Review: Stellaris20 May 2016 1
Released 09 May 2016
The first thing I encountered outside the solar system in Stellaris was two gargantuan aliens having sex. All the wonders of the universe at the digital fingertips of the game's much-vaunted event dictionary and it chose to serve me up xeno-porn. My poor, peaceful exploration vessel was almost crushed between their ponderous pelvic thrusts.
Stellaris is a curious game. It starts off much like a typical sci-fi 4x game, albeit with a lot more bells, whistles and alien copulation than you might expect. Rather than just building colonies, ships and research you'll want to recruit and assign leaders to these activities. Monitor their drain on your various resources. Keep an eye on the internal politics of your burgeoning empire by issuing edicts and responding to the campaign promises of presidential candidates.
These, together with a grab-bag of peculiar moral and political foibles that you get when choosing a race to play, are the first clues to what's really going on here. Fittingly enough, the game itself feels like the offspring of two titans of the strategy genre. What starts out like a 4x game slowly but surely metamorphoses into a grand strategy affair.
In doing so, it attempts to tear down the biggest barrier to the latter group: accessibility. Starting a new grand strategy game is a daunting affair. Not just because of the vast, byzantine nature of the game's internal systems to get to grips with, but because you need to internalise the whole world. You might start as a petty barony in Scotland, but you still need to ascertain what the English, French and Scandinavian nobilities are doing as fast as possible.
Here, that overwhelming influx of information is replaced by a delightful drip of details. You build science vessels and send them out to explore the surrounding stars, probing them for minerals and habitable planets. You'll also set in motion initial story chains, the results of which won't play out for hours to come. For those with itchy trigger fingers, early game military challenges include pirates and hostile alien beings.
Eventually you'll run into some aliens who aren't just mindlessly hostile but are in the business of empire building themselves. Their initial reaction will depend on how their particular moral and political make-up aligns with yours. Building an embassy may help things along. Eventually you'll be able to conduct trade deals with them, swapping research or information, even allying into a grand co-operative. Or, if things don't go so well, you may end up at war, although currently the AI seems disinclined to do so in all but the most extreme circumstances.
This is the beginning of the transition into more traditional grand strategy fare. The absorbing 4x romp of the initial hours begins to stall as your expanding colonies bump up against more and more other intergalactic empires. To progress demands careful diplomacy as much, if not more, than micromanagement. As the pattern of territory locks down that game shifts gear. At least that's the theory.
In practice, a number of awkward design decisions make the later stages of Stellaris a whole lot more fiddly and less engaging than they should be. As you grow, some of your planets are hived off into independent sectors which the AI is supposed to run for you. That leaves you to focus on the bigger picture. But you still need the resources and fleets from the planets in these sectors, so you'll find yourself interfering more often than you'd want. Except now, to get things done, you have to fight with your own governors as well as the opposition.
Perhaps that's some deliberate wry satire on the reality of big government. It's likely quite accurate that even in the far future, laden with magical technologies, we'll still be squabbling over bureaucratic points of principle. It's just not that interesting to play.
Toward the end of the game, it throws one of a number of crises into the mix to spice things up a bit. Your robots might rebel against you, for example, or you might be invaded by another alien species from outside the known universe. These help to reinvigorate the game. But what weaves through the three distinct phases of Stellaris play, binding them together and helping to pull the player through the more tiresome passages, is the sense of narrative.
All sorts of things contribute to the sense of a unique, evolving tale. The discovery of each new system is in itself a small event, made greater by the occasional wonder you find therein, from anomalies to research to comical disembodied aliens. Then there are actual event chains that spawn throughout the game and twist and weave their way around your play depending on the choices you make. And the icing on the cosmic cake is the random things your own species does to you as they prosper or chaff under your yoke. Just like real-world civilizations do.
The idea of introducing a grand strategy game via slow space exploration is a great one, which ought to yield a gentle gradient of transformation and complexity. In Stellaris, it currently feels more like two different vehicles, roughly welded together to make a whole. Yet for all the cowboy engineering on display, it's an impressive drive for those who have the patience.