Stellaris has been in our paws (or jaws?) for about a month now, and by most accounts it has been a resounding success, both critically and commercially. The game took bold steps to move the genre towards a new, undiscovered country – the game’s impact seems to be among the more far-reaching compared to other recent 4X games. Our review of Stellaris handed it an eXemplary rating, and judging by the Steam ratings most people are having an eXemplary romp with the game. That’s the good news.
But there are a few of us, lurking in the shadows, who feel that all that glitters is not gold. For every bright mark in the game, we see the dark smear of missed opportunity. This eXtraneous Opinion article is an endeavor to share my perspective on Stellaris and drill into some of its shortcomings. In addition, changes introduced by the Clarke (v1.1.0) update will be considered along with Paradox’s near-term roadmap of upcoming improvements.
So without further ado, let us commence with the do’s and don’ts!
I DO like Stellaris’ research system
The card based research system is a wonderful departure from static tech trees and is a fantastic system that Paradox can build on. An under-appreciated aspect of “random” stuff in games is that it can be a device for creating narrative and tension. When the unexpected happens and things spiral out of your control, memories are created.
Take one of my recent play sessions for example. For whatever reason, I didn’t get a single colonization technology until well past the midpoint of the game, by which time the entire galaxy was completely full. On the one hand, I was cursing this game for being so awful to me. On the other, the chaos of the research system created a unique situation, which drove the entire strategic direction of my empire. I ended up having to aggressively vassalize nearby empires and use frontier outposts to control territory until eventually I learned colony ship tech. I’ll never forget this.
….At the same time, uncertainty and randomness are at odds with a strategy game. It is hard to develop a long term strategy – like, say, colonizing worlds in a game about growing a galactic empire – when you aren’t even given the chance to attempt that strategy in the first place. So while I appreciate the thrill of seeing what new technology cards are coming next, I can’t help but feel like the hand I’m dealt sets me on a trajectory that I can do little to change. In a game of poker this is fine, because the laws of probability are going to even things out over the course of many, many hands. But in a session that can last a dozen hours or more, randomly missing a few key technologies early on can have a ripple effect that hinders your progress relative to other empires.
I DON’T enjoy Stellaris’ technologies & incremental numbers
This is more of a pet-peeve than anything, but I dislike incremental technology progression. What do I mean? I don’t like it when new technologies are just bigger, spiffier, versions of the same thing that came before it. Red lasers do like 2.89 DPS. Blue lasers do like 3.15 DPS (these are made up numbers by the way). It’s very incremental. Grow your empire by 10%, but then get a tech that lets you build 10% more ships. The +X% there and -Y% there sorts of technologies are just not interesting to me. Stellaris’ tech tree is filled with these types of techs that are little more than stat buffs.
The over-use of stat buff mechanics relates to the bigger structural design of the game. To get a colony fully developed for example, I end up essentially rebuilding everything in the colony three or four times over. Hydroponic Greenhouse I is replaced by Hydroponic Greenhouse II, and later on by Hydroponic Greenhouse III. There is this constant escalation of numbers in the game, but for many of these activities, what I’m doing in the first five minutes of the game is no different than what I’m doing a dozen hours later. Moreover, managing all these numbers is both mindless and repetitive, with very few decisions involved. My next step is always obvious!
…It’s not all doom and gloom. There are some technologies that open up new options, and these are the sorts of technologies that get me excited in space 4X games. For example, acquiring a technology that opens up new diplomatic choices broadens the strategic options available to me. I’m not doing more and bigger versions of the same thing – now I’m doing NEW things. Being able to do qualitatively different things over the course of the game gives me a greater sense of progression – that my empire is evolving and changing – compared to doing the same thing throughout the entire game over and over again. With luck, as new mechanics are injected into the game, we will see more technologies that truly expand the player’s choices.
I DO delight in Stellaris’ options for species customization
Having this huge kit of parts with which to customize your empire is pretty awesome. I’m glad to see them move away from a typical points-based system for picking traits (although there is some of that). In Stellaris you get to play with a whole pinwheel of ethical positions that directly influences the type of government structures at your disposal, which has (at least conceptually) far reaching gameplay implications. While your ethical and organizational choices provide some of the same +X/-Y modifiers I already complained about, it couples these to the diplomatic system and how your species interacts with its alien neighbors. So that’s all well and good.
…The systems don’t feel fully baked yet. The customization options feel like there are a lot of consequences behind your decisions (e.g. in diplomacy, empire happiness). But in a lot of cases the modifiers are too small, or the diplomatic perks and penalties too mild to drive my decision making. For instance, I haven’t had issues with managing my population’s happiness or ethical unity/divergence as a consequence of my actions. For the most part, I am at liberty to do whatever the hell I want and my citizens remain quite happy about it all. Maybe this is a function of my playstyle or the ethical traits of my species, but I’ve never had problems managing my primary species’ happiness.
These concerns spill over into the AI species as well, which are randomly generated conglomerations of attributes, naming conventions, and aesthetics. There is no predefined character to the races you encounter. While perhaps this is realistic, the gameplay effect is that all these differences feel like they average out into the same, generic feeling alien – and the galaxy is filled with like 30 of them – each with their own incomprehensible names and grab-bag of qualities. Of course, players can take matters into their own hands and custom design a set of species to square off against – the game gives you all the tools to do that. I’m sure between DLC’s and mods, this issue will get worked on over time. But right now I’m not feeling it.
I DON’T love the sector and faction systems as they currently stand
This is one aspect of the game that many people feel is a bit underwhelming. In fact, I think the whole relationship between factions, sectors, and vassals needs some re-evaluation. Presently, interactions with vassals are quite limited. While they support you in combat, their behavior is otherwise (diplomatically, expanding territory, etc.) inert. Vassals will loathe you regardless of what you try and do for them, and provide little overall benefit to the player. As for sectors, conceptually, I think they are a great idea. As I said earlier, I find the colony development mini-game to be a tad boring and trivial (which makes the AI’s poor sector management all the more obvious). So personally I’d like to just ignore colony development entirely by dumping it all into sectors – assuming the AI was more effective..
In my experience, the sector mechanics are not as bad as some people are making them out to be (maybe I’m not enough of a min/maxer to care?). My grievances have more to do with the level of control and how the UI handles information about your sectors. It would be great, for example, if when you added a new colony to a sector you could spend a minute and queue up however many basic structures you wanted (even if you currently lack resources or the tiles are blocked), and then the sector AI would work towards fulfilling that plan with the budget you’ve given them. Something like this would be a nice way to have some direct input on the sector’s development, without giving the AI free-reign to make whatever illogical decisions it might be making. Coupled with finer controls for automation (e.g. stipulating a cap on accumulated resources or an ability to still manually queue a project) I think it could be a pretty good system.
As for the factions, my beef with the system is that the options for dealing with them are limited, and in most cases not interesting or consequential. When you click on “Manage Factions” all you have are a few different buttons with which to bribe the revolutionaries or launch a propaganda campaign. But all of these amount to spending different ratios of resources to make factions irrelevant to gameplay. “Take the money and go away” is the approach used. I’d like to see more factions popping up with both good and bad agendas in mind. And coupling factions more to sector behavior could evolve into an interesting decision space. But this isn’t the case right now.
…Fortunately the sector and faction systems seem like a high priority. Paradox is already looking into this, although major improvements to these systems aren’t anticipated until the 3rd patch, “Heinlein.” As it is, the systems are serviceable. But given that these sorts of internal political systems are the hallmark of Paradox’s grand strategy brand, it is a shame that they were not better developed for release. Hopefully they can turn the ship around.
I DO appreciate the diplomacy and alliance/federation system… In theory
Diplomacy is always a rocky point of conversation. Stellaris appears to do lot of good things right out of the gate. For example, I enjoy the geopolitical dimension to the game where you are forming alliances, securing vassals, and building federations. Each of these different relationship structures is saddled with mechanical twists that create some consequential choices and challenges. Alliances cost influence points, adding an economic cost to your diplomatic relations. Federations are awesome, but it means you might be dragged into a war where you aren’t able to set the terms. Then again, going to war and seeing the fleets of your allies rally to your banner in a spearhead assault is pretty freaking awesome! I can’t think of any other 4X game that so effectively allows allied forces to coordinate their movement.
…Unfortunately some aspects of the diplomacy system are just not working for me.
My first issue is that if an alliance is in a war, no one else can join (or leave) that alliance. Imagine in WW2, before the US got involved, if the European allies were like “dude, this alliance is, like, really busy fighting this war… We can’t let you in right now. Check back in a year.” Stellaris is like that. I’ve had mid-game stagnation because all of my potential alliance partners are caught up in never-ending back and forth wars and so I’m shut out of engaging in diplomacy with large swaths of the galaxy. More than just being shut out of (or locked into) an alliance, this means that the potential for backstabbing or miraculous reversals are non-existent. It makes the geopolitical landscape much less dynamic and unpredictable (and for me exciting).
Then there are oversights (I’m guessing?) – like not being able to merge alliances or federations at all. In one game, I’m in a big happy federation and we have two neighbors in their own happy alliance. There is an arbitrary -1000 penalty when asking an empire to join your alliance/federation if they are in one already. Yet there is no option to ask that entire alliance to join. Why? I’d like to see this option added. Ideally, I’d love to see influence get used more as a strategic resource to open up further diplomatic options.
Lastly, I find the game difficulty penalties for forming alliances to be frustrating. I want to be challenged by the AI, which the difficulty bonuses to economy and research provide. But higher difficulties also impose a fixed penalty to forming alliances. Even empires you have friendly and highly positive relationships towards are almost impossible to ally with. Curiously, that same empire might invite you to join them a short time later! Yes, this makes the game harder, but it also effectively takes all the choice out of the player’s hand and shuts them out of an important part of the gameplay. We’re forced into a very narrow type of play, which seems antithetical to what Stellaris was all about in the first place.
I DON’T relish leader management
Leaders are completely forgettable in this game, or perhaps their influence on the game is just not vivid enough for me to tell. For people hoping this was closer to a Crusader Kings 2 in space, the prospect of leaders was cause for celebration. Imagine if these leaders had a major bearing on gameplay outcomes – that they were somehow tied to different internal factions/houses and how you treated these leaders directly affected your faction relationships. That would be awesome, right? As it is, leaders appear out of thin air in an endless stream of randomly generated names and faces, coupled with bonuses that don’t appear terribly significant. When a leader dies, there is no shedding of tears, no triggered events that mark their passing – merely plugging the next-best sucker into the open job position.
…They do have their uses for those paying attention. For scientists, their field of expertise will make technologies of that type more likely to appear in the tech draw (I believe), which is important for learning colonization techs early on. Governors and admirals can certainly provide some significant boosts, like increased fire rate or in-system speed. Long term, I hope they do something much more interesting with Leaders (acquiring more interesting quirks and traits, good or bad, then they do currently) and ramp up their effects much more to mix up the gameplay. Until then, they just aren’t an interesting part of the game for me.
I DO like the combat system
There is a time and a place for detailed, time consuming tactical combat. Stellaris is not that place. I’ve been wanting to see a space 4X game that allows for huge fleet battles that are controlled at the strategic level, which is something Stellaris delivers. It even does a good job relaying information about an engagement’s progress, which you can use to build ships that better counter your opponent. Retrofitting is a snap too. It takes a few clicks to split up your fleets and get them rearmed across multiple starbases – the process is much smoother than most other 4X games.
Another great thing about the combat is, as I mentioned above, how well your allies and federation members will follow your fleets around and combine their forces during an attack. I can’t think of any other 4X game where I’ve tried to get an ally to assist me competently in a war effort and it actually happened. So kudos to Stellaris for that.
…At times I wish I had a little more control over combat. It is all a numbers game based on the abundance of ships, what size hull they are, and how effectively you can counter your opponents’ design. Combat itself remains woefully hands-off and still needs some more balancing attention (dodging corvette’s anyone?). Aesthetically, the opening volleys of combat are great, but ultimately it turns into a mosh pit of ships, where it is impossible to tell what’s going on within the writhing mass of metal.
Combat is also not as dynamic as it could be. For example, if I have faster ships with greater range weapons than my opponent, why is it that I can’t assign a tactic that would let me maintain range and fire away from relative safety? Why must every battle devolve into the mosh pit? Adding additional options for ship behaviors, as well as spreading out the engagement zone and keeping more space between ships, would makes things more interesting. As it is, this is very much a game about stacks of doom.
The other issue I’ve faced is that the cat-and-mouse of chasing enemy fleets around the stars can become frustrating at times. While I like having three different modes of FTL travel in the game, it can be difficult, depending on which mode is chasing down which other mode, to pin a fleet in combat. Compounding the issue is that if you split up your fleets to cover more ground, your allies’ fleets continue to follow your biggest one around instead of also splitting up, meaning that your unsupported forces can be easily overwhelmed.
I DON’T love the lack of interesting victory conditions (and the dull mid-game)
My heart sank a few notches when I read a draft of our review and learned that victory conditions were not well developed (i.e. barely developed at all) in the base game. I understand that Paradox Grand Strategy games are often about creating your own goals and narrative within the time span of the game. But I had hoped that Stellaris would take the opportunity to be more creative and forward thinking in terms of victory conditions – and the early game provides such a nice setup for that potential.
I wonder if Stellaris would’ve been better without victory conditions at all, at least at launch. The problem is that by including them, players (at least this one) are going to try and work towards them. It’s a competitive galaxy out there, right!? And so all of the current victory conditions (control 40% of all colonizable worlds or conqueror all independent empires) are met by military or diplomatic means. But neither of those approaches are particularly engaging or innovative. Diplomacy lacks tension and nuance – as all too often deals either work or they don’t. Military conquest can be a little more interesting, but by the time you have a decent alliance going, you can often just steamroll the opposition.
Conquest is lackluster as the AI shows some major weaknesses at the strategic scale in responding to a multi-faceted invasion. In my 43 hours playing, I’ve yet to lose either a single war or even had a single planet invaded successfully (I’m playing on hard, by the way). There is no tension in wars, because victory is already determined. And when this is coupled with the need, often times, to conquerer and re-conquer an opponent multiple times as a consequence of warscore limitations, it gets frustrating quickly. I find it quizzical that victory conditions push you towards conflict, yet the game mechanics can make a military campaign a tedious, incremental, slog.t.
…As lacking as the endgame is, the early game and exploration is wonderful. The event quests can become repetitive, but generally there is enough variety to keep things fresh from game to game. Expansion itself is fraught with tension as you run into the borders of other empires quickly and are constantly pressed to decide whether to make an expensive frontier outpost to secure valuable real estate. These interesting pieces of lore and tensions need to work their way into the rest of the game.
I DO like Stellaris… But I DON’T like Stellaris!
I’ll say this: Stellaris is one of the finest space 4X games to be released in a long time. On one hand, that’s quite an accomplishment. On the other, it isn’t saying much about the state of the competition! Nevertheless, I’m hard pressed to think of any other space 4X game that was so well realized at launch – and so Paradox’s success is entirely warranted. But this shouldn’t obscure the fact there are plenty of aspects of the game in need of further development (factions, diplomacy, UI, etc.).
I must admit that, for me, Stellaris as it currently stands is a mixed bag. I was sold the promise (perhaps I was delusional) that this would be Grand Strategy merged with a Space 4X game. I can clearly see the 4X aspects, but the Grand Strategy elements – diplomacy, internal politics, factions, vassal interactions, etc. – are woefully underdeveloped and don’t feel like they have much bearing on the gameplay right now. I was not expecting Crusader Kings 2 in space, but Europa Universalis 4? Maybe. As is, I would NOT even describe the game as a Grand Strategy at all. At least not yet.
Despite this, I think Stellaris can eventually become the game it set out to be. Many of my issues with the game have to do with balance and pacing, which has to do with numbers. And numbers can be tweaked endlessly by developers and modders to season the experience into something delectable. For all the complaints people have towards the UI, overall I find the UI to be in the upper echelon of functionality, and I’m always surprised at the things I can do with it. Is there room for improvement? Of course.
What is important to the future of Stellaris, is that the systems are in place to create deep, multi-layered gameplay. For all these amazing systems to come into their own, I think they need to be oriented around a more compelling set of objectives and victory conditions – even if they all remain optional to use at your own discretion. There needs to be some “killer mechanic” or system to give more purpose to what you are doing and which will make your decisions more consequential and challenging.
Paradox set the table and they have the right cooks in the kitchen. I’m crossing my fingers that their dream is realized.