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Wot I Think - Stellaris: Utopia

A great free update, a good DLC

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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