Wot I Think – Stellaris: Utopia

Utopia is the first major expansion for Stellaris, Paradox Development Studio’s 4X, grand strategy space hydra. It’s a term that normally conjures up images of a perfect society, all green and chill and maybe a little like Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets. That’s nice, I guess, but what if your idea of perfection is building a civilization on the backs of robotic slaves? And what about a monstrous hive of ravenous beasties that won’t rest until all matter in the universe has been consumed? What would its utopia look like? I’ve been experimenting with a galaxy-sized petri dish to find out.

You don’t need to get very far into Stellaris to see the impact of Utopia and its accompanying free patch, titled Banks. The moment you enter your species-creating laboratory, things should immediately look pretty different.

Crafting a government now involves picking components from three distinct lists: ethics, authority and civics. Ethics aren’t entirely new, but there are a couple of replacements – egalitarianism and authoritarianism – that change the statistical bonuses found within the concentric circles that help define your society. Your picks then inform what type of governments your newly-spawned civilisation can construct by selecting an authority, like democratic or imperial, and then civics. The latter is a meaty list from which you can choose two civics, running the gamut from shadow council, conferring a 50 percent bonus to influencing elections, to mechanist, which gives you droids to play with right from the get go.

I’ve got a penchant for making techy, nerdy aliens with a hard-on for robots, but until Utopia, a lot of that had to be just in my head. Sure, I could invest in more research facilities and eventually make a breakthrough that allowed me to build automatons, but any species can do that. In Utopia, there are considerably more ways to make my eggheads stand out. It’s possible to start developing a society of machines from day one, and with other civics, small but important boosts to research make it clear to everyone in the galaxy: these lab coats ain’t just for show.

This extra fine-tuning leads to a greater sense of control, and that feeling that you’re able to better determine the direction of your species extends well beyond the species creator, notably thanks to traditions. These are, essentially, Stellaris’ very own version of national focuses, which you might be familiar with if you’ve dabbled in Paradox’s flagship grand strategy game, Europa Universalis.

By spending a new resource, unity, trees can be unlocked, each containing five bonuses themed around a specific ideology, of which there are seven. Reducing unrest, lowering ship costs, unlocking new types of colony ships – traditions affect every aspect of Stellaris while also providing empires with a more distinct identity. They also ensure that progression feels constant. Even when you’re well into the end-game, development persists.

The real benefit of the tradition system takes a bit of time to reveal itself, however. See, once you’ve unlocked all five of them in a single tree, you can choose an ascension perk, and this is where Paradox have gone all out in creating the fantasy of leading a highly advanced, space-faring empire. Some of the perks confer massive bonuses, like the world shaper’s 100 percent increase in terraforming speed. But the ones you’ll really want to play around with have an even more tangible impact. Synthetic evolution turns your entire species into robots. Transcendence makes everyone telepathic. And there are three different perks that let you construct fancy sci-fi megastructures like space habitats, Dyson spheres and, yes, finally, ringworlds.

It takes a significant amount of time to access these game-changing perks, and then even more time, resources and research to implement them. You won’t be turning your population into machines or consuming every planet in a solar system to create a massive ringworld right away, but the early-game is already busy enough as it is. What they do is highlight possible directions, nudging empires down different, logical paths with massive rewards waiting for you once you’ve put in the time.

Synthetic Evolution doesn’t just make everyone robots – it means that you can happily colonise any potentially habitable planet regardless of the biome. Oh yeah, and everyone becomes immortal. Conveniently, robots don’t eat, either, so it’s no longer necessary to worry about food production, at least not for your synthetic citizens. Priorities change, then, and new avenues open up, blessing the later parts of Stellaris with the novelty and sense of discovery that was previously more evident in the earlier exploration and colonisation phase.

If expansion and developing new colonies are what you crave the most, you don’t need to stop, either. Even once you’ve exhausted every colonisable planet, it’s possible to continue growing your vast space empire through habitats, which can orbit most worlds, creating more room in which a multitude of citizens can be crammed, along with plenty of resource-generating buildings. Ringworlds, meanwhile, can turn unappealing solar systems into megastructures that are effectively four Gaia-class planets all rolled into one gargantuan building encircling a sun.

Despite the aforementioned constant progression, the benefits of traditions can threaten to become a little redundant, and while the purpose they serve is an important one, forcing players to unlock an entire tree to get a perk strips away some flexibility.

Take the journey of my space nerds, for instance. I started by focusing on the discovery tree, with its myriad bonuses to exploration and science, which made complete sense for my friendly species of scientists who liked mathematics more than conquest. With that tree complete, I selected the perk that gave me a 10 percent buff to research. I was doing a lot of building and working on a beefy fleet, so the prosperity tree was a natural next step, and once that was complete, I turned everyone into a cyborg. As you do. But by the time I’d gone down yet another tree and finally created a perfect synthetic species, I found myself a bit stumped. I had both the time and inclination to get several new perks, but none of the trees really seemed relevant to either the theme of my empire or my needs. So I was going through the motions, unlocking more unnecessary traditions just so I could get to the good stuff.

More choices would certainly help, but the real problem is the rule that you must work your way through every single tradition in a tree before getting access to a new perk. That Stellaris makes so many playstyles and paths viable – normally a boon – becomes an issue here because inevitably you’re going to have to spend a vast amount of unity on things that simply don’t matter to you.

While this system attempts – and sometimes succeeds – to solve the problem where, once you’ve build the foundations of your empire, there’s a lot of waiting around for interesting things to happen, it can sometimes exacerbate it. It is not, however, alone, and is joined in its effort by a reworked faction system. Previously, factions were effectively just rebellious groups of dissidents, but now they can represent political parties or large movements, like religious groups railing against a secular empire. And they don’t all exist in opposition to the establishment. They might fully support it. This depends on their values and objectives, and if they’re being catered to.

Factions can be managed indirectly by studying their values and then attempting to pander to them. If a faction demanding better treatment for aliens is getting a bit upset, maybe consider not enslaving every new species you meet? But there are also direct actions you can take by suppressing them, promoting their ideology, or fully embracing them, potentially changing the ethics of your society. Ignoring them increases the chances of creating unrest, as citizens become unhappy, which can lead to riots, terrorism and schisms within the empire. This adds continuous agency and personality to populations while making engaging with them considerably more compelling than simply dealing with angry rebels, and importantly it’s clear how you can solve any problems that they might create.

But you know who doesn’t care about factions? Hive Minds. By picking the Hive Mind ethic when you create your species, you get a unique authority separate from the other political systems and your own set of civics that make your rather disturbing new species completely distinct. Hive Minds don’t suffer from unhappiness, they don’t create factions, they consume any aliens that live inside their empires, and any member of the Hive Mind that leaves will eventually die.

The impact of playing a Hive Mind seeps into almost every element of Stellaris, sometimes in minor ways, but frequently major ones. How you approach expansion or dealing with other species is dramatically different. And there’s a certain appeal in playing an organic machine that feeds on other lifeforms and doesn’t give two hoots about comfort or happiness. In a Hive Mind’s utopia, everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals. But playing as this single-minded tyrant also means forgoing some of Stellaris’ best new features, like the increasingly complex political game and population management. If you need a break from intensive micromanagement, however, then Hive Minds may prove to be a seductive prospect.

Utopia and the accompanying free update fix a great many niggles found within Stellaris. Storytelling and discovery have always been the game’s strong points, while empire management and politics could sometimes feel a bit underwhelming, especially when things start to slow down by the middle of the game. While not every issue is solved, great strides have been made towards maintaining the game’s pace from the start, fleshing out populations and generally making the galaxy feel even more alive and more diverse.

However! Factions, most civics, traditions, the reworked government system and a multitude of other tweaks and improvements are all available for free with the Banks patch. Utopia enhances them, adding the more advanced civics, ascension perks and megastructures, but it’s really just building on the excellent foundations created by the update. These enhancements are great, sometimes even game-changing, but Paradox are offering so much for free that it makes the actual premium DLC less vital.

Stellaris: Utopia is out now on Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam and Humble for £15/$20/€20.

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29 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Well neat, glad I bought this, this morning. This sets up my weekend pretty nicely.

  2. Dogshevik says:

    While I think this is truly a marvelous game and the DLC sounds fun, I wished waging war wouldn´t be so incredibly dull and tedious.

    • Gormongous says:

      Yeah, the DLC and patch address nothing about the incredibly tedious process of waging war or the farce that is the game’s “victory” conditions, which were the two things that moved me from indifference to dislike.

      • Detocroix says:

        People have very different tastes. I personally like the war goals system for war. It feels pretty realistic compared to other 4X games where you just “wipe everything out in a few years”, here you break the Roman Empire, not just make it vanish from the face of the Earth.

        • Zenicetus says:

          I understand the rationale from a game design standpoint, i.e. to put a damper on the player steamrolling the game, or give the player a chance to recover and not be wiped out from a single combat encounter. Especially with the stack-of-doom battles that tend to occur in Stellaris. But it’s still stupid.

          Every time I see something like this in a game, I want to know *who* exactly is stopping me from continuing a conquest with this forced time-out? Is it some Deity that isn’t explained in the game lore? No, it’s just the heavy hand of the game designer reaching down and saying “you can’t do that,” instead of making it an organic, plausible part of the gameplay.

          My other objection to War Goals is that it just feels like something borrowed from an antique Euro-centric style of negotiated warfare. It has no place in a Galaxy with ravenous bug aliens and Berserker machines. Find another way to solve the problem than an arbitrary rule.

          • kromeboy says:

            I am playing as a fanatic purifier arachnid empire, and with Utopia i have shaped my empire to enslave every enemy. With the “interstellar campaign” tech i have no problem to steamroll an enemy in an single war in mid game, and I am waiting for the “galaxy campaign” tech to completely destroy the big guy.

            So, as right now I think that the game is balanced if you play as the bad guy; obviously the other react to you as a common menace. Off curse if you play like this you have no access to diplomacy and you are alone against the galaxy

          • Zenicetus says:

            @kromeboy
            Thanks for that info. I won’t have a chance to dip into the game until Saturday, but this sounds good. I don’t have a problem being alone against the Galaxy with that choice of empire, it’s part of the fun.

          • Premium User Badge

            modzero says:

            Your admistrative apparatus. It’s an abstraction, sure, but in real life if you just try to swallow a large country, you’re going to choke.

        • Fishslap says:

          It’s been a while since I played this now. But the problem for me was not just that warfare got quite tedious, and that the AI was terrible at first. But the game also basically forces you to go to war because no other approach is viable once the expansion is done with.
          Of course this is more or less a genre problem, and the first two XXes in 4X are always the most enjoyable for me. Stellaris had some good takes on a few of the other genre issues, such as micro management. But I think it came up a bit short in the aspect of warfare and expansion.

      • Solidstate89 says:

        Doesn’t it address though? Or is it in an upcoming patch? I can’t remember now if it was for Banks or still down the road, but I thought I remembered reading something in the Dev section of the Stellaris forums about how they were changing up the War Goals so that in the later game with huge empires and federations and alliances, you can exchange huge swathes of territory. No longer do you need to pick apart a galaxy spanning empire, 3 planets at a time.

        • Zenicetus says:

          I remember reading that too, in one of the dev posts. I don’t know if it’s in this patch, but they were going to introduce a sliding scale for war goal cost, making it less less tedious in the endgame.

          • Surcouf says:

            It’ in this one. There are techs and traditions that reduce the cost of wargoals. They also changed the war score so that wiping enemy fleets or occupying planets part of your war goals gives more war score, but blockading gives nothing.

            There’s also the Armageddon bombardment stance for fanatic militarist that lets you bomb a planet until no one lives on it. Doesn’t affect war score, but the planet reverts to neutral.

      • Sakkura says:

        Paradox games are not really about victory conditions anyway.

      • Dogshevik says:

        I don´t mind the war goal system too much. It is a bit contrived for the setting, yeah, but what really makes waging war boring is the lack of any strategic or tactical decision making.

        It´s doomstack vs doomstack. Every time. Bigger doomstack wins. Keep your doomstack together, hope the AI/other player is stupid enough not to.

        Contrary to other Paradox titles there isn´t even any kind of geography that forces you to feint and maneuver. No attrition/supply system forcing you to spread out your forces or trick the enemy into wasting his. And while you have an awesome ship designer I never had a moment where it felt like your designs actually matter. It is not like you stopped and wondered “oh yeah, should have brought more blue laser destroyers. That would have made a difference”.

        But then it -is- a Paradox title. Give it another year or so.

        • brucethemoose says:

          A logistics/terrain system in Stellaris would be awesome.

          For example, maybe corvettes get an evasion bonus inside an asteroid belt. Certain blobs block warp travel, disrupt wormholes, change hyperlanes. And you have ship energy reserves and a supply system tied to the reactor type.

        • GhostBoy says:

          At lot of EU4 warfare is also doomstack vs doomstack. True, the attrition system does force you to split your forces a bit, but in the games I’ve played at least, thats a thing you do to conserve manpower between wars or after you effectively won. If the enemy has a stack running around, especially if you are invading and your movement is limited by forts, splitting your stack is inviting disaster. The attrition you endure is nothing compare to getting your stack nuked by the enemy coming out of the fog of war. It takes a bit of back-and-forth, but usually a war in EU4 is still decided in one, maybe two big skirmishes. I don’t find that particular compelling, since it basically amounts to trying to trick the AI into making a stupid decision, like baiting them out of mountains with your army clearly in intercept range.. something even a bad player would realise was going to lose them the war.

          It might be interesting to take a page out of the siege mechanics/call for peace mechanic though. Bombing down planetary fortifications is about the only time you are forced to leave a fleet parked for a longer period of time. If that also cost attrition (to symbolize planetary defenses firing back at your bombarding fleet), you would have to make a choice: Prolong the war while you hunt their remaining ships down/kill their starbases to prevent reinforcements, risking a call for peace before you can capture any war goals, or start taking planets, which leaves your doomstack stationary and gradually becoming weaker. That might encourage a bit more splitting and some strategic choices about where it is safe to start “sieging”. May even influence fleet composition, making you build designated siegefleets that are focused on enduring an attack until relieved, rather than fighting back.

          • Victor A Yorke says:

            Can I just say, I completely approve of a attrition mechanic for fleets.

            Additionally, perhaps if there was a highly flexible cap on fleet size? Played as a representation of the administrative difficulties involved in running an armada, rather than an obvious ‘ban the deathstack’ arrangement.

            To keep it from seeming too arbitrary, I’d recommend tying it to absolutely everything that could conceivably apply to military supply and paperwork: fleet size techs, total station numbers and levels in the empire, crew quarters and academy structures, and especially admiral level.

            In most of my games, the admiral is a damage buff for my main fleet, that i have to reapply every lifetime or so. Giving me a reason to care about my admirals, and to want more than one of them even when fighting a two-front war, would help immersion too…

    • Flatbread_ says:

      Yeah the focus of this expansion wasn’t wars but they did add a few things to make late game war less tedious. The two biggest things for me is that they removed warscore from blockading and adjusted war demand “costs” in later games. This means you should be able to demand more planets in the late game making things less tedious. War is still meh imo, but I expect the next update will focus more on war.

      • Son_of_Georg says:

        I’ve only started a game with the expansion, but less war demand cost sounds like a huge improvement. Sometimes before you’d have to fight a dozen wars against a single empire, only taking two planets each time. Overall, I love the War Score system, but it doesn’t work as well in Stellaris as it does in EU IV (yet).

        I’d like to see some changes that motivate players to split up their fleets. Right now there’s no reason to not have a single big doomstack, which means that many wars are over after one big battle. How would you do that though, besides some sort of arbitrary “Your fleet is too big” penalty?

        • Erithtotl says:

          I didn’t get that into Stellaris because I was so disappointed in the initial gameplay. But of what I do remember I needed multiple fleets because the enemy would attack my planets from multiple directions and if I was attacking his empire, I needed to have at least a couple fleets in reserve to counter those invasions.

          Was I doing it wrong?

          • Solidstate89 says:

            If you were then so was I, because I had to do the same thing. Especially since the three empires all bordering me joined together in a Federation to stop my border expansion. I had like a dozen fleets because otherwise their fleets would just run wild deep into my empire, taking out anything that wasn’t adequately protected.

          • Sakkura says:

            If the enemy splits his forces, just defeat them one by one with your larger fleet.

            The exception is in certain situations with blockade warscore, where he could use small fleets to momentarily blockade several of your planets, driving the warscore high enough to win the war.

            Getting rid of blockade warscore has eliminated that cheesy tactic (which was more effective against AI, of course).

          • Son_of_Georg says:

            One big fleet is more capable than a dozen small fleets. Small raiding fleets are annoying if they take out some of your stations, but if you can catch them one at a time with your big fleet it’s like swatting flies. If, however, you split up your fleet and end up losing half of it, you might not be able to rebuild before the war is over.

          • Cinek says:

            I was never in a situation where I needed more than 2 fleets (offensive blob & counter-blockade), in general in Stellaris you should run a single fleet, during the war just put it forwards, looking for enemy blob, destroy it, then either go to wipe out space station over their homeworld (to slow-down rebuild) or capture whatever you need. It may be a stupid tactic, but works 99% of time. And that’s the problem with this game. It’s about blob vs blob battles, no tactics involved.

  3. Solidstate89 says:

    One of the biggest things for me in the patch notes that I noticed for the Banks update is that your Food resource is now empire wide, instead of per planet. That’s huge for large, sprawling empires where you have Utopia planets with an over abundance of food and barren worlds that can barely support life.

  4. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Good summary – this has really deepened the ways in which to play Stellaris, and made the mid/late game far more interesting. The game is finally in a state that – as someone who’s played 4x since 1873 – I can recommend it wholeheartedly. It doesn’t solve everything of course, especially doomstack combat, but the devs have said that’s next to address.

  5. Rikstam says:

    Just played this the whole weekend, I’m loving it so far, except I think I made a mistake by focusing too much on science and exploration, instead of building a navy. Now the two closest border neighbours caught the glorious United Nations of (Hu)mankind with our collective pants down, declared war and attacked with a much superior fleet. I do have a defensive pact with two other civilizations, if they don’t help at all, I’m done for.

  6. BooleanBob says:

    What use could a robot have for a labcoat that wasn’t expressly for show?

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