patches have not really done their job yet. For me, no point in getting the DLC or putting any more time in Stellaris until then.

  3. yusefsmith says:

    I bought a pizza last month. It was plain cheese and a bit undercooked. Still, I enjoyed it enough for the price.

    Every few months the pizza company stops by, adds a few slices of pepperoni, and heats it up. The fee for this is reasonable, so I don’t mind.

    When the pizza is finally complete, I hope not to be sick of it already.

    • Captain Joyless says:

      recently i’ve been spending more time in pizza parlors that sell finished pizzas instead of this weird “Swedish pizza.”

    • Zenicetus says:

      Since Paradox has never made a space game before, I think it’s more like having a pizza joint in your hometown that’s been there for years and serves decent pizza. Then they decide to open a sushi bar on the side.

      The first months were rough, and it’s still not great sushi, but it keeps getting better every time I go back. At least they’re working on it.

      • Regicider 12.4% says:

        Hire a sushi chef if you expect money for your product.

        Or if you want to build airliners but don’t have a clue, perhaps hire some aerospace engineers and have them design something that works before you sell.

        • Everblue says:

          But, Paradox aren’t building aircraft or chopping wood or laying bricks, they are creating art. You don’t get art by putting artists in a room and throwing money at them.

          Stellaris at release “worked”, it was just a bit boring late on. By any stretch of the word, they did their job. They are trying to sell us improvements to that game, which is fine – if we want to we can buy them, but we aren’t forced to.

          • Regicider 12.4% says:

            Strategy games are not just art though, they’re also mechanics and rules, math and engineering. Like boardgames, it’s perfectly viable to consult with experienced designers.

            It’s important to have a coherent, solid set of mechanics before putting it out as a foundation to build on rather than as suggested by Zenicetu, just put something in a bag and hope the customer will return as you learn the ropes.

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          modzero says:

          And hire a poet if you want to make metaphors, because these clearly didn’t work.

    • klops says:

      I don’t think this metaphor works at all, yusefsmith! :D

    • Unclepauly says:

      Metaphors on the internet can’t be followed without a reply stating how bad or irrelevant said metaphor is.

      • klops says:

        I don’t see how internet affects in the reactions to metaphor. Doesn’t that depend on the metaphor?

        • Unclepauly says:

          Funny thing is I agree with your statement lol. It’s just that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a metaphor in forums or comment sections not followed by a comment stating how bad it is. Even if the metaphor was spot on. That goes double for car metaphors.

        • batraz says:

          Internet people tend to believe anything that happens online didnt ever happen anywhere else. It’ s called acculturation, I think.

    • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

      Slightly concerned how you ‘enjoyed your pizza’ without actually eating it. Care to expand…..oh, actually, please don’t. Eurgh.

  4. Captain Joyless says:

    “is it a small step forward or a great leap into the unknown?”

    Mostly it’s the aimless meandering that Paradox is famous for, with a strong focus on the fleshing out of placeholder content (fallen empires), yet managing to avoid fixing problems with base mechanics (like sectors).

  5. FriarZero says:

    Reading about the “War in Heaven” bit I can’t help but think, “Finally, the Babylon 5 game we’ve all been waiting for.”

  6. TheAngriestHobo says:

    This mirrors my own experiences. The bridge between where the game was at launch and where we all want it to be is being built, but it isn’t finished yet.

    One of the biggest problems keeping the game from being as interesting as its big brothers is that power is constantly being accumulated by every faction in the game, and that power will never be fractured. Despite the fact that sectors can theoretically pursue separatism and rebel, in practice, it never occurs. There are no civil wars to interfere in, no county-level powers (to use CK2 parlance) to take advantage of, no succession crises that might destabilize a major empire. Everything is stable, and therefore, boring.

    Don’t get me wrong, I still love the game. It’s not finished yet, though.

  7. Henas says:

    Disappointed that this DLC did nothing for the mid game, which has a tendency to stagnate. I do love Stellaris and what it can be, but I guess I’ll continue to put off another play through until this ‘full fat expansion’ hits.

    Back to Civ 6…oh look Gandhi has his nukes out again.

    • Fredward says:

      +1, especially since the stated goal was to give you something to do in the mid game. Initially this was going to be handled by giving the players anomaly like events but for your colonies, there’s already some of this in the game like when your population self-modifies and, for me, that’s when I like the game the most.

      I definitely feel like Leviathans missed that goal. The beasties are a box to tick, not even a main box, just a patient side project you’ll get back to eventually. In terms of fleshing out the game and making it feel lived in the enclaves do more than the leviathans for me.

  8. Sorbicol says:

    Been playing with the Leviathans DLC since it was released and the game I’m currently in, I’ve met one leviathan and no enclaves (one of which is apparently quite important if you want to be able to do anything about some of the guardians). Just had an end game crisis on the other side of the galaxy to me (which apparently one of the fallen empires appears to have dealt with single handedly) and my federation is just me and one other nation because they were too nice to invade. Everyone else is too busy fighting. Maybe I should be taking more of a cue from them.

    It feels (admittedly after just one game) very circumstantial and still hasn’t really addressed the mid game issues. On the other hand, you can still play it for hours with little encouragement.

    It’s certainly a cheaper option than Civ VI, and you know I’ve never really played another game like it. Gets a thumbs up from me but it still needs a little more direction in places and something to do to “win” other than fight people.

    • AngoraFish says:

      But it’s not really cheaper at all, is it? Because it’s going to cost us three years and at least 10x$10DLC packs to (possibly, hopefully) make it good.

      • Longestsprout says:

        I don’t really mind. Paradox is pretty unique in the games they make and I really enjoy the experience when they’ve had the time to flesh things out. The price tag is pretty hefty though when all is said and done, so I’ll be waiting for sales to get the whole bundle.

  9. Son_of_Georg says:

    I’ve played almost entirely with friends, and it’s pretty great that way. Of course, I’m the one who always dooms our federation by starting wars with Fallen Empires or researching dangerous technologies. I feel like the fun of playing with friends covers over a lot of the things that could be pretty annoying otherwise.

  10. brucethemoose says:

    Is there going to be a WIT for all Stellaris DLC?

    That’s a lot of thinking!

  11. Erithtotl says:

    I thought Heinlein was the one where they finally made the mid-game interesting? Doesn’t sound like it here.

    I bought Stellaris on release hype, and frankly all it made me want to do is play Distant Worlds: Universe, which I still think is the best space 4x ever made.

  12. Pogs says:

    As much as I want to go with Stellaris, I can’t because it’s not finished due it being a Paradox game. And hence maybe I will never play it since it will never be finished because its a Paradox game.

  13. vahnn says:

    Nice writeup. I’ve barely put 6 hours into Leviathans, but I’m loving the Autoexplore, and the interface is coming around nicely. I really only played about 30 hours of Stellaris since launch, spread out over a couple months, so I can’t really comment on how much it changes the gameplay. But it’s lovely so far.

    Wish you guys would have done some nice reviews of Endless Legend’s expansions. You know, seeing as how it was not just your 4x GOTY, but your overall GOTY for all of 2014.

    Is there a big RPS group on Steam or Discord who play Stellaris, by chance?

  14. fearandloathing says:

    Important to note, sectors are still not fixed

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