Mac, PC


What a dif­fer­ence a UI de­signer makes. Para­dox’s fa­mously im­pen­e­tra­ble strat­egy games were set to get denser still with the in­clu­sion of 4X el­e­ments in Stel­laris. From your species’ home­world, you thrust out into the stars of a pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated galaxy, ex­plor­ing, ex­pand­ing and – de­pend­ing on your ethics – ex­ter­mi­nat­ing un­til stel­lar su­per­pow­ers co­a­lesce and cau­tious diplo­macy be­gins. What ought to be in­com­pre­hen­si­ble is in­stead a promis­ing fu­sion of two mono­lithic gen­res. Game di­rec­tor Hen­rik Fåhraeus sparked some alarm among diehards when he said that Stel­laris would be Para­dox’s most ac­ces­si­ble game yet. The A word hasn’t meant a dras­tic re­duc­tion in com­plex­ity, how­ever. Stel­laris sim­ply com­mu­ni­cates its tan­gle of re­sources, currencies and mod­i­fiers with im­prob­a­ble el­e­gance.

Start­ing with a sin­gle planet in­stead of an em­pire helps: the first, shaky steps of a species are eas­ier to fashion a tu­to­rial from than the pol­i­tics of 15th-cen­tury France. The clichéd but ef­fec­tive AI as­sis­tant walks you through scan­ning new sys­tems, con­struct­ing your first or­bital sta­tions and estab­lish­ing a colony. Help­ful goals and dis­cov­er­ies of note are pre­served in the Sit­u­a­tion Log – a glo­ri­fied list, yes, but one that works tire­lessly to help you make sense of the cos­mic mys­tery, even if the lack of search func­tion­al­ity is frus­trat­ing.

It’s mys­tery that draws you out­wards in the open­ing hours. Your first con­tact with an alien species is an elec­tric thrill. You’ll have skir­mished with pi­rates, hos­tile void clouds and crys­talline en­ti­ties, but the dis­cov­ery of an or­gan­ised force on the fringes of your so­ci­ety gets the imag­i­na­tion whirring. Be­cause each em­pire’s ethics and traits are also gen­er­ated at ran­dom, you never know if you’ll get delin­quent yob­bos for stel­lar neigh­bours, even if yob­bish­ness is lim­ited to a small sta­tis­ti­cal mod­i­fier. Re­gard­less, it felt safest to keep watch on our galaxy’s res­i­dent ‘fa­nat­i­cal pu­ri­fiers’.

Af­ter first con­tact, you’ll likely spend the next dozen hours em­broiled in in­ter­nal affairs, as will your ga­lac­tic ri­vals. De­pend­ing on the gen­eros­ity of the uni­verse-build­ing al­go­rithm, you’ll have a belt of un­con­trolled worlds to sur­vey and then ex­ploit for min­er­als, en­ergy cred­its and re­search points. By estab­lish­ing a fron­tier out­post or new colony, you bring the sys­tem un­der the con­trol of your em­pire.

The mi­cro­man­age­ment in­volved in ex­pan­sion is al­most over­whelm­ing, par­tic­u­larly as you dis­cover how to colonise new types of world. Para­dox’s so­lu­tion to the men­tal over­load is ef­fec­tive – al­most too ef­fec­tive, in fact. You can de­clare a group of ad­ja­cent plan­ets a sec­tor, over­seen by a sin­gle gov­er­nor. The sec­tor han­dles plan­e­tary affairs au­tonomously ac­cord­ing to broad in­struc­tions: fo­cus on con­struct­ing mil­i­tary sta­tions, do­nat­ing half of en­ergy cred­its gen­er­ated to the greater em­pire, for ex­am­ple. The trou­ble is, cre­at­ing a sec­tor sani­tises emer­gent so­cial events that would oth­er­wise keep you on your toes. Brew­ing dis­con­tent at the prox­im­ity of in­dige­nous prim­i­tives is for­got­ten the in­stant that planet is placed un­der sec­tor con­trol. So­cial events and un­ex­pected oc­cur­rences are Stel­laris’ great strength. Para­dox games have al­ways been at their best when they’re telling an im­promptu story, but Stel­laris pulls a grand nar­ra­tive from the void. Sev­eral, in fact. Sci­en­tists for our avian race found tem­ples to their old gods drift­ing among the stars, far older than the dawn of space flight, spark­ing re­search into their species’ ori­gins. Rou­tine scan­ning led to the dis­cov­ery of mining fa­cil­i­ties left by an an­cient race – a flavour­some bit of scene-set­ting sweet­ened by a min­eral bonus for the em­pire. Drift­ing into the or­bit of a ti­tanic, star-en­cir­cling space sta­tion re­vealed a cat­a­clysmi­cally pow­er­ful Fallen Em­pire that just wanted some pri­vacy.

This rush of dis­cov­ery has all the spirit of clas­sic sci-fi. Para­dox has con­quered the 4X, par­tic­u­larly in the realm of tech, which doesn’t fun­nel you through strictly de­fined re­search path­ways. Each em­pire grows along sub­tly dif­fer­ent branches. How­ever, Stel­laris un­der­per­forms where it ought to be strong­est: in the grand strat­egy phase, when the ma­jor ga­lac­tic play­ers have emerged and vie for con­trol.

Every path to vic­tory de­mands a show of force. The fi­delity of space bat­tles is su­perb; the va­ri­ety the ship builder al­lows your fleets im­mense. But what about the paci­fists, or the diplo­mat­i­cally in­clined? Play­ers who aren’t in­ter­ested in an arms race will find diplo­macy woe­fully un­der­fed com­pared to pre­vi­ous Para­dox games. Your op­tions ex­tend to declar­ing war, form­ing an al­liance (or later a fed­er­a­tion), estab­lish­ing an em­bassy for a monthly bonus to your re­la­tions, and of­fer­ing a trade deal. Trade deals are the high­light, a flex­i­ble barter sys­tem for re­sources, knowl­edge, bor­der ac­cess and more. Sadly, its suc­cess is over­shad­owed by the ab­sence of in­ter­species es­pi­onage, of­ten leav­ing you with no re­course but to guz­zle up your neigh­bour to progress.

Stand­ing apart from early mod­ern Europe’s tan­gle of al­le­giances, uni­lat­er­al­ism is of­ten the best call. As you progress, there’s lit­tle sense of a com­mu­nity emerg­ing – ev­ery­one’s just float­ing in the void, united by con­ve­nience as op­posed to vi­sions of a com­mon future. So long as it’s not in an al­liance, de­vour­ing a bor­der­ing em­pire pro­vokes no re­ac­tion from nearby sys­tems.

The mid-to-late game quickly be­comes rote. You build up your fleet, as­sim­i­late a sys­tem, con­sol­i­date, ex­pand and re­peat un­til you meet the 40-per-cent-ga­lac­tic-con­trol vic­tory con­di­tion. Para­dox likes to ex­pand its games piece­meal, and DLC and un­bri­dled mod­ding will even­tu­ally re­sult in a su­per­mas­sive space opera cum strat­egy game. As it stands, you find your­self re­signed to ga­lac­tic mid­dle man­age­ment.

Stel­laris sim­ply com­mu­ni­cates its tan­gle of re­sources, currencies and mod­i­fiers with im­prob­a­ble el­e­gance

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