The case files for Stellaris are curious. When it launched earlier this year, expectations for Paradox’s “4X meets grand strategy in space” were quite high. And for a good reason! Paradox’s long-running Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings franchises are highwater marks in the world of strategy gaming. Stellaris was poised to build on that accomplishment, and indeed it has been a resounding success on many counts, particularly when it comes to sales. While our review was quite glowing, in my eXtraneous Opinion piece, I felt the game had a ways to go before reaching its potential.
Since release, Stellaris has received three major patches (v1.1 Clarke, v1.2 Asimov, and v1.3 Heinlein), along with two DLC (the Plantoids Species Pack and the Leviathans Story Pack). These patches ushered in significant changes to the core gameplay. The Leviathans DLC, in particular, injects some galaxy-spanning theatrics into the mix as a means of spicing up a lackluster mid-game. Have these major patches strengthened the overall experience of Stellaris? Let’s take a look.
Exploration remains one of Stellaris’ strong suits. Few other space 4X games have managed to capture the immense scale and sense of wonderment that comes from exploring the galaxy and its buried histories, but Stellaris nailed it. The discoverable anomalies and associated quests provide a better connection to grand sci-fi literature and space operas than most other games can manage. This is no small accomplishment and the Leviathans DLC adds even more new things to discover throughout the game.
First up are the new enclaves – powerful independent outposts that can be found scattered across the galaxy. Trade Enclaves allow you to exchange minerals and strategic resources, Artisan Enclaves unlock special monuments on your planets, and Curator Enclaves boost research and reveal other secrets in the galaxy. I found the Enclave abilities to be quite powerful – particularly the Traders. The balance and flow of resources in your economy can be spiky at times, with players flush with one resource and devoid of another. Traders allow you to equalize these, and get out of a resource bind. But at the same time it trivializes the need to carefully balance your economy. If you get stuck, you can mindlessly trade your way out of the bottleneck.
Overall, the Enclaves are a nice addition to the game – although I have minor gripes with their execution. In one game (on a small map), I couldn’t find any Enclaves (did they even spawn?), and in another session, an AI empire destroyed the Curator Enclave early on, meaning I couldn’t follow its quest chain. Ugh.
The Leviathans DLC also gives us galactic guardians: giant space “dragons” (of various sorts) that rove around the galaxy threatening empires, while bestowing powerful treasures upon those bold enough to take them on. Some of the guardians are free-roaming right at the start of the game, but others will periodically spawn from certain locations. I’ve had a pulsar star in my territory with a penchant for periodically spitting out guardians when I least expect it.
The guardians are a nice addition in theory, but sometimes their presence has been a little underwhelming. I destroyed one guardian, only to realize that the Enclave that was supposed to give me the quest to unlock the rewards for defeating the guardian had been destroyed. I ended up getting basically nothing. Another time in the same game, defeating the guardian gave me an empire wide-bonus to energy production of +15%, which was pretty slick. So the potential to earn some powerful technologies and materials is present and they add a nice mini-goal to the game – even if it amounts to little more than a big fight once in awhile. And once you have a sizable fleet, victory is trivial.
One criticism of the game at launch was that exploring the galaxy was tedious since players must actively manage a bunch of science ships. While is possible to queue up multiple system surveys, this technique was prone to disruption if a hostile force was encountered. Pleas for an option to automate surveying were many. And Paradox listened! Sort of.
Heinlein added a new technology to the game that allows you to automate exploration with your science ships. The problem is that the technology comes WAY too late in the tech tree. In my playthroughs with v1.3, I only had the option to research the technology once, and it didn’t show up until well into the midgame, at which point the entire galaxy was occupied and fully explored already. It was a completely useless technology at that point. Why they didn’t just make auto-exploration a default gameplay option, I have no idea.
To compound the logistical problems with exploration, the galaxy map still doesn’t clearly indicate whether a system has been fully, partially, or not-at-all explored. You have to mouse over each system and wait for the tooltips. This makes exploration a more tedious affair than it needs to be. Having a way to see, at a glance, how explored a system is with a simple icon or other indicator would be welcome.
Expansion mechanics in Stellaris have changed quite a bit since launch. A new expansion planner, a revised system for habitability, a terraforming overhaul, and a big change to how colonization itself works makes for a big list of fundamental changes. Let’s tackle these one by one.
The expansion planner is a much-requested quality-of-life improvement that intends to make colonizing planets easier. A new menu screen provides a sortable and filterable list of surveyed planets. From there you can drill down to the planet surface and, in parallel, browse a list of your current planets from which to queue up a colony ship filled with an appropriate species.
The expansion planner is a great addition, but it could have gone further to smooth out colonization. The most cumbersome aspect of colonizing a planet isn’t “finding” a good one to colonize, it’s figuring out which species in your empire has the best habitability rating for that planet and where in your empire that species is hiding. The expansion planner provides a list of your planets and the species living on them, but it would’ve been more helpful if you could sort all species by habitability when picking one to use for colonization. Still, the system is a welcomed improvement.
Speaking of habitability, the “habitability wheel” of planet types has been replaced with a new system in v1.3. Planets are now grouped based on the state of their hydrosphere into Dry, Wet, and Frozen classes, with each class containing three planet types. A species will have 80% habitability with their primary planet type, 60% with the other types in their hydrosphere class, and 20% for types outside of their class. The new system makes it a little easier and more logical to parse habitability without having to remember the relative position of planets on the wheel. All in all, a nice tweak.
Originally, planets within your borders could be terraformed once you learned the appropriate tech, had access to the terraforming strategic resources, and then built a terraforming station in orbit. This process has been changed under v1.3. There are new technologies that allow you terraform within your current hydrosphere class and/or between classes. You can learn even more advanced technologies to terraform into Gaia planets or convert Tomb worlds into habitable planets. Terraforming liquids and gases are no longer required, but instead reduce the cost of terraforming – which is now paid in the form of a large energy credit cost (minimum of 2,000) instead of building a station.
I haven’t found the changes to have made much of an impact, as it is just trading one set of pros and cons for another. I did like that previously you could build a terraforming station and terraform a planet while it was populated, which was amusing. Alas, however, that option is no longer available. The biggest problem I have with the new system is that by the time I have the right technology and can afford the steep energy cost of terraforming, I already have an ample supply of suitable species in my empire – negating the need to terraform in the first place! Still, for colonizing tomb worlds or when playing a xenophobic species, terraforming will be necessary.
Influence & Colonization
The v1.2 patch made a seemingly subtle change to empire expansion that I’m really not very fond of, and one that I feel has had a detrimental impact on the overall the gameplay. Prior to v1.2, you could settle planets anywhere you could get your colony ship. This afforded the opportunity for a frontier race of sorts between empires, which added a nice bit of tension to the early and midgame. It also resulted in empire’s become more “interwoven” as far-flung colonies popped up in strategically rich systems.
With the changes in v1.2, you can still colonize anywhere but now have to pay an influence cost the further away the system is from your territory. This new system of influence costs also applies to frontier outposts, so their price will differ based on distance rather than the old system of a flat fee. The result is that it is now cost prohibitive to expand outwards in big leaps, resulting in borders that now expand more incrementally. This change eliminates many interesting strategic possibilities from the game. For example, I tried to establish a colony partway across the galaxy in the last “frontier” of unclaimed space to have a forward base near the Unbidden’s territory – except the influence cost to make a colony OR an outpost was over 1,500. Considering influence caps at 1,000, this meant it wasn’t just prohibitive – it was literally impossible. All in all, this feels like a step back and eliminates an opportunity for bold and daring expansion. Ah well…
The procurement and use of Strategic Resources has been simplified in v1.3. Previously, players needed to build a specific planetary building or spaceport module to gain access to a strategic resource. Supplies from those structures in turn provided an empire-wide or localized benefit depending on the resource. Now, strategic resources are immediately available for their empire-wide benefits with only the right technology and a mining station. Furthermore, the resources themselves have been rebalanced with their impact generally scaled back.
While I appreciate that resources are simpler to collect and manage, I also feel like some of the excitement and challenge in procuring access to them has been diminished, along with the impact of their effects. Previously, getting access to a resource might have involved setting up a sub-optimal colony just to get a spaceport with the right module to collect it. As it is now, usually by the time I’ve discovered a new strategic resource I already have a mining station constructed at that site. I start collecting it instantly and don’t have to take an active role in securing it.
Stellaris’ sector system has been quite controversial, with many players lamenting the loss of control in managing their planets. And whether you like the idea of sectors or not, there has been no shortage of concern about the intelligence of the artificial “intelligence” running them: sectors not dealing with slave populations correctly, sectors overwriting tile bonuses, sectors not doing anything at all…
The v1.3 patch added some additional options for you to try and funnel the sector in the right direction (i.e. allow it to build space stations or not). In my experience, sectors seem to be a mixed bag. They seem to work well when I turn over a planet after having it mostly developed. But when a sector is given a newly colonized planet the results are all over the place. As a whole, the sector system isn’t close to where I would like it to be in terms of making intelligent decisions. I’d love to see a hybrid solution where players could queue up a “plan” of future buildings for the sector AI to handle. I’d also like to see more options for managing the sector’s overall economy. In one of my games, I have sectors with 30,000+ energy in the bank each – meanwhile my empire’s overall energy income is in the the red.
If anything screams “grand strategy” to me, it is the idea of having to balance your internal political demands (and opportunities!) against the external needs and imperatives of your empire. Factions, in theory, provide a mechanism for generating interesting internal pressures for your empire as you balance competing demands, inter-species tensions, and conflicting ideologies.
When Stellaris launched, factions were nothing more than an annoyance- something you’d throw a pile of credits or influence at to make go away before they caused riots. When the initial roadmap for patching was issued earlier this year, the “Heinlein” patch was slated to address faction balance. But sadly this was not to be the case; improvements to factions have been pushed further down the road. The one change to factions in v1.3 is that now you only have a single “suppress faction” option, which requires an ongoing influence cost to maintain. Rather than having a few different ways to paydown a faction (bribe, negotiation, propaganda), you’re now juggling which factions get the suppression treatment at any one time.
More than any other feature, I’m waiting for a comprehensive overhaul to the faction system – which now looks to be coming in the v1.5 patch. I would love to see factions that provide a benefit AND a cost, and ways of either encouraging a faction to spread or suppress it in various different ways. Playing factions off each other and connecting the rise and fall of factions to your external ambitions is a big missing cog in the machine.
Regardless of how Stellaris was billed as a “grand strategy” game, I find that the overall crux of the game revolves around combat and its companion-in-arms diplomacy. Whether this makes it more a “grand strategy” game versus a “conquer the galaxy 4X” game, I haven’t quite decided. But in any case, the mechanics around combat and diplomacy, and therefore the entire arc of the game, have been revised considerably since release.
Big changes to diplomacy have occurred in every patch. v1.1 saw the removal of embassies and an introduction of a trust mechanic. v1.2 added defensive pacts and non-aggression treaties, plus a change to border mechanics. With v1.3, we now have three levels of subject empires: tributaries, protectorates, and vassals. The v1.2 patch also introduced the very much appreciated diplomatic map modes – allowing to you better visualize relationship standings and diplomatic status. I find myself playing the game with these modes enabled most of the time.
Most significant are the changes v1.3 made to alliances and federations. Alliances have been removed entirely (replaced with federation associate members), and Federations are now a sort of hybrid between the old alliance mechanics and federations. The president no longer has unfettered powers to initiate wars, and must rely on a vote of the federation members instead.
While Stellaris undoubtedly has one of the more intricate diplomacy systems of any space 4X – with a wide range of relationship pathways to explore – I’m not convinced that it is working well or leads to a meaningful experience for the player. You see, the ethics of one empire relative to another set the direction of their relationship down a pathway. If your ethics conflict, your relationship will start off in the red and likely just get worse. For empires you are ethically aligned with, your relationship will likely creep positive over time. The thresholds for certain agreements are often just out of reach – and there is little the player can do other than rivaling other empires to influence this inevitable arrangement.
Further into the game, the nature of diplomatic relationships, coupled with things like agreements being fixed in place during war, can lead to a stalemate. In one game, after waiting 60 years to be president of my Federation, I was finally ready, so I thought, to cause a little trouble in the Galaxy. Yet I was completely unable to specify a combination of war goals that my federation members would accept. Hilariously, the day after the presidential baton passed to the next empire, they declared war and everyone accepted. Double standards?
Overall, I would like to see the entire diplomacy system relaxed a little bit. I’d love to have a way to merge Federations or some way to lure other empires to hop over to yours. Lowering the thresholds for certain agreements might make the game state more messy and chaotic, but I would welcome the change, especially if it gives the player more agency in shaping galactic events. Why not, for example, be able to violate closed borders but suffer some sort of diplomatic or influence penalty? As it is, there are long stretches in the mid and late-game where you just twiddle your thumbs, waiting for something to happen.
Warfare itself, structured around war goals and the warscore mechanic, remains in place. It’s seen a few tweaks, but the overall gameplay ramifications are mostly unchanged since launch (for better or worse). The menu of possible warscore goals has been expanded since launch. But conquering a large empire still requires many incremental wars (even more in fact given the increase in warscore costs), with each war arbitrarily buffered by a 10-year forced peace period. I would like to see war score brought into closer alignment with the initial war goals. If I capture the planets I’ve identified for ceding and defeated the opposing fleet – the war should be over at that point (or soon after), instead of requiring me to conquerer a bunch of other stuff as well just to get to 100%.
More importantly, and as with diplomacy, I would love to find more creative alternatives to the hard restrictions in the warfare mechanics. Why not have the length of the forced peace period be variable based on the scope and outcome of the war? Or why not have the ability to ignore the forced-peace depending on your ethics or policies? Obviously there should be diplomatic or internal political ramifications. Instead of prohibiting players outright from doing certain things, why not provide a strong incentive for acting one way, while still giving the player liberty to make an opposing choice if they want? I find this lack of freedom immensely frustrating. Another thing at odds with the grand strategy theme is that alliances and diplomatic agreements are locked when an empire is in a state of war – when a war breaking out could actually be the catalyst for the opposite to happen.
Fortunately, v1.3 did improve combat with one long-requested quality-of-life feature: rally points. You can now designate a fleet or planet as a rally point, and when a new ship is constructed, it will automatically move to its closest rally point. Despite some odd behavior pertaining to mobile rally points, the system is simple and works well enough. I think the system would be more flexible if it took a conventional approach and had you set a specific rally point from the construction end (i.e. each starbase could be assigned a rally point). But overall, it is still a great improvement.
What I would like to see next is a system for ordering up an entire fleet, with ship construction automatically assigned across all your shipyards. Having to micromanage fleet construction, like paying attention to which shipyards have which cost-reduction modules installed and navigating through the sector interface to access your full complement of shipyards, is irritating. Other games, including many of Paradox’s own, have much better systems in place for mustering forces that could be ported over to Stellaris.
Paradox also changed the behavior of fleets. Previously, your allies followed your fleet around blindly during a war, which meant all your allies’ fleet power was massed in one big blob with no way to attack on multiple fronts. This has been remedied, and ally fleets now have autonomy to attack and retreat on their own accord. In many instances this is great, but in other instances, you might want to concentrate your fleet power and getting the AI to play along is a crapshoot. They have added a toggle switch on your fleets to encourage (or discourage) your allies to follow that fleet – but I’ve had mixed results getting that to work. Long-term, it would be great if there was a way to actually suggest orders or attack targets for allies, which they could accept or not. Hopefully, we’ll get there eventually.
One of the most comprehensive set of changes in the v1.3 patch is to the ship designer. In an effort to encourage more varied ship design strategies (I think), the slots and resulting capabilities of different ship hull sizes have been changed. There are now more dedicated specialty slots on ships (i.e. “T” torpedo slots on corvettes), and ship computers now restrict ships to a certain intended role (rather than being able to give ships any potential role).
At the end of the day, despite all the work that went into the revisions, combat still boils down to optimizing your ship design to counter what your opponent has constructed. The changes exchanged one “meta” (i.e. an optimum ship design and fleet composition) for another meta. This isn’t a bad thing per se, it’s just the nature of how the combat mechanics work in Stellaris. Personally, I’d love to see a little more hands-on control during combat – at least allowing me to specify targets in some way or allowing some degree of movement control like in a real RTS beyond “all ships charge right in!” during engagements.
Until v1.3, Stellaris only contained two victory conditions, both highly aligned with militaristic/expansionist gameplay. One required you to eradicate or subjugate all other empires in the game, and the other required controlling 40% of the colonizable worlds yourself. v1.3 added a diplomatic victory – triggered by having your federation members collectively control 60% of the galaxy. This is definitely a welcome addition.
However, it doesn’t really address the problem of peaceful empires and federations. In one of my games, by the time my allies and I worked through all the late-game events, there were three big power blocs in the galaxy. Mine was the largest federation, controlling about 35% of the habitable worlds. But we were comprised mostly of peace-loving empires and declaring a war to gobble up the remaining planets we needed to win was neigh impossible.
The game desperately needs more goals and avenues for achieving victory that don’t rely on military conquest. Having longer quests or event chains that are unique to your primary species ethics might provide a more compelling long-term goal. Or even just scrapping the notion of winning entirely (like with CK2) and provide a robust scoring system instead, triggered after certain amount of time had passed or after a big galactic event was resolved. This is essentially what other Paradox grand strategy games have done, giving the player a sense of how well they performed rather than as a basis for determining the single victor.
Before diving into my overall conclusions, I wanted to mention a bit about performance. Late-game, Stellaris starts running into problems – a problem I attribute to the aging 32-bit Clausewitz engine used by the game. 200 or 300 years into a game, when a million or more fleet power is zipping about and dozens of empires fill every corner of the galaxy, I’m noticing significant hiccups in the game and even a few crashes. When each month rolls over, there is a definite pause in the action while various calculations are made. The game wasn’t frozen, as I could still interact with menus – but I couldn’t actually issue orders or register commands when the game was hanging. I notice similar delays and freezes when large wars are occurring – presumably as a the game chugs along calculating the behaviors for 100’s or even 1000’s of ships. One of my games, about 400 years in, has started crashing to the desktop every few hours. It’s an unfortunate situation.
I’m going to be upfront: I have a real love-hate relationship with Stellaris. Despite the eXemplary reception of the game on launch from many outlets, including our review, I ended up much less enthused by what the game actually delivered. While I recognize that the foundation of the game offers tremendous potential, the total experience built on it has fallen short of its aspirations – and even the precedents set by Paradox themselves.
For starters, the gameplay in Stellaris feels far more like a typical “conquer the galaxy” style 4X game rather than a proper Paradox grand strategy game. The game follows the 4X-approach of exploration and territorial expansion to the letter, and the victory conditions and overall war-centric focus of the gameplay follows suit. There isn’t much that feels like a grand strategy game – no interesting leader dynamics, no internal politics or trade, no espionage, and no coherent narrative context. While I can look past all this, I still lament it as a missed opportunity.
What frustrates me the most is the overly restrictive nature of many of the game’s core mechanics, which runs against the notions of a standard 4X game (which Stellaris is mechanically most similar to!). For example, consider the 10-year forced peace mechanic after a war. The historical setting of other grand strategy games (ala the Europa Universalis series) provides a context for why a forced peace might be beneficial to everyone – but in Stellaris it really doesn’t make sense. Why would a fanatically xenophobic empire hell-bent on enslaving all aliens willfully agree to peace, and then stick to the terms for 10 years! Ditto for closed borders. It’s space! One should be able to violate closed borders – suffering some sort of global diplomatic scorn or happiness impact, or… Something!
So the experience created by joining a bold and imaginative space 4X with grand strategy mechanics ripped out of a historical human context feels grating to me. In an effort to understand the game’s appeal, I’ve asked people on the interwebs what they enjoy about Stellaris. One resounding answer was that people who enjoyed the game did so by approaching the game from a roleplaying perspective. Playing the game for them was less about “winning” a strategy game (and we all agree the winning conditions are uninspiring) and more about participating in a grand galactic narrative.
From a roleplaying standpoint, the game’s restrictive systems start to make a degree of sense. In order to provide structure for the sandbox narrative, restrictions are used to create points of conflict and tension. And they also act as meter to the chaos – for example, preventing a single war from leading to the total destruction of an empire. In one of my games, I was pressed into becoming the protectorate of a nasty little neighboring empire – a position which left me with zero agency to pursue my own destiny. Such is the life of a vassal, eh? The only option I had was to scorn my overlord and declare a war of independence (which I did, and which I won rather gloriously). The situation was thrilling, but also immensely frustrating.
The Leviathans DLC takes a solid step towards generating more narrative activity, particularly in the mid and late game. Leviathans adds the ability for Fallen Empires to “wake up” if triggered by something – usually the arrival of a galactic threat. Once awoken, a “War in Heaven” event can potentially break out, causing the Fallen Empires to take up arms against each other, dragging the rest of the galaxy into the fray. In my 30+ hours with Leviathans, I’ve had Fallen Empires wake up a number times and even form a Federation with me – but I’ve yet to see them battle each other. They did however throw their weight into the galactic war against the Unbidden – and that was cool to watch.
But once the galactic events worked out their wiggles, the galaxy slumped back into a static routine once more. Federations were locked in place, with no empire having an incentive to attack or to leave their safety net. My federation is wholly unwilling to engage in wars, leaving us stuck at about 50% of what we need for victory, 400 years into the game. Factions pop up and I shoo them away with a little influence. Technology advances and numbers go up. Faceless, forgettable leaders grow old and die and are replaced by more of the same.
The above highlights my overall reservation about the game. The interesting twists of fate or fortune that befall my empire rarely feel like the result of my actions. Rather they seem like the result of numbers crunching behind the scenes, making the inevitable happen to me. Moreover, the opportunity to win over my inner roleplayer with things that could add character to the game, like interesting, meaningful leaders or internal politics – you know, the stuff Paradox is known for – just isn’t there yet. And I still feel that many of Stellaris’ weak, restrictive mechanics could simply be designed better and differently. Doing so could provide a more plausible (and logical) context for the roleplaying side of the experience, while making the strategic gameplay more interesting and dynamic at the same time.
Despite my misgivings, I can’t name a single other recent space 4X game that is as ambitious or as successfully fresh as Stellaris. And I wouldn’t have spent 5,000 words analyzing the game if I didn’t see so much potential. Thankfully, Paradox is not shy about reworking large portions of their games, and so I’m eager to see where the game goes next. But it pains me that improvements to factions (internal politics, finally perhaps?) are not slated until the v1.5 “Banks” patch (due sometime next year). There is still no word on more compelling victory conditions, or specific improvements to sectors and leaders. So much development time has been poured into reworking some systems (like combat) for little overall gain while others are ignored almost completely. Different priorities I suppose. Still, Stellaris is an impressive title and I’ll be watching its career with great interest.
TL;DR: Stellaris with the v1.3 ‘Heinlein’ patch and Leviathans Story Pack DLC is a different beast from what it was at launch. Many aspects of the game, from diplomacy to combat, have been changed significantly. Most of these changes are a step forward. But some feel like a step sideways, exchanging one system of mechanics for another, but not quite addressing the underlying issues. Nonetheless, new galactic events, curator factions, and giant space dragons help spice up Stellaris’ mid and endgame, adding much needed drama to the experience. If you loved Stellaris at launch, there is even more to love. But if you had your reservations, despite three major patches, the game may still have a ways to go before winning you over. Nevertheless, when it comes to capturing the grandeur and scope of a galactic space opera, nothing else comes close.
You might like this game if:
- You can put aside your need to “win” and just enjoy roleplaying as a little big empire in a big little galaxy
- You want to experience a space 4X game that truly embraces the sense of scale and discovery
- You don’t mind the restrictive nature of some gameplay mechanics and are willing to go with the flow
- You dig sitting back and watching a galactic tale while you groove out on the most amazing soundtrack ever
You might NOT like this game if:
- You have a hard time creating self-directed goals – because without them the game will feel a little lifeless
- You want to have a lot of control over your fate in the galaxy
- You like to play huge epic games – but expect the performance to hold up (sadly it can start lagging late in the game)
- You are looking for a tightly designed strategy game oriented around defeating your equals
Oliver has played over 35+ hours of Stellaris v1.3 with the Leviathans DLC on a Clevo 670RG-G (Pro-Star Built) Laptop: 17.3″ FHD IPS Display, i7-6700HQ Skylake CPU, 16GB DDR4, GeForce GTX 980m w/ 8 GB vram, 250 GB Samsung EVO SSD.