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