While I often extol the virtues of simple games that focus on gameplay instead of transparent attempts to be “art,” that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a more cerebral experience every now and again. I’m especially fond of strategy games, so sometimes it’s good to put the shotgun down and instead command an army of tiny shotgun-wielding soldiers or something like that.
Spaceships are nice too, of course; the latest spaceship command simulator to cross my desk is Stellaris, a complex and involving strategy game from Paradox, a company known for their complex and involving strategy games.
Stellaris starts to draw you in immediately by offering you a vast array of options when it comes to designing the race that will represent you in the galaxy. The most important aspect of a race is their Ethics, a representation of that race’s values which are measured on scales of warmongering/pacifism, collectivism/individuality and spirituality/materialism. Nearly everything about your race, including the effects of many game events as well as the flavor for your responses to those events, are determined by your Ethics. A highly spiritual race will revere a passing comet and gain a morale boost for their people, for instance, while a materialistic race will…well, just look at the comet and forget about it.
You’re also able to take minor bonuses and maluses such as increased army strength and lifespan, as well as determining your race’s looks and habitat preferences. Once that’s all done, you determine galaxy size and several other options before being tossed into the universe to fend for yourself!
The initial expansion phases are like the start of a new relationship: they’re exciting! They’re fun! You’re discovering all kinds of new and exciting places to stick your ships, and…yeah, nevermind. The game is also fairly easy to grasp and manageable early on; logistics are largely abstracted so you don’t need to concern yourself with how resources get from one place to another, for instance. Anyway, that doesn’t last forever. Eventually you’re going to reach the midgame, at which point things start to get bogged down a little, then bogged down a lot, then practically stop, particularly if you’re playing a more peaceful race. The issue with Stellaris as it stands is that while the game seems open and full of promise at first you’ll rapidly discover that there’s really not that much to do.
The galaxy, as it turns out, actually tends to be a pretty crowded place. By the time you hit the midgame, you’re very likely to be out of areas you can expand into. If you’re a peaceful race then you’ve hit a bit of a roadblock; while you can create alliances and federations all you want, that still doesn’t leave you a lot to do with your own stars and population. Enjoy research, I guess! Have fun being peaceful while the rest of the universe engages in a grand space opera!
If you’re more warlike, then you have to grapple with Stellaris’ hilariously humane war system; rather than just rolling in and annexing another empire, you have to create a list of demands that the opposing empire can accept when they want the war to end, with the only other option being a straight peace where nobody wins or loses anything. You then have to slowly send some fleets over to their territory, slowly take out the opposing fleets, slowly whittle down a target planet’s defenses, slowly send over some ground armies to conquer it and wait while the deed is done. You’ll then repeat until you’ve intimidated your opponent enough that they accede to your demands.
The closest you can get to straight up conquering another empire is to vassalize them, turning them into servant empires; over the course of another two or three hours in real time, you can eventually integrate them into your empire proper. Multiply this by fifteen to twenty to account for the number of times you’ll need to do it and you’ll start to see how Stellaris can feel like a bit of a slog.
Despite all this, I can’t say Stellaris a bad game and I can’t say I don’t recommend it. The early game’s excitement goes a long way, as do the myriad possibilities offered by the game’s multiplayer capabilities. You just need to be willing to play for the long haul or to restart often when the proceedings start to slow down. What’s more, Paradox’s tendency to drastically improve their strategy games through patches and DLC bodes well for Stellaris. To paraphrase Elvis, who is no longer with us thanks to an extraterrestrial encounter of his own: this is a decent game, but a little less conversation and a little more action would do a lot to make Stellaris a must-have.