4X style games aren’t the kinds of games you start to kill an hour or two, they’re the ones you start when you want to kill days. I can remember whole LANs that were lost to games like Alpha Centauri, whoever was “dragging the chain” on their turn ridiculed endlessly until they were done. Indeed when I first spun up Stellaris, the latest game from Paradox Interactive, I recieved a message from one of my friends saying I wouldn’t have time to finish it. As the unfolding hours showed he was 100% correct as even 9 hours with this game feel like you’re barely even scratching the surface. Still I can see the appeal but unfortunately Stellaris tends towards repetition very rapidly, making longer sessions more of a chore than anything else.
You’re the leader of a young civilisation that’s just discovered the miracle of space flight. Like all good civilisations your first task is to set about exploring the universe in the hopes of finding other planets and solar systems ripe for exploitation. Along the way you’ll likely encounter other lifeforms (some more or less advanced than you), relics of civilisations of the past and all sorts of celestial phenomena. The tools you’ll have at your disposal will vary widely each time you attempt this and will greatly impact the way in which you expand into the universe. Whether your civilisation thrives or perishes is up to you and the decisions you make in your journey across the great black.
Like most games in the 4X genre Stellaris errs on the side of simple graphics without too much flair. Since you’ll be spending most of your time zoomed all the way out this doesn’t come up too often, although the lack of detail becomes glaringly obvious for things like the ship designer. Of course these low-fi graphics are a deliberate choice as most of your rig’s horsepower will be focused on churning through the simulations required. For the most part this works well however there are some rather glaring issues with the simulation system which can make your experience far more frustrating than it needs to be (more on that later).
The core game of Stellaris is your typical 4X affair, centred around finding new planets, colonising them if you can and repeating that process ad infinitum. Stellaris shakes things up a little bit by taking a different approach to the upgrade/technology tree system, dividing all upgrades into 3 categories. Each of these categories can be researched by a scientist but what they can research is random. This means that you could, potentially, go the entire game without getting the technology required to build colony ships. Armies, rather than being pre-defined types, are all fully customisable. This means that there’s another element of randomness when it comes to combat as you can never be quite sure how well your army composition stacks up against another. Finally since your aim in Stellaris is to be a true galactic empire there’s a system to add planets to “sectors” which are then controlled by an AI for you. There’s still more to Stellaris however even summarising them all would take longer than I have to write and you to read, I’d wager.
Starting off Stellaris is a daunting prospect as there’s just so much thrown at you that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The tutorial system does a pretty good job of walking you through everything however it’ll probably take a couple retries before you get the hang of the basics. Once you get past that point however the early game can be quite interesting as you try to pick out the best upgrades, figure out where to best place your outposts/colonies and how you deal with the hostiles getting in your way. Indeed I think my favourite part of Stellaris is the early to mid game as it feels quite varied, progress is consistent and there are no major issues getting in your way. It’s once the game starts to creep past the 2 to 3 hour mark that things start to turn south, usually for a variety of different reasons.
Typically you’ll spend the first part of your game defining your borders and trying to cordon off sectors that you can exploit later. Past a certain point though all your territory will be exploited and your borders brushing up against numerous potential foes. It’s at this point you have a tough decision to make: either start preparing for total war with someone (although you should probably do that anyway as it’ll likely come for your eventually) or start attempting diplomatic relations. The latter is, honestly, a total crap shoot as it seems most alien races aren’t willing to do anything unless you lavish them with resources. The former is the option you will be forced into at one point or another as there’s simply no way to expand your territory otherwise. Worse still if you do want to play pacifist there’s every chance that another race will simply not take a liking to you and completely decimate you, something that happened to me on several occasions.
The sector system, whilst a good idea, does little to reduce the burden of ensuring that your system is running as well as it can be. Sure you can set goals and whatnot but issues like a mixed species population, developing factions, etc. will all keep drawing your attention. As your empire grows these problems become more and more frequent making it incredibly draining to run an empire that spans more than a few sectors. Indeed I abandoned a couple games simply because they became too tiresome to continue with, instead wanting to try my hand at starting again to see if there was a better way to set myself up. In the end I didn’t find anything which is probably why I didn’t play as much as your average Paradox Interactive fan does (around 30+ hours, according to the data I have available).
There are also some niggling issues which need to be addressed. The fact that achievements can only be acquired in Ironman Mode is something the game doesn’t make obvious to you and is honestly a pain to get working. It took me more than 5 hours of game play to realise I hadn’t gotten a signle achievement and then another 30 minutes of getting the cloud save feature working so I could actually start a game with achievements on. Worse still the Ironman Mode saves every month, something that freezes your game session every minute or so if you’re playing on fastest. Honestly it’s more frustrating than its worth which is why I think most simply don’t bother. This isn’t to mention some quality of life improvements that are required, like being able to filter planets you’ve scanned by say habitable status, or your colonies by the type of shipyard you have and so on. Essentially a lot of it relies on your memory or simple brute forcing, something which takes much of the joy out of the experience. Indeed I’m not alone in thinking this either as many of the threads I read whilst trying to find these things led me to other players looking for the same features.
The emergent stories of Stellaris can be quite engaging though, both from the perspective of how you grew your empire to the various little pre-generated story titbits that are strewn throughout the universe. One of my empires tried, with varying levels of success, to infiltrate a less developed race to prep them for our arrival. Another alien race found out about this though and accused me of enslaving them. Whilst that was partially the point on my end (it was a strategic planet) the fact that they reacted in such a way was a surprise to me. This did mean the end of my civilisation however as the other alien race was far better equipped for war than I was.
Stellaris is an adequately competent 4X game with a bevy of unique features that keep the experience fresh and interesting, at least in the early to mid game. The random technology trees, procedurally generated galaxies and random alien races means every play through will be unique. However the game rapidly becomes a burden the longer you play it, even with the AI systems that are designed to make your life a little easier. The niggling issues that are still present even a month after release only exacerbate this problem, especially if you’re someone who wants to hunt down all the achievements. Overall I think Stellaris is worth the price of admission, especially for fans of Paradox or the 4X genre, but falls short of my “must play” list.
Stellaris is available on PC right now for $39.99. Total game time was approximately 9 hours with 26% of the achievements unlocked.