Has Stellaris been improved by its updates?

stellaris-head

Hi! I’m an incredibly charismatic space otter, and I love you! Not just you! I love everyone, be they otter analogues, bird people, or particularly advanced fungal infections! I even love murderous robots, which I’m aware is not a great idea because they’re murderous robots!

At least that’s what StellarisScyldari would say, if they could do anything apart from bat their ears adorably on the game’s menu screens. Paradox’s Stellaris is freeform grand strategy, in the mould of the developer’s other games Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings, and as such is much more about numbers and menus than cut-scenes or narrative arcs.

But that doesn’t mean it’s hard to get into character as one of its wildly different races. As the pacifist Scyldari I opened my stubby little otter arms to the galaxy, inviting sentient people, plants, and parrots into my multicultural paradise. When I found new friends, I treated them as potential equals, opening my borders to refugees, economic migrants, and even increasingly sentient machine intelligences. When I found uncivilised types, still scrabbling around the galactic dirt, I uplifted them, bringing them into my pacifist union.

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My Scyldari galaxy-view should’ve been at odds with the warlike Tzynn Empire — a band of four-eyed reptilians I spawned right next to — but I found that my Scyldari were just so goddamn agreeable that the Tzynn left them alone. Actually, they didn’t just leave them alone: despite having the “Fanatic Militarist” trait, and despite being inveterate slavers, the Tzynn started to look on their fuzzy friends as a people needing protection, and asked me to join defensive pacts.

I didn’t get the same courtesy when I started another playthrough as the fungoid Blorg Commonality. Like the Scyldari, the Blorg are obsessive xenophiles, so desperate to cosy up to every other race in the galaxy that they have their own theme song. Unlike the cutesy Scyldari, though, the Blorg are horrific to look at — a mass of tentacles and gloopy bits that make most races poop their space pants and run away screaming from the diplomacy table. That manifests itself in the “Repugnant” trait, which decreases other civilisations’ opinions of the Blorg, and usually forces them to make their friends through force.

In addition to racial traits, Stellaris’ species will also gravitate towards a specific political ethos, defining further how best to find your place in the galaxy. My Scyldari were materialists (just like all otters), and thus got bonuses to research and decreases to the upkeep of robot workers. On the other hand, their desire for new stuff meant that they couldn’t outlaw artificial intelligences, leading to some potential problems in the future when our own self-built robots might start to question the meatbags’ rule. On the inverse, a spiritualist-leaning populace is less likely to cause political unrest, but also can’t ever give robots full citizen rights, believing them to be unequal in the eyes of their chosen deities.

You’re not stuck to the premade species: Stellaris lets you build your own, handpicking traits both good and bad, and defining your preferred political system. Its governors, scientists, generals and admirals all have their own names, traits, and abilities, too, picked up over years of active service. But even though my prime minister was a substance abusing space otter, he never felt quite as animated as one of Crusader Kings II’s little lords, a mild drug habit less interesting than the kind of depressed leprous schemers Paradox’s other game dreams up.

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The developer has made a number of tweaks to this political structure since Stellaris’ launch in early 2016 that make it easier to understand for new and longtime players alike. Small changes — like reframing the dichotomy between individualist and collectivist ethoses as one between egalitarianism and authoritarianism — are simple rewordings. But they’ve also been happy to rip out and replace systems wholesale that weren’t working so well, adding a new tradition system that lets you specialise in areas like expansion, diplomacy, or material production when your colonies generate enough unity. The vanilla game’s embassies are also gone, replaced with a new measure of “Trust.” Shown on the diplomacy screen, Trust is earned by locking into pacts and alliances with other species, and affects their general opinion of your own race, allowing you to turn the tide of opinion over time.

These systems allow for meaningful — if slow — change in the way you govern your populace. If I had wanted to, I could have turned my otter-faced Scyldari into hardcore militarists over time by throwing my support behind specific political factions that had turned against their furry brethren and started advocating for space genocide. As it was, I wanted to keep my lil’ buddies blood-free, but I did have pause for thought when one of my scientists discovered religious texts linking the Scyldari to ancient prophecy.

I could’ve used that discovery — dug up as part of an anomaly research chain the game generated — to immediately push my people toward a spiritualist existence. But with a materialist populace, and a multicultural society drawn from all corners of my galaxy, I decided against following an otter-first religion that might’ve ended up subjugating those not blessed with fluffy-wuffy ears and the cutest little button paws you ever did see.

That decision came as just one of many interesting choices Stellaris asked me to make as I ventured out into the stars. The tweaks Paradox have made to Stellaris ensured that the first few generations of every game I played were full of discovery and choice, asking me to choose whether to investigate anomalies and risk my scientists, to select rulers that would define how I built my planets, and to make first contact with the aliens I shared my spacetime with.

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The problem comes once those decisions have been made, and once you’ve fumbled your way out into the wider galaxy. The anomalies and relics of the early game have all been discovered, habitable planets all colonised, and borders largely set — in some cases generations before. As my pacifist Scyldari, mid-table in terms of fleet and technological power, all that was left to do was sit back and offer gifts to my neighbours until they decided they liked me enough to form a Star Trek-esque Federation.

Added in a patch after launch, the Federation win condition — in which your Federation needs to own 60 percent of all colonisable planets) — is as close as Stellaris gets to a codified peaceful victory. The other solutions involve direct domination, beating other empires back and either invading or demanding their planets as the spoils of war.

I elected not to mobilise the Scyldari war machine once my surrounding space had been fully colonised, and not just because it would be as feeble as my species’ front paws. In the late game, wars are grinding, attritional affairs that can involve chasing fleet stacks back and forth between planetary systems. Finally blast your way through an enemy fleet and you’ll add points to your “war score” — a measure of how likely your opponent will be to capitulate to your demands — but you’ll still need to chip away at enemies a few planets at a time unless you can totally overwhelm them militarily.

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Stellaris does at least make one key concession to the late-game sprawl common in these kind of grand strategy epics. Players can designate specific sectors inside their controlled space, passing autonomy (or at least some control) over to an AI governor. This took a swathe of planets off my plate and gave me the mental space to manage those I did want to look after, but I consistently saw some major deficiencies in the computer’s control, leaving buildings un-upgraded and mining stations unbuilt despite a surplus of raw materials.

Its three major DLC packs add more to the endgame, too. The Leviathans story pack adds enclaves of traders, curators, and artisans that players can barter with, as well as huge spacefaring beasties that guard potentially powerful treasure. The second pack — Utopia — did even more, adding megastructures like the star-spanning Dyson Sphere that can serve as an internalised final goal for peaceful (or warlike, if you fancy) civilisations.

The most recent pack, Synthetic Dawn, focuses more on changing how you’ll play your entire campaign. It adds machine intelligences, throwing in robots that run the gamut from friendly caretakers, all the way to genocidal deathbots hell-bent on destroying all organic life. I took one of these murderdroids for a spin, ending up in the middle arm of a spiral galaxy sandwiched between theocratic pacifists and weakling materialists that lacked the cuteness of my Scyldari.

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Neither lasted long against my killmachines. Diplomacy’s not even an option for the most dangerous of the robot empires unless they’re talking to fellow artificial intelligences, making for a playthrough that has to focus on fleet creation and organic subjugation. In this form, Stellaris is a min-maxer’s dream, with a ship creation system that let me fix specific weapons, engines, and other components into my ships in order to wage the most perfect war. But without a real-world machine brain, this processional destruction began to feel tiring, and by the time old “Awakened” empires arose in the galaxy to battle each other with superpowered weapons, I was ready to tap out anyway.

The Scyldari’s pacifist life, too, didn’t work out forever. I was happy, my people were happy. But happiness breeds boredom, and sadly in its vanilla form, Stellaris’ endgame remains too staid, too sprawling, and too boring. Its three DLC packs do more to keep it interesting further into the galaxy’s future — so much so that the $20 Utopia, in particular, feels essential — but most games still end not with a bang, but with an otter’s whimper. On the way up, though, it’s a surprisingly thrilling ride: a game that lets players lean hard on their uniqueness to define their space in space.

43 Comments

  1. TaylanK says:

    Are wars still waged with doomstacks? Then the answer to the title is no.

    • Fourthspartan56 says:

      I suppose if changes to war are the only changes that matter to you then yes Stellaris hasn’t been improved very much. But TBH that seems to be a rather idiosyncratic and limited definition of improve.

      • DigitalParadox says:

        Considering most playstyles will result in a LOT of your time being spent at war, whether you want to or not, it’s a pretty legitimate concern. Especially when the endgame is almost nothing but war against some superpower or another

      • kromeboy says:

        War is sadly the only way to expand in the middle – late game.

        I’m playing a pacifist-xenophile-egalitarian run and still i have to wage war with my big federation to gain territories (and as the latest update i have found harder to vassallise). Yes one planet fled to my empire but, fleet war is still one of the focus of the game, and it is in every playstyle. And war is still a broken doomstack system.

        I love Stellaris but is time to fix the war system.

      • Zenicetus says:

        For me, it’s a valid concern. It will basically determine whether I go back to the game or not.

        The best part of Stellaris is everything that happens before you need to pump up your military to survive or conquer in the mid to late game. The mechanics of warfare — doomstacks chasing each other, and some of the silliness with “war goals” — just aren’t fun.

        It’s past time for the devs to address this. I’ll pay for it in a DLC if that’s what it takes, because the game is promising otherwise.

      • Shadow says:

        But there’s not much else to do but war after you’ve explored all colonizable space in reach, settled its planets and resolved its anomalies. It’s a bit of a shame because that’s very much the early game, and beyond that there’s not much you can do besides wait for techs to be researched, stuff to be built, etc.

        So far the game has lost me twice at that point, near launch and sometime after Utopia came out. So far the DLC have been pretty shy on features, and patches don’t seem to add enough either. Systems get added or reshaped, but in the end it only feels like the devs aren’t sure what they’re doing. The resulting game still feels empty, which is a shame because all the other Paradox games feel far meatier.

  2. EvilMonkeyPL says:

    Commenting as I read – but you can now overrule sector governors’ decisions, the planets are no longer locked away from your control.

    • mgardner says:

      This is good news – I haven’t played since launch, and this was one of the major turnoffs to me.

    • EvilMonkeyPL says:

      Early to mid game is still brilliant and in many areas much improved, with added depth.
      The only thing still dragging it down is the slightly annoying doomstack war waging. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon, or ever.

    • kromeboy says:

      The situation has improved, but you still have to wrestle with the AI governor when you move pops.

    • Iskandar says:

      Yes but there are limitations. For one sector AI still handles slaves poorly and will not use pops optimally and that you can’t override. Have pops of one race on a planet that have bonuses to minerals and pops of another race with bonuses to food? The sector AI will put the mineral pops on energy tiles and the food pops on mineral tiles and if you sort this out the sector AI will just undo it.

  3. GrumpyCatFace says:

    Yeah, I’ve been trying hard to love this game, but it’s never any more interesting than the opening moves of a new campaign – similar to Civ. Once you’ve got your blob, surrounded by the other blobs, there’s really nothing interesting to do.

  4. Someoldguy says:

    It would be hard for the game not to have been improved by the one significant DLC (Utopia) and the free updates that have come out alongside that and the more cosmetic race packs. It still suffers from the problem that the game is best in its early stages and can often get tedious long before any of the end game events fire.

  5. Sakkura says:

    You shouldn’t focus so much on win conditions. It’s a Paradox game, you’re better off setting your own goals.

    • bobmcjohnson says:

      The problem with that, and most scifi 4X games fall into that trap it’s not specific to Stellaris, is that the setting is just too bland.

      Having a randomly generated galaxy with no real terrain + races that you know nothing of makes it a lot less appealing when it comes to setting your own goals. Compare that to EU4 for example, where you kinda know the place of nations in history and the world map is familiar. Reforming the Roman Empire is a lot more appealing than conquering some random star blobs.

      I’m really more attracted by scifi games/books/films/etc. than by historical or fantasy stuff, but I yet have to find a space 4X/grand strategy game that really clicks in this regard.

      • gi_ty says:

        I will put this advice here again, because I had a similar issue that you did. Design interesting factions to populate your galaxy. Use fast spreading hostile hive minds, machine killer bots and make an even split between materialist spiritualist and militarist pacifist and authoritarian egalitarian. If you design factions based around your favorite sci fi factions with an eye to late game politicking the mid-late game becomes very dynamic. A fast breeding adaptive hive mind that wants to kill everything can make for a very challenging opponent for a pacifist federation. Likewise spiritualist and materialist divides can become divisive enough to break up pacifist federations overtime.

        • Chromatism says:

          Have a fabled internet cookie. This is terrific advice and I will have to put it into practice in my next game… I’d sort of got stuck on the race creation as player only. Cheers!

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    teije says:

    Pretty fair commentary on the games strengths and weaknesses. I’ve put 400+ hours in Stellaris and enjoyed most of all the beginning to middle stages. That’s when the sense of discovery and RPing your species is best – the variety of ways to play is endless. I usually bail out when the late/end game comes, warfare is indeed sloggy.

    The 2 main areas Paradox is looking to focus on – rightfully – are warfare and diplomacy. If they can add more interesting diplomatic interactions (like EUIV) and solve the “doomstack problem” it’ll be truly awesome.

  7. Imperialist says:

    Stellaris is a great game in its current state, but it still has a way to go to achieve CK2/EUIV levels of awesome.
    Though perhaps, in my opinion, its real failing is that it came so late in the 4x genre’s evolution. It looks/feels/plays very generic compared to the structure of other paradox games, because all these other games have done almost every single one of these things before, albeit in lesser quality. Its all “Blook-Blook Combine this, Snackface Hegemony that”, a billion mundane sci-fi tropes thrown in a blender, and as a result, every randomly generated faction feels half-baked. Seeing the same old 4-variations of alien races kinda sucks, and the same six ship types. Of course mods can fix this…but they can only do so much.

    • Someoldguy says:

      That’s true. Part of the random generation fun is that every game is different, but part of the drawback is that all event chains have to be sufficiently generic to apply to a broad set of circumstances. So pretty soon it starts to feel like you’ve seen it all before.

      If they could have clever, detailed event chains tailored the way you get unique events for countries in EU, that could help. You’d probably only be able to get that with hand crafted universe setups, which would be a big task.

      • GrumpyCatFace says:

        You can get this with the Star Trek: New Horizons mod. It’s a complete overhaul, with a custom-crafted galaxy to play in. Contains astonishing amounts of lore and event chains, based on ST episodes.

        Haven’t reached the endgame yet, but I’m hopeful.

    • Zenicetus says:

      The other sign that it came late to the 4X/Grand Strategy party, is that if I’m not mistaken, Stellaris is still running on a 32-bit Clausewitz engine. That puts a cap on what the devs can do, without slowing down the late game.

      CA made the move to 64-bit Total War with the new Warhammer series, which is probably why they can manage these massive new maps that combine all three games in the series. Maybe we’ll have to wait for a Stellaris II to get to a 64-bit engine.

  8. Phantom_Renegade says:

    I don’t know the answer to your question, one of the updates broke most of the QoL mods I really needed in order to enjoy the game.

    Yes, Paradox keeps improving and patching their game. But given the way they often launch, they kind of have to.

  9. BewareTheJabberwock says:

    I’ve been interested in Stellaris quite some time, but heard that the vanilla game is pretty much a big “Meh”. Then the expansions started coming out that improved a lot of things, everyone says, so my interest goes up. But then, it seems like another expansion comes out a month later. Now the Steam page lists 11 Stellaris-related bits (some are, like, soundtracks and whatnot, but still). So, trying to navigate the various pieces of it has become a slog just to figure out what to get (ie, I probably don’t want the killer bots expansion, unless there are serious QoL upgrades or other fixes). I imagine I’m in their target audience, but the sheer volume of stuff to sort out has scared me off of giving this game a go.

    • Someoldguy says:

      The article mentions the main packs: Leviathans, Utopia and Synthetic Dawn. I haven’t tried the robots or the other fluff/new race kits.

    • Zenicetus says:

      The game works fine without any of the DLC, because each DLC release includes free update and improvement patches of the core mechanics.

      Buying the vanilla game (preferably on sale) is the best way to find out if you like the basic mechanics or not. Then build up from there if it hooks you in.

  10. Iskandar says:

    Has Stellaris been improved? Yes, of course it has. Has the worst flaws been addressed? Not so much. The article mentions end game, which is still dreadful. And that is mostly because ship battles are still very, very screwed up. Doomstacks are still the way to go, which makes battles just a slog and one dimensional. This needs to be addressed and it hasn’t been touched.

    Worse, one of the core ideas of this game is having sector AI take over a lot of the micromanagement of running an empire. Which would be great if sector AI wasn’t broken in roughly a dozen ways. They’ve tried fixing it which has just resulted in the sector AI being broken in a dozen different ways.

    The latest expansion has really highlighted one of the worse bits. Synthetic Dawn lets you specialize your robots. Want a variant to do minerals and one for energy and one for research? You can do that. But it doesn’t matter one bit, once you turn a planet over to the sector AI not only doesn’t build the correct robots, it’ll just randomly shuffle the robots you have to the wrong tiles. And it’ll just put them back if you try to sort things manually. It does the same thing with slaves. Slaves have bonuses to minerals and food, but the sector AI will cheerfully put them on energy tiles and research tiles.

    So, two of the central systems to the game are just poorly implemented and even outright broken. And over a year of updates and expansions have done little to nothing to fix them.

    • Rindan says:

      Yeah. This is what kills me with Stellaris. I love the game, but I kind of hate how broken it is at times. It has so many systems that are awesome in theory, but a pain in the ass or simply impossible to use. Being multi-species or using slaves is insanely micro intensive. I honestly wish they would just do away with placing populations on tiles all together and just abstract it. Nothing is gained by placing building tiles down on planets manually and then placing populations on them manually.

      • Iskandar says:

        The problem is they tried to reinvent the wheel when making a 4x, tossing some thirty years of games out the airlock without realizing why other 4x games do things the way they do. And then they tried to bring systems over from their other grand strategy games that just make little sense in a 4x. I still say the whole war score system is just nonsense and is behind a lot of what is wrong with combat in Stellaris.

        • Zenicetus says:

          Agreed 100% about the war score system. It’s the most central problem with the game, because there are ways to fix Doomstacks but it won’t matter much if war score is still here.

          It never feels right, especially if you’re running a Saberhagen Berserker type empire, when some omnipotent entity steps in the middle of your successful war and says “No, you have to stop here, you can’t continue for a bit.”

          It’s ridiculous. There are other ways to limit steamrolling in games like this. But Paradox took the easy way out, just importing the Euro-historical idea of negotiated warfare into a science fiction game.

      • emptyfile says:

        Agreed. Taking care of your building placement and adjacency bonuses in a 30+ planet empire just seems insane, and the fact that the AI can’t handle it either just adds insult to injury.

        I really thought the game had potential, and the early game is still awesome, but after 3 major DLCs which only break the game further and further I’m ready to give up. No amount of content will make the grind fun.

        This would’ve been a great game if they just abstracted whole planets and the combat too.

        • Glavius says:

          So I fixed the AI being braindead when it comes to what it builds and where. The Stellaris mod scene is actually fantastic when it comes to making things better for players. With Steam workshop integration it’s never been easier to download a mod.

          This is my mod that fixes the AI
          link to steamcommunity.com

      • fearandloathing says:

        Exactly. PDX used to be the masters of abstraction, it’s disappointing to see them introduce such features that add nothing to the game, other than tedium. Another one that I didn’t like from the start is that ship-designer thingy, really man,talk about messing with levels of abstraction when you have billion people living under you but you still pick each ship’s laser turrets. The more they try to cater the small, so called “hardcore” players by adding meaningless micromanagement, the more they promote min-maxing gameplay that’s just not suitable to Stellaris and brings up the worst in the game. Even CA seemingly learned this with Warhammer series.

  11. Prinzmegahertz says:

    I really tried to like Stellaris and Endless Space 2, but both games become boring and repetitive. Then I went back to play the first SOTS game with all expansions and must say that this old game is so much better in most regards (except maybe diplomacy) that i wonder how the genre could stagnate or even regress this much.

    Too bad that SOTS 2 was such a disappointment

    • FrantasticFran says:

      SotS1 did the planet abstraction right IMO. Just 4 stats: resources, habitability, imperial population and civilian population(or slaves, for the Zuul). No buildings or pop management, just setting policies.

  12. Biscuitry says:

    Hi! I’m an incredibly charismatic space otter, and I love you!

    Well, it’s official. Rich McCormick is a furry now.

  13. Rince says:

    I’m the only one here that like the doomstacks?

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    MajorLag says:

    I played Stellaris for most of a saturday, and was not impressed. Like most 4x games it was a tedious exercise in micromanagement, but fair enough there since it did say 4x on the box. I spent a while expanding and researching anomalies, which all sounded really cool only to ultimately give me some arbitrary and uninteresting stats for the stat god. Diplomacy was equally boring, with none of my local neighborhood having any personality at all. Never even got into a war, not that I was in any shape to fight one anyway.

    You read about all these interesting things happening in Stellaris, yet all I found was predictable and boring tedium with a fast-forward button that’s still far too slow. You can add all the DLC you want and it wouldn’t fix this game, IMO.

  15. Artyparis says:

    As some, I get bored mid game.
    Looking for 4x games with really solid non-warmonger gameplay.

    Any idea ? Even oldies ? Endless series already under my belt and still searching

  16. SaintAn says:

    This is one of my favorite games, and it has improved a lot, but it has a lot of problems. Mid game is still just sitting around at fastest speed waiting for something to happen for hours. I’m in a playthrough now where that’s happening. I created a big Federation, invited the civs that shared my views to it, which was most of the galaxy, and so I am unstopable now. A Fallen Empire just awoke next to me and attacked and my Federation sent all their stacks to my stack and formed a massive doomstack and I just ran over the awakened empire easily. Haven’t seen any end game things in my match yet, but with the size of my federation I doubt it will have a chance.

    They really need to fix combat to make it more strategical, rather than whoever has the biggest number wins.

    And the Civ-like talent trees suck for role play. Currently I’m playing as a friendly UN of Earth, and I took the ones that fit what I’m playing as, but I have to take the evil ones too if I want to get the perks and stuff even though I’m not playing as an evil civilization. That’s really shitty and needs to be changed.

    Some of the talent trees are pointless if you don’t take them first, like the one for expanding your empire with colonization, and the discovery one.

    Plus the perk system is a big mess. It doesn’t tell you you need to get certain perks to unlock later ones, you have to look at all the hidden ones you can’t get yet and read each one to find out what leads to them. It’s so poorly implemented. If they are going to keep that stupid perk system then it needs to be a talent tree too so you can clearly see what leads to what. But they really should get rid of all that and do it differently.

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