Stellaris is a space opera, played out in three acts.
It's the latest game from Paradox's internal development studio, the guys who brought us grand/complicated/alienating strategy games like Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV. I liked the latter and adore the former, so there was a lot for me to look forward to here!
A game very much in the vein of classic 4X space titles like Master of Orion, Stellaris feels like Paradox trying to accomplish two things: first, to sweep in and clean up a beloved genre that's been stagnant for years (and which the new Master Of Orion seems unable to save), and secondly to show that Paradox's unwieldy brand of big strategy can be tamed and made a little more palatable to the masses.
Each one of those dots is a system. Each system has several planets orbiting it. Conquering a galaxy this size takes some serious work. It succeeds on both fronts. Or, at least, it does for a little while. Stellaris is a game of three distinct chapters, some more successful than others.
What follows is an account of my second playthrough of Stellaris (United Nations, 600 systems, Normal difficulty), after I accidentally left my first game running, wrecked a bunch of stuff and decided to start over rather than reload.
A Stellaris game begins like any 4X experience (if you've never played Master of Orion, think Civilisation) would. You pick a race, you set some map size and AI options then you're dropped into the galaxy, free to expand, explore, exploit and exterminate to your heart's content.
The expanding and exploring parts are a blast. From humble beginnings, you need to reach out across the stars, investigating nearby systems for resources and habitable planets then sending ships out to found new colonies. This is the part of the game that should be the least interesting, but the way you need to scan each planet in a system, and the presence of a ton of little RPG-like quests (exploring relics, checking out anomalies) mean you're constantly busy but never overwhelmed.
Instead of feeling like you're checking off tasks before settling into the real action, I felt like I was actually discovering things, and had a weirdly exciting time taking my first baby steps off Earth.
Stellaris' empire creation suite is fantastic, letting you customise everything from your flag to your city appearance. Part of the fun here was down to the fact Stellaris is easily Paradox's most accessible strategy game to date. This is helped by the genre -- as a 4X/grand strategy hybrid, and not straight grand strategy it can afford to ditch some buttons and menus -- but also down to the fact that the user interface is clean and smart, and the game actually has a functional and helpful tutorial assistant.
As you build more colonies and slowly begin to expand your reach, you start to see the parts of Stellaris where Paradox has layered some of its existing grand strategy systems atop more traditional 4X elements. Instead of simply expanding forever across the stars, you can only control a small number of colonies directly, so as your empire gets bigger, you need to delegate control of most of it to sector governors, who take care of most of the tedious micromanagement themselves. It starts out a smart way to stop you getting bogged down in micromanagement while you've got more important things to worry about.
Stellaris also manages to handle the scale of the task in front of you really well. At one end of this scale is a galactic map, control over entire fleets and universal diplomacy, while at the other you're asked to manage the construction of individual buildings on individual planets. This sounds like a nightmare, but stuff like the aforementioned sector governors, a practical notification system and the ability to switch your view to any system, planet or unit on the map at the click of a button makes every action fast and accessible, a necessity for a game of this size.
Back to my specific playthrough: with a few systems under my belt, a small military in place and a team of scientists racing around the galaxy solving mysteries, I realised I'd been playing for around 3-4 hours and there'd barely been a second of down-time. I'd been engrossed but not overwhelmed, was continually finding new and interesting challenges and found myself thinking, holy shit, this might be one of the best strategy games I've ever played.
Fuck off, birdface. I will grind your planets to dust. A few hours later, I hit a brick wall. Where my first foray into the unknown had been a refreshing mix of quests and exploration and the discovery of very smart design decisions, what came next was a total grind.
The good times lasted as long as I was able to expand my empire naturally, discovering and colonising uninhabited nearby systems. As soon as the galaxy fills out, though, and there are no more empty systems left to claim, you're left to deal with the other two Xs in the 4X formula: exploit and exterminate the opposition.
Diplomacy in Stellaris is as cold and dry as deep space. Many of Paradox's trademark dialogue systems are in place, like helpful numbers to help you weigh up the balance of a deal (this conversation is -7, so it won't succeed unless you offer +8 worth of items/concessions, etc), but with the absence of a true character system, where every leader feels more like an actual adversary instead of an avatar fronting a sliding set of values, I found chatting with opponents to become quickly predictable.
And that's if I chatted with them at all. On "normal" (the default) difficulty the AI seems content to leave you alone almost entirely. I watched as the rest of the galaxy went to war, formed alliances and even formed bigger alliances (multiple sides can form Federations, which end up sharing units), while I just...sat there.
I wasn't even threatened, let alone attacked, this despite the game helpfully telling me that my military was woefully underpowered against most of my neighbours. After hours of being the lonely human in the corner of a galactic party of talking bugs, birdmen and tentacle heads, I got fed up and declared war on my neighbours.
And it didn't go well.
War in Stellaris will be very familiar to anyone who's played another Paradox grand strategy game. If you haven't, you collect your forces into fleets and armies, send them into hostile areas and either engage a rival's forces in battle or lay siege to one of their holdings. Battles are resolved in real-time (and without much direct player involvement) and sieges are simply a matter of leaving a besieging force in position long enough to wear down the enemy's defences. It's simple, if click-heavy business.
Which, fine, it's a tried and tested way of doing things, but in space it just doesn't work as well as it has on Earth. The scale of the game definitely works against Stellaris here, as conquering the galaxy is (on all but the smallest maps) a big task, and really, it's just not very fun. There were times I'd look at the map, look at the game's victory conditions (basically control a bulk of the galaxy) and, rather than anticipate a good strategic tussle, despair at all the busywork that was in front of me.
You don't get to control battles on a tactical level, but they do look amazing. What's most frustrating about this dead middle section to the game is that the end is so cool! Unlike most strategy games, which become a death march as you close in on victory, vastly superior to your remaining opponents, Stellaris shakes things up by challenging you in new ways. There are these big end-game that are triggered as you approach the finish line, which range from robot uprisings among your empire to an invasion from another dimension.
Like Shogun 2's map split, it's a great way to spice up an otherwise boring part of a game, but the grind to get there was itself so tedious I don't think it was worth it. With neat twists on the genre present in both the game's first and final thirds, it's a pity that the bulk of the Stellaris' middle section didn't receive the same kind of innovation.
I know I've spent a while there on downers, but there's so much to love here. The fact I can recommend this game to normal people and trust they will actually make sense of the interface. The soundtrack. The smart little touches that pervade every corner of the interface. The writing, which gently veers between serious space business and wonderfully dry humour. The art design, which actually does a great job of making each species' ships and cities look different.
But every time I play, as much fun as I'll have, it always feels like something's missing, that something's a little off. That the dovetailing of a traditional 4X experience and Paradox's grand strategy designs hasn't quite come together like it should have.
I think what's ultimately disappointed me the most about Stellaris is that there's nothing driving you other than map possession, nothing allowing you to set your sights on a game experience outside the traditional "conquer everyone" model. Crusader Kings II was wonderful in that you could just play, forging narratives with characters that had nothing to do with overrunning the map. Europa Universalis IV, with its time limit, was a bloodthirsty but thrilling race for domination. Most of my time with Stellaris has just felt like...work.
Then again, maybe the fact I can (and have) so easily compared Stellaris to Paradox's last few games is the heart of the problem. While they're all similar in many ways, CKII and EUIV were not the first games in a series. Both had a legacy to build on, and then ceaselessly improved themselves further with expansions and updates.
So while Stellaris' frustrations and shortfalls are disappointing in May 2016, there's certainly a precedent for things drastically improving with future expansions and updates, which like CKII has done to such amazing effect, can add things where things need adding and tune things elsewhere.
And that's before you consider mods. You know how Game of Thrones completely transformed Crusader Kings II? Well, the way your science ships work, and the way quests are handled, and the way you can form alien alliances, let's just say that Stellaris is perfect for the Mass Effect treatment.
I'm hoping, then, that in the months and years to come we can talk about Stellaris in the same way we can about some of Paradox's other series. Or maybe even in more glowing terms, since this is definitely more accessible than the studio's previous, more interface-laden efforts.
But for now, Stellaris is a game that reaches for the stars, only to fall just short.