Since 1999, Paradox Development Studio has enabled us to invade and negotiate with (and even make vassal states of) global powers, and taken strategy fans to such periods as Victorian times, the Middle Ages and WWII. So until you see Stellaris in motion, it would be easy to imagine this three-act, procedurally generated 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) space opera as some sort of midlife crisis. But while history has been flushed out the airlock and the world map has been replaced by constellations of unfamiliar destinations, the evidence of 15 years’ study in grand strategy is unmistakable.
Stellaris is the political domineering of its forebears run rampant in space, revelling in its freedom to invent the future, infiltrating neighbouring genres and intent on telling stories. ‘Grand’ barely covers its ambitions.
Big things come from small beginnings, however, and you start out as a single world newly possessed of faster-than-light tech. Whatever happens next is your story. Your race, traits, system of government, ethics and preferred mode of star travel are just the first barrage of decisions. Militaristic fungoids who hate deserts and travel by wormhole might be a good one, or perhaps pacifistic, democratic avians confined to hyperlanes will be a winning combination. These first minutes hand you executive power over how you will manage your people, colonise planets and interact on the galactic stage, and contain a dynamism and mystique that map-based strategy is rarely blessed with.
Meanwhile, Stellaris is busy seeding a freshly birthed galaxy with life built from the same toolset: fledgling spacefarers just as odd as yourself are scattered throughout the stars alongside stagnant fallen empires who you really ought not to provoke. No longer are you conscripted to fend off the French for the first hundred years for history’s sake; outside your solar system, even Paradox doesn’t know what’s waiting to devour, cocoon or tax you.
“My vision,” says director Henrik Fåhraeus, “is essentially that it’s a lot more random than what you would see in a normal 4X game, but it’s characterised by grand strategy mechanics. But it’s not as crazy as
Crusader Kings, where you might spend the first 20 years without an heir and that’s game over. Picking fanatic pacifists, if you will, is going to make for a different experience: pacifists are given powerful internal bonuses, which will help them in the late game. It’s more about playstyle than anything.”
Stellaris’s opening is a blur of exploration and expansion akin to Civilization. As you find yourself with galactic housemates and the political landscape takes shape, things
naturally become more tactical: war comes to the fore as powers vie to have the largest empire. Space battles flare up, pitting ships of your creation – mashups of alien tech assimilated on your travels – against enemy fleets, both sides deploying gadgetry to control the engagement (dabbling in warp interdiction, perhaps). Or you can negotiate your way to dominance, sweet-talking burlier, more bellicose empires into serving as your meat shield. Expansion is not your only concern, though: ignore domestic matters and planets’ populations may form rebellious factions dissatisfied with your control.
For all its scale, Stellaris wants to be a human experience. From the off, you’re assigned a scientist working in one of three departments: physics, engineering and society. This is a character around which to frame your tales of misadventure – they’re named, have personal traits, will improve then grow old, and finally check out to be replaced by an eager but less experienced seeker after knowledge. Scientists are your agents in
Stellaris, adventuring, researching and tempting fate on your behalf. Their primary function and your first small step will be to scan nearby planets for knowledge and resources, and Stellaris shines when their hypotheses are horribly wrong.
“Sometimes, when you’re surveying, you find various anomalies,” Fåhraeus explains. “‘Atmospheric projections from New Luna do not match simulated projections.’ If your scientist isn’t up to the task, there’s a chance they can fail, sometimes catastrophically. So if it’s an asteroid I’m researching, I could knock it out of orbit, and put it on a trajectory to hit my home planet and kill everyone.”
These anomalies are the shards of an emergent galactic narrative – tendrils of central mysteries such as the origin of life or the source of the unscripted space nomads that bumbled through our demonstration. And depending whether the discoverer is a laser expert or forensic archaeologist, the outcome mutates. Much of this is handled through multiple-choice event popups, but the Situation Log will track the progress of your efforts to resolve big questions. What appear as fragmented events reveal themselves to be a bespoke story arc that may only ever be uncovered once. The sensation that you might stumble, unbidden, upon the secrets of the universe or your species’ history is the tantalising onward tug Kirk must have felt.
“There’s very little exposition,” Fåhraeus says. “We have a little advisor system in the game, who will comment on things that have happened, but he won’t be a narrator. If you regard the anomalies as you travel around as sidequests, the main quest will be one of these backstories that we have created for the galaxy this time around.”
Both 4X tech trees and grand strategy development timelines are absent, the march of technology now aping the wild leaps and unexpected leads of the real thing. Fåhraeus describes the possible research subjects as being drawn from a deck of cards stacked according to a researcher’s attributes. If your physicist, say, lost his mind a little while contemplating the abyss, then the odds of him whipping up something bonkers will be accordingly higher. No empire, even of the same basic physiology, will follow your path through the stars – the sane might be mired in shield research while your free-thinker works on orbital mind-control lasers.
Federations, empires, galactic crises, and primitive species: all are here for the tinkering in a banquet of sci-fi cliché. Every conceivable motif and plot twist must surely have been earmarked for inclusion, and yet Fåhraeus still sees his greatest challenge as producing the variety of events to sustain hundreds of hours of procedural spacefaring. Quality assurance and coherence seem other likely hurdles for a game in which exploration, narrative, tech and diplomacy are inextricably bound and cooked up on the fly, but while its component parts are giddying daydreams, many are present in the game’s current late-alpha state. Plus, that dedication to randomisation and the bravery to leave the player to the whims of fate mean that, in Stellaris, no frontier is truly final.
No empire, even of the same basic physiology, will follow your path through the stars
Game director Henrik Fåhraeus
Alien hardware can be integrated with your own by reverse engineering, and this is sometimes the only way to acquire advanced tech. Amoeba weapons in particular are being touted as a gooey delight