Posted on 23 May 2016 by Stephen Haselden

Stellaris

The Defence

Developer: Paradox Development Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Genre: Strategy
Platform: Mac, PC
Review copy: Yes
Release date: 09 May 2016

The Prosecution

Minimum
Recommended
OS: Linux, Windows
CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad 2.66 GHz
AMD Athlon II X4 3.0 GHz
VGA: Nvidia GeForce 460
AMD Radeon HD 5770
RAM: 2 GB
HDD: 4 GB
DirectX: 9
Controller: None
Mod Support: Yes
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+
OS: Linux, Windows
CPU: Intel Core i3 3.1 GHz
AMD Phenom II X4 3.3 GHz
VGA: Nvidia GeForce 540 Ti
AMD Radeon HD 6850
RAM: 4 GB
HDD: 4 GB
DirectX: 9
Controller: None
Mod Support: Yes
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+

The Case

Paradox has a reputation for making good strategy games, however Stellaris is their first venture into the field of Sci-Fi 4X, a niche that is notoriously difficult to make games for. Can Paradox break into this new market where so many others have failed? Can they even stand out in 2016, a year when so many new 4X games are making an appearance?

The Trial

Paradox have branched into a new genre, but I have a feeling that they’ve been fans of 4X space games for a long time now. The universe they have created has a sense of awe that’s reminiscent of epic Sci-Fi books or a good episode of Star Trek. They have filled the galaxy with a diverse range of creatures, surprises, and exotic locations that keep the game fresh through many hours of exploration. With the exception of espionage, Stellaris includes all the features usually found in a 4X game: research, diplomacy, combat, invasions, and the likes. Every part of the game is competently made, with many areas bringing something new, unique and fresh to the genre. The game has a pausable real time system, which works equally well in single player and multiplayer games. Strategy is the most brilliant part of Stellaris; Paradox have imbued every area of the game with depth, complexity, and flavour, while still keeping it simple to use. All of this is helped by an uncomplicated aesthetic, minimal number of screens, a well-designed UI, and informative multi-level tooltips that makes things clear and accessible throughout.

Life in Stellaris is diverse, determined, and dangerous when provoked.

How to minimise micromanagement in a game with hundreds of stars is an ongoing problem in many 4X titles. Paradox however have taken the bold move of forcing players to use the macro controls. With the exceptions of certain rare techs/policies, players are limited to a maximum of five planets they can directly control. If a player tries to control more without using the macro system (Sectors), then they receive a 10% economic penalty for each extra world, until they allocate some of the planets to a Sector. Sectors are simply contiguous arrangements of stars that the player can manage only through the Sector blanket controls. Governors work as an incentive to use Sectors, as they can apply bonuses to whole Sectors at a time, rather than to a single star system. Sector controls are simple but effective and, combined with a good AI, they allow players to finally let go of the details and embrace the bigger picture.

Governors are just one of the various types of leader available in Stellaris. Politicians are similar to Governors except they affect your entire empire. Politicians are also the one type of leader whom you don’t recruit, instead they are elected (although you can influence elections). Admirals can be recruited to manage fleets, generals to manage armies, and scientists to manage research and command science vessels. Leader mechanics are very interesting, and well developed. Age is an important factor for leaders, as they will all die eventually (some technologies will delay this). Each leader has individual skills and rank, which affect how well they accomplish various tasks. It’s important to pay particular attention to a scientist’s skills, as they will be more adept at researching some technologies than others.

Never underestimate a ball of intelligent gas.

Research in the game is quite complex. There are three main branches that research technologies simultaneously (Physics, Society and Engineering). Each branch researches one tech at a time from a semi random pool of technologies. Un-researched techs may or may not appear again. Techs are colour coded to show if they’re either: rare, repeatable, or will disappear if you research something else, and some techs won’t appear unless you find the related anomaly or event while exploring the galaxy. The layout of the tech tree could be a little more exciting; a simple vertical list is all you get to indicate selectable technologies. However there is a huge variety of techs available with many imaginative ideas among them. Despite an interface that is lacking, the research system is one of the best I’ve ever used.

Race design in Stellaris is a step beyond many 4X games, with an enormous amount of detail available. When designing a new race, you have to initially choose a type such as; mammalian, reptilian, avian, etc. from six main race categories. Next there are fifteen sub races to choose from. After that you choose their attire. Not counting the clothes, there are over ninety different styles of aliens to choose from. When you’re happy with the look of your new race, there is an abundance of further options for setting up your game. As with all 4X’s you can set the number of rivals you will face, but Stellaris also includes precursor races who offer a far greater challenge than your typical rivals. The precursors are basically super space bullies, far more powerful than normal races. There are three ways of dealing with them; join them and help in whatever crusade they are on, stay out of their way, or unite as many young races as you can to try and oust these guys in true Babylon 5 style. Minor races are not a new feature to 4X games, however Stellaris has made them more entertaining than ever before. There are multiple ways to deal with minor races such as: going all “Prime Directive”, “Roswell”, or just going “Battlefield Earth” on them (if you don’t get these references you need to watch more Sci-Fi movies!). Eventually, if left alone (or if given some help), minor races will develop into space faring empires, and although weak compared to other races they can still affect the galactic balance or even grow stronger and contend with the other major players.

Even small galaxies can have complex politics.

Diplomacy, like most of the game, is complex but still easy to understand. The trade and research areas in diplomacy manage to avoid common exploits, while still being powerful tools for your empire. There are many other clever elements to diplomacy, such as not being able to enter a fight until you declare war through diplomatic channels. Declaring war also requires you to set conditions for the fight; your opponent can capitulate to these conditions giving you planets, wealth, or even surrendering entirely in order to end the war. Once your opponent surrenders, a temporary truce is enforced stopping you going to war with them again for some time.

There are many opportunities for combat in Stellaris; not only with other empires but with intergalactic pests and through various events. Combat occurs in the system screen in real time. There is very little for you to control directly in combat, normally you have control over fleet compositions and movements, but once your ships get within range of an enemy it’s out of your hands; all you can do is send more ships, wait for the battle to end, or hit the emergency retreat button. The ship design feature is very basic; you can drop in various techs & weapons but it’s only about as detailed as Sword of the Stars and looks nowhere near as fancy. Every ship you design is given a generic “military strength” value. This value is added up to give an overall fleet strength, and sadly the only tactic you need is to have a higher fleet strength than your enemy. The long and short of this is that combat is the weak link here. It’s marginally more interesting than combat in the Galactic Civilisation series, but that’s saying nothing special. The one silver lining is that the “hands off” nature of battle makes managing larger games and faster speeds more feasible, and this in turn also helps in multiplayer games. Stellaris can handle some truly epic multiplayer games; with up to 32 players in a game and excellent macro mechanics, Stellaris is a new favourite for multiplayer 4X gaming.

Space is often as mysterious as it is magnificent.

Paradox is the newest member of an elite group that few get to join – successful developers of 4X space games. Despite being the new guys, they have just schooled everyone else on how to do research, diplomacy, macro and strategy. At release, stability and build quality is excellent, bugs and glitches are rare. Mid to late game, exploration takes a downturn, and so does the game’s pace, relying mainly on how you handle diplomacy. A more aggressive AI or more spontaneous events would help with late game pacing. If you don’t mind a quieter game, adding some peaceful routes to victory would’ve helped too.

Stellaris could do with a little more character; the overall aesthetic is very subtle and subdued compared to other games from the genre. It wouldn’t hurt to have some “larger than life” characters, or something in its art style that screams, “THIS IS STELLARIS!”. However these flaws are overall minor issues, and won’t stop you from enjoying the game. A lot.

The Verdict

When making Stellaris, Paradox created a well-rounded game with very few flaws, lots of fun, ingenuity, and imagination throughout. However to do this they also had to overcome various shortcomings that have plagued every 4X game until now like diplomacy, macro controls, epic multiplayer. It has a wealth of hardcore Sci-Fi ideas embedded in it, more than any other 4X game since Space Empires V. It is a joy to play, easy to grasp, yet deep, and has unending replayability. On top of that, the devs are dedicated to supporting mods. In the first week alone, over seven hundred mods were released in the Steam Workshop. All in all, I see Stellaris as the new “gold standard”. It is the go to game for experiencing an immersive, and awe inspiring Sci-Fi universe, minus most of the complications, and tedium, that plague its peers. Stellaris is nothing short of remarkable.

Case Review

  • Niven: Not since Space Empires V have I seen so many hardcore Sci-Fi ideas worked into a 4X title.

  • Strategy King: Paradox just schooled everyone on how to bring the strategy, again.

  • Must Have Macros: Paradox have created the best macro management system in any 4X game, ever.

  • Holy Coding: To play a game these days that is so well finished on release, is a rarity. But to play a 4X game that is in such a good state on release, is nothing short of a miracle.

  • Manic Multiplayer: Fast paced multiplayer games are not only possible, but they can be saved, or joined mid match. With up to 32 players in one game, some truly epic MP matches are possible.

  • Indie Mods: Paradox have opened every area of the game to modding. Over 700 mods released on the Steam Workshop in the first week!

  • Too Tasteful: Stellaris is not ugly, but the aesthetics could do with more character.

  • Emperor Not Admiral: Ship design is basic, and combat is shallow although not non-existent. I’d place the combat somewhere between Galactic Civilization and Sins.

4.5 Score: 4.5/5
This is the new Gold Standard for 4X space games.

Evidence

  • Graphics: A simple selection of multisample, refresh rate, resolution, and display mode in either Full, Windowed, or borderless. The windowed and borderless options are important for many 4X gamers, however there is no UI scaling which is vital for playing Stellaris on 2K or 4K resolution. This issue is addressed with a pinned Mod on the Steam forum, but it's something Paradox should address natively.
  • Sound: All the audio options that matter are here. You can control either the master volume or adjust effect, music, ambient, and advisor volumes individually.
  • Gameplay: Autosave, autosave to cloud, tutorial, and event popups are the only initial gameplay controls.
  • Game customization: The setup options for each game are vast, I won’t list them all here, but you will not want for choice when adapting a game to your liking. As an example, which FTL method you choose has a dramatic difference in the entire game style. The only options really lacking here are more choices for what notices appear, and an options for auto pause on notices.
4 Score: 4/5

There was a man who once said “there are 2 types of games, one bores me to a state of rigor mortis within an hour, the other I look up to realise I should have had something to eat 4 hours ago”. Stellaris fits into the latter, heavily as I ended up losing a day. In fact, I lost multiple days and I never once got to a point of “now I have nothing to do but sit and wait for something to finish”.

As the empire system is designed it is a bit difficult to realise that you need to create sectors to increase the amount of planets you can control. However sectors are AI controlled, so you don’t have direct control. The random research comes in interesting as you don’t have a set path to upgrade your technology, so at times you may find yourself with superior weapons and not much in the way of ships to mount them on. Conversely, you will have to learn to not trust the default ships from the auto-creator as it will just put on very little. The game doesn’t warn you of this, but it does give an excellent tutorial, though it should remind you after a while.

Since each nation is not set in stone, replayability is very forefront. Along with randomly finding dead worlds of civilisations, create a sense of being more in-depth than you think of initially. My main question is, if you enjoy something that is a bit slower paced than FPS’ why aren’t you playing Stellaris yet?

Comments (4)


Posts: 311
L Coulsen
Posted 24 May 2016, 20:20
They're learning I guess. Plus, they're getting more money these days, so they can, literally, afford to take more time for bugtesting

Posts: 46
Stephen Haselden
Posted 24 May 2016, 12:59
If your new to 4X games, Sword of the Stars is nice simple one with plenty of action.

Stellaris is one of the more complex games in the Genre, but as I said, its well presented and accesible. You can also play it in co-op with a friend and have them get you started. you can even save your co-op game or keep playing when they leave, as the AI automatically takes over for them.

Posts: 133
Simon Sirmenis
Posted 24 May 2016, 11:30
Paradox seem to have really turned things around. They've been doing great games for ages but they used to also do incredibly buggy games. A nice change for a great publisher.

Posts: 311
L Coulsen
Posted 23 May 2016, 21:53
You know, if I didn't suck balls so much at 4x, I'd really get into this