When Stellaris launched I was one of many to shower it with acclaim. Here was the space 4X game we’d been waiting for that would revolutionize the genre. Of course, there were problems, but Stellaris showed the promise for something great, given time.
We’re now almost a year distant from that launch, and some would say that Stellaris is suffering a few growing pains. We’ve gotten lots of new content, but none of it has felt transformative. With the new Utopia paid DLC and the accompanying free Banks update, Stellaris is receiving its largest changes to date. Does all of that buoy Stellaris to new heights, or does it merely reshuffle the deck chairs on a slowly sinking space Titanic?
There are really three pieces of content to look at here. The Banks update includes free content changes and additions. The Utopia paid DLC, layers on to those alterations and adds new systems of its own. Then, there’s also the impact the new material has had on the overall experience of Stellaris itself.
To further complicate things, this information is going to apply to two kinds of people: those who already own Stellaris and have gotten Banks (because free, duh) and want to know if it’s worth spending to reach Utopia, and those people who have shied away from Stellaris entirely thus far and are curious if now is the time to get on board.
The Banks update, the largest chunk of the new content, is also the least important part of this to discuss. You’re either already using it or you have so little experience with the game, you wouldn’t recognize the difference anyway. Banks brings lots of little changes, many that would only pass by the most practiced eye, but there are basically three important innovations.
First, Governments and Ethics (always intertwined in the setup screens) have been completely reworked and a third category, Civics, has been added. Collectivists and Individualists have been removed from the Ethics wheel and replaced by the somewhat similar options of Authoritarian and Egalitarian. The other choices also have new consequences, so while the idea of a Xenophile is essentially the same, the benefits and detriments have been adjusted to fit the overall game philosophy.
The “Authority” selection – what used to be called “Government” – is now just a matter of choosing whether or not your Empire holds elections and how often, though it does affect how other empires will react to you. To compensate for this rather boring (honestly, in many ways pointless) choice, Stellaris now offers Civics. Like choosing your race’s traits in an earlier screen (or like making a character in an RPG), these provide personality to your race, both in a descriptive and statistical sense. There are bonuses to leaders, the ability to control more planets before needing a sector, and so on.
Further, some Civics are locked and can only be accessed through research later in the game or can only be chosen with certain governments and ethics. The benefits of the Civics from a role-playing sense are obvious, the game impact, however, varies. Being able to have robots from the start of my game was interesting and made my Snail-people feel unique with distinct strategic options. Getting an extra leader – adding some beige to an already tan wall – would be less so.
Big change number two follows naturally from big change number one. Civics are now different, so factions are different, as well. Essentially, pops will now choose one aspect of your government that they really, really like and go whole hog for it. No more xenophilic militarists, you’re going to have some pops that really like other species and others that really like blowing stuff up and never the twain shall meet.
These pops will eventually form factions to push their chosen cause. Each will appear gradually, sometimes triggered by game events, and will have unique demands they want you to fulfill. Do it and they stay happy, producing all important Influence. Don’t, and they will revolt – angry, angry pops.
The third big change with Banks is mostly divested from the other two – Unity. Unity is a new resource your empire can collect, mostly by building monuments on planets. Collect enough Unity and you get access to a screen from Civilization V.
No, seriously. Look at that:
I’m all for seeing farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, but, wow, that is some high grade giant-shoulder-standing right there. Similarities aside, the traditions tree works… OK, it functions exactly like Civ V did. You collect Unity over time, open up a tree, collect its components, then get a themed end bonus for completing it. You can chase down multiple trees, or do each one at a time, whatever suits your fancy.
Banks also changes some smaller aspects of Stellaris – food is now universal to your empire, rather than planet by planet, so if Earth has a surplus and Vulcan is starving, it’s all balanced out. There’s a music player that lets you select which tracks you want to hear. There are new options for re-settling pops. Pops now require material goods… Seriously, go read the patch notes. Banks is massive and Stellaris veterans will notice the difference the first time they boot up the updated game.
Deep breath. That’s just the free content (I know, right?).
The Utopia paid DLC adds components that add on to the additions from Banks. Got it? The big difference between vanilla Stellaris with Banks and Utopia Stellaris are those Traditions. When you finish a branch in Banks, you get an extra reward for completing it, but that’s all. With Utopia, you get an additional bonus, called an Ascension Perk.
Ascension Perks come in two flavors: ones that remove a major roadblock in the game and those that move you towards a massive upgrade for your race. For instance, the World Shaper perk will remove (almost) all tile blockers from your planets.The Interstellar Dominion perk will greatly expand your borders. Other Perks will start moving your race towards three separate tracks: psionic powers, the ability to alter your people through genetics, or the option to become synthetic beings – making your pops into androids, basically. Each path locks out the other two, and has three levels of increasing dedication to that evolution. Every step makes your pops more and more god-like, essentially, even if they choose a path that is basically godless.
Utopia also introduces megastructures, the ability to turn your planets into ringworlds, construct Dyson spheres, or the like. This greatly increases the amount of population a colony can hold and the resources they produce. Also they look cool, so there’s that.
Additionally, there is another race/government type option called a hive mind where your pops are essentially drones for one greater intelligence (think the Borg from Star Trek or, um, bees). The Civic that allowed my people to start with robots already built and working was also a Utopia feature.Utopia also provides players with a variety of terrible things they can do to their pops, some of which I’m not sure I’m even allowed to mention on a family friendly web site.
Finally, Utopia also adds roughly 20 minutes of new music to the game! The additional tracks are magnificent, taking what was already one of my top three 4X game soundtracks (Stellaris, Civ VI, and Age of Wonders 3) to an entirely new level. I can almost recommend purchasing Utopia for the new music, alone.
All of that sounds like a lot of stuff and it is. Utopia and Banks together feel like a full-fledged expansion to Stellaris. But does all that content make the overall game more fun? Well let’s explore that, shall we?
On the happy side, exploration, and by extension the early game, continues to be one of the strengths of Stellaris. The devs seem to recognize this and have made several tweaks that appear intended to keep you in that phase of the game for as long as possible. It’s nothing overt, but it definitely felt like my race was taking far longer than it used to before reaching the mid-game.
The exploration aspect of Stellaris is starting to show its age, however. The stories that players discover continue to be engaging and unique, but the lack of new content is becoming an issue. It’s gotten to the point where I was encountering the same old anomalies and plot quests over and over (and over) again. It’s not a problem, yet, but if we’re a year from now with the same old plot lines, Stellaris is going to lose a lot of its luster.
As I said above, race design has been altered significantly with Banks (and a little boost from Utopia). The Civics, in particular, help the races feel even more personalized and distinct. These options allow for some really neat gameplay options that I found to be unique to the genre, like allowing you to start the game with a subservient Neanderthal race on your planet. The change in Authority however, feels like kind of a cop out. “Pick how often you have an election” is about as exciting as it sounds and it has an even smaller impact. Together, though, Civics, Authority, and Ethics (the three things that make up your overall government) work really well in giving players plenty of fun, interesting options.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the peoples (and cows, and sentient flowers) you encounter in the void. Oh sure, the religious freaks will despise the Materialists and stuff like that. But the Civics don’t really come through from afar, even though the AI races are choosing them. If you were hoping that the new options would give as much personality to your enemies as it does to your own empire, you will be disappointed. That said, race building is still a significant part of the game and remains fun.
Expansion also has seen minimal changes in this go-round, although there have been adjustments. Players no longer have to research the ability to colonize planets. To compensate for this (and no doubt, to extend your time in the early game, as mentioned) it takes far, far longer for a colony to go from start to established.
Once again, eventually you will have too many planets and be forced to sector-ize, though there is some good news on that front. First, the game gives you enough avenues through Civics, race qualities, and Ascendency Perks that if you never want to let go of your planets, you don’t have to.
Truth be told, though, the game was never intended to be played this way and it shows. I found myself choosing to create sectors far before I ran out of the ability to control planets – it’s just overwhelming to pay attention to nine different settlements with 15-20 different tiles each. The game quickly becomes a drudgery of sifting through the lists, clicking upgrades, optimizing production, etc.
So I highly, highly recommend using the sectors. I think it’s crucial to your enjoyment of the game. Micromanagers who insist on playing without the sectors who then complain that colony management is boring only have themselves to blame.
There’s one more excuse to use the sectors: the AI has been greatly improved. What was a D+ student at launch has really hit the books and is now earning Bs across the board. It is not perfect, it will make some errors ranging from annoying (leaving a pop on an undeveloped tile) to egregious (setting a robot to collect science). I still recommend developing your planets and then sectoring them. But for the first time I have hope that this system can work in a way that is more than serviceable.
It’s a good thing, too. The need to expand, and thus complicate, is now even further exacerbated by the new Unity resource required for the Traditions and Ascendency perks. The best way to collect Unity is to construct buildings that generate it and those buildings are limited to one per planet (for the most part). That means more settling is required than ever before. There are times when Stellaris makes even the rapacious Civ VI seem fairly judicious in its ongoing drive for expansion.
But, you may ask, what about the megastructures you mentioned that come with Utopia? Weren’t they supposed to allow me to build tall instead of wide? Unfortunately, these gigantic monuments to sci-fi imagination are placed too far down the tech tree to ever influence how your empire grows. This makes sense from a narrative standpoint – no one’s settling two lousy planets and then suddenly constructing a Dyson sphere around it – but from a gameplay perspective it renders the benefits of the constructions moot. By the time you get those options, your Empire should be seven-plus planets deep, far too late to suddenly slim down. Sitting at three planets for ⅔ of the game till you ring up your ringworld is just asking to get squashed. The buildings are neat, yes, but not really functional.
As you expand, your people will become more diverse and you will develop factions. As I said above, these have been reworked and the results are… Better? Mostly better. Filling Faction demands is another ball to juggle and can force you into choices you might not ordinarily make. There’s the seed of a nice decision tree in there.
However, the Factions as they stand seem far too willing to go along to get along. I had four different factions in one game and was able to keep all of them happy. That should never happen. They need to have conflicting demands that force me to choose one over the other. I should be angering Peter to please Paul. Those kinds of pinch points – if I fund the military, the peaceniks will freak out – never come up, taking a potentially spicy meatball and making it blah.
This X is by far the area most impacted by the Utopia/Banks DLC. As I said before, Unity is yet another resource to collect and you’ll want to grab it as early and often as possible. As a collectible, it’s closer to Influence than energy or minerals – slowly ticking upward with some options to increase it but mostly just moving along at a steady pace.
Unity is spent on the new Traditions trees and, similarity to Civ V aside, they give you a good amount to do in the midgame. Unfortunately, those that hated the research tree because of its reliance on small percentage upgrades are going to find a lot to be upset about here. Yes, some of the Tradition selections are legit game-changer options. You can no longer establish a Federation without first accessing the technology on the Traditions tree. That’s cool and it fits, feeling like a real difference maker once you choose it.
Other selections are much more generic – 10% to minerals here, 5% faster ships there. It’s impossible to feel the impact of that and so you end up making choices simply because it’s next on the tree. It’s especially galling because each advance costs a TON of Unity (and the cost increases with each selection), to the point that you often get hours of build up for very little climax. Kinda like The Hobbit films. Worse, the branch completion rewards are some of the weakest in the bunch – so you undertake this massive endeavor, piling mediocrity upon mediocrity and are rewarded with – what else? – more mediocrity.
But the Traditions have a saving grace – Ascendency Perks are just flat out awesome. No dumb percentage increases here; these things feel like legitimate super powers that come well-earned. Making your people bionic or psionic or whatever -onic you choose feels powerful and transformative. For example, my newly-minted android race started to live for 20 years longer than before and gained extra strength. It felt thematic and had a definite impact on my game going forward.
Choosing the psionic path would have given me different bonuses. Eventually, they would have earned me the ability to visit an alternate plane of existence called the psi-shroud, where ultra-powerful beings would reveal secrets about the universe. I’m doing a psionic race right now, so I’ll report back soon on my visits to the other realms.
Finally, going the biological path would have let my people enhance our genetics This is the area I’ve explored the least, so I can’t really report on it. Suffice to say that’s going to be Utopia play number 3 and I’m looking forward to diving into it. That’s my point, I guess, these are all interesting, unique, yet valuable options and a great addition to the game. I cannot praise them enough.
Even here, though, there are nits to pick. The only way to get an Ascendency Perk (that I’ve found, to be fair the devs claim there may be other ways to pick one up that I have yet to find) is to finish a Tradition branch. So that’s six successively larger Unity purchases. To get to the highest level of Ascendency for, say, Psionics, takes four pre-requisite Perks. There are only six Tradition trees. So, basically, if you want to get the most out of this option, you’re going to be picking a LOT of Tradition trees, to the point that eventually you may be picking Traditions that don’t really fit with your vision for your Empire.
There are also some aspects of eXploition (it is SO a word) that go essentially untouched by the new content and these are some of the areas that feel like they need the most attention going forward. I’ve hemmed and hawed about research because I like the idea of it but I’ve now settled at the point where I’ve accepted that the system just doesn’t work. The tech benefits feel minimal and the randomness is never rewarding enough to be worth the negatives that come from being unable to have any plan whatsoever.
I’m in the same boat with Leaders. They are as generic as they were a year ago and they only feel moreso next to the other game mechanics that Paradox has done so well to implement. The system needs a complete overhaul.
Before there’s war, there’s diplomacy and that system is essentially the same. The game seems more than happy to reward players for war and punish them for peace, and it’s starting to feel like the developers are trying to say something about the state of our world. I get it, but sometimes I’d like to be given options for how to be a good neighbor, too.
This carries over into how you can treat foreign pops in your empire. The options for doing miserable things to other beings seem to have expanded threefold while choices to be nice have stayed the same or have even been pared back. Stellaris feels tuned for people that want to be gigantic space-jerks and playing for peace becomes quite boring, honestly.
We’ve also reached the point where I’ve personally found some of the options to be distasteful. I know there was an outcry about being able to enslave pops when the game first launched and I was on the side of the developers in that case. But the game now allows me to castrate or even eat other sentients. Just considering those options make me feel viscerally ill. It would be a little better if I was given similarly expansive choices for doing well by other empires but I’m not. It gives Stellaris the feeling of being strangely mean spirited and I’ll admit those aspects are not for me.
What all this inevitably leads to is war which, again, is mostly (missile firing rates, damage and range was tweaked to help make them more viable, but it’s nothing overt and a larger rework is planned) untouched by the latest expansion. I’m not sure where Paradox could take combat at this point. It seems like more options for weapons and tactical decisions on the field (of stars) could help make battle feel a bit more thrilling, rather than the often annoying chore it can be now.
If Paradox is able to come up with those improvements, then the ship builder needs a boost as well, because if I have to upgrade every @%#! ship template from blue lasers to orange lasers again I’m going to purple laser someone’s face off! My God, there has to be a better way.
I feel it is important to point out that, despite a fairly low set of hardware requirements and a year’s worth of time on the market, Stellaris is still really, truly gorgeous. The game has no business being this pretty. As I mentioned, the music was always good and Utopia really takes it up a notch. I cannot give Paradox and Composer Andreas Waldetoft enough kudos – I had high expectations and they blew them away.
The UI, however, is starting to suffer. So much stuff was added after the launch and the design is buckling under this amount of information. Key data is stuffed away under buttons that are covered by more buttons, squished into side screens, put anywhere that will fit – like a hoarder making room in their already overstuffed house. I complimented the UI in my initial review for being a clever solution to a huge amount of content and that elegance is now buried under a two-ton pile of crap. It’s only going to get worse from here, people.
I didn’t encounter any show-stopping bugs but there were some little problems here and there with the new content. Migration seems especially borked – my own pops moved hither and thither, like hummingbirds with ADHD. At one point, it seemed like the corner tile on one of my planets was as cursed as the abandoned space next to the Chik-Fil-A at the food court. No one stayed more than a minute or two. In the reverse, no matter how many treaties I signed, not one race would come settle on my planets and not one of my pops would go to them. It makes for a weird combination of issues.
I also ran into a problem with factions where I would do something (like ban slavery) and the anti-slavery faction wouldn’t recognize that I had done it. Again, not game breaking but annoying. Overall, these are not major issues, just little niggles that occasionally detracted from what is a very stable, well made game for the most part.
This has been a massively long article for what is, admittedly, a massive amount of content so I’m going to try to keep my sum up short. The new content may not be uniformly excellent but what’s good far outshines the bad, in my opinion. The new features are interesting and they add a lot to the game. This is good work, well thought out, and Stellaris feels far, far better for it. The game is in good hands.
If you have Stellaris, then you already have Banks (congrats!), and I strongly recommend that you pick up Utopia. The free content is so inextricably tied to the paid stuff that having the one without the other is far closer to getting the car without the tires than it is to getting the sundae without the whipped cream. This is a Paradox game – you knew what you were buying into, just knuckle down and get it over with.
On the other hand, if you were thinking about getting Stellaris but held back for some reason, I don’t think the new content is going to solve your problem, sadly. It is the irony of Utopia and Banks that it adds so much, yet changes so little. It definitely gives you more decisions, makes your race more interesting, and beefs up the midgame nicely. Yet the overall game experience feels much the same. If the systems for research, leaders, colony management, and combat were problems for you at the start, they’re still issues today. Sorry.
If you loved Stellaris, and let me be clear I love Stellaris in a way that makes my wife distinctly uncomfortable, Banks/Utopia is going to keep that affair going. But the issues that some have had with the game remain, they’re not fixed, and I’ve more or less abandoned the hope of that ever happening.
Mark’s Additional Perspective
I wanted to touch on the state of the AI in Stellaris since the Banks patch. According to the official patch notes, there were several adjustments made to the AI’s logic when it came to early expansion and it shows. In the four games that I have played (to various degrees) since Banks was released, there is little doubt that the AI empires expand more efficiently and effectively. As a result, early AI expansion has made the empires increasingly interesting in the latter parts of the game.
Having played Stellaris since launch, this small adjustment was apparent to me very early and made for better challenges as empires raced to absorb the best planets in the surrounding systems. For instance, if you end up next to a militaristic or xenophobic empire, an early war is more likely in your immediate future. Alternatively, if you are playing as an aggressive empire, expect your neighbors to look for defensive pacts with other races much earlier than with previous versions of the game.
In wartime, the AI seems a little more sharp – going after planets with no spaceports first as well as targeting mining and resource stations. This is a mild improvement, but the AI’s approach to warfare still has many holes that can easily be exploited. An experienced Stellaris player will notice these nuances, but they may slip under the radar of a more casual player. To a larger degree, the Sector AI has also been improved in Banks. This is something that’s been discussed on the forums ad nauseum and probably will be some more. However, the tweaking done in the latest patch is much appreciated.
The empire AI has improved since release, but it’s not to the level of the leap forward we have seen in the Sector AI. In the end, I would like to see the Stellaris AI play more like a player and less like a sitting target.
I have a very hard time splitting the Utopia expansion from the accompanying Banks patch. My experience is that they come as a package deal to be played together as the developers intended them to be.
I personally wouldn’t be very impressed by the Traditions tree if i didn’t get the ascension perks for completing each branch. I wouldn’t enjoy the new government/civics choices knowing some of the more interesting options were locked away. I wouldn’t be happy with genetically altering my pops knowing greater depth is available in an expansion.
This is my recommendation for Utopia:
If you enjoy Stellaris then you really should experience it with all the new bells and whistles
If you are on the fence, play Stellaris with the new mechanics and wait for a sale.
If you don’t enjoy Stellaris then beware, Utopia won’t be the savior of your enjoyment.
TL;DR: Stellaris continues to be one of the best Space 4X games available and, for the most part, the new content only enhances it. The free Bank’s content significantly changes several key aspects of the game and the additional paid Utopia DLC takes Banks from good to great. However, the new material doesn’t fix what ails Stellaris and those expecting massive changes will feel let down. The game remains a fantastic space storytelling machine and a solid strategy experience.
You might like the game if:
- You want a polished space 4X experience and you’ve had it with all the MoO-ing
- You want an immersive, narrative experience that will surprise you on every playthrough
- You like having lots of little systems to fidget with, adjusting everything to your little heart’s delight
- There’s nothing that excites you more than a wide open galaxy just waiting to be explored
You might NOT like the game if:
- You played Stellaris vanilla and were disappointed with it
- You want deep, tactical combat options
- You can’t handle cruelty to others in any (even fictional) form
- You want the relationship depth and diplomacy of other Paradox games such as Crusader Kings II
Joshua played Utopia for 20+ hours (125 for Stellaris overall) on a Powerspec g313 with an Intel i5 6600k processor, 16GB DDR4 RAM and a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070.
Disclosure: Joshua and Mark were given game keys for Utopia at no cost for the purposes of this review.