4X

Stellaris ReeXamination #2

When Stellaris first launched in 2016, it was marketed under the slogan “Make Space Great Again.” Lately, I’ve been campaigning for Stellaris by co-opting a different American political rallying cry: “Keep Stellaris WeirdTM.”

What I mean is, as Stellaris continues to grow and change (it’s basically a living organism at this point), I believe that the game should embrace its differences from the rest of the 4X genre. This has become my benchmark for how to evaluate a potential update to the game. I’m less concerned about the update to the game being well-implemented or thematically appropriate. I just want it to be unique

When Stellaris is at its best, it is trying new things, taking different approaches – maybe not turning 4X on its head, but at the very least looking at it from a new perspective. This approach leads to a bountiful harvest of strengths and a pestilent swarm of weaknesses for Stellaris. It also makes the game incredibly difficult to evaluate at any one time.

StellarisAtitle

It has been close to a year and a half (yikes!) since we last looked at Stellaris in print form. Since then, there have been three large DLCs (Synthetic Dawn, Apocalypse, and Megacorps), one smaller story pack (Distant Stars), and multiple iterative changes that have remade the game in both little and large ways.

For this most recent update – rolling Stellaris to version 2.2 along with the release of the Megacorps DLC – I’m going to take a look at where the game is, where it has been, and where I think it ought to be going. More importantly, this is not intended as a review of any individual DLC – this is an old school eXplorminate reeXamination where we look at the whole package – but I will call out key features where necessary.

If you’re a lapsed Stellaris player, should you give it another shot? If you’ve resisted jumping into Stellaris till now, is it time to make the leap? If you’ve been sitting around playing base Stellaris, should you spring for the DLC? Has Stellaris silenced the haters, exceeded the imitators, and become something truly greater?

Read on.

eXplore

Stellaris still begins with arguably the most robust race creation in all of 4X gaming. As the game’s systems have changed, so too have the corresponding race options. If you haven’t touched Stellaris in a while, it’s likely that the impact of some options have changed dramatically, or have even disappeared completely. But the way those options are selected and organized has mostly stayed the same since Utopia.

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The un-usual suspects.

However, and this is something we’re going to come back to a lot, the race selection screens are full of vestiges of previous versions of Stellaris that no longer have any meaning. Many of the selections for Civics and other choices simply no longer make sense for the way the game now works. Often, it seems like choosing my empire’s color feels more impactful to overall gameplay (at least that has an effect – how easy it is to see myself on the map).

But where the DLC adds rather than takes away, where the empires feel truly differentiated, is in the more dramatic empire type options. There are currently three alternate empire types available: Hive Minds (added in Utopia), Machine Empires (added in Synthetic Dawn), and Megacorps (added in… Megacorps). These each represent variations on how the basic empires in Stellaris are structured and operate, and consequently add new gameplay/roleplay opportunities.

Hive Minds have been around for a while now and allow you to play a populace where each person is slaved to a central intelligence with no actual independent thought of their own. Originally I compared these to the Borg (I suppose you could say they’re the Klackons from MoO), but that no longer works, exactly, because we now also have…

Machine Empires, which are peopled solely by robots. There isn’t just one kind of Machine Empire, either. You can be friendly robots or destroyer robots or something sort of in between. Artificial beings always felt like a missed narrative opportunity in Stellaris and the Machine Empires option fixes that. They make for a real change of pace and I find them fun to play.  

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Roboturtles? Roboturtles.

The newest addition is the Megacorps. These are corporate entities rather than empires and so they act differently than empires, as well. To oversimplify, Megacorps are an opportunity to play Stellaris tall. While you can colonize other planets, there are severe penalties that make expansion prohibitive. To compensate, Megacorps can establish subsidiaries on other empires’ planets, expanding in a far more insidious and intractable way. In the spirit of Machine Empires, there are also several different versions of Megacorps available including religious Megacorps (Megachurches) and Criminal Megacorps (organized crime, basically) that offer variations on the same concept.

I really appreciate these alternate options. Playing as a Megacorp or a Machine Empire (I’ve never actually tried Hive Minds, but I imagine it’s similar) is still Stellaris, but offers new challenges and opportunities. The overall experience still isn’t as diverse as the faction asymmetry found in Endless Space 2, but that isn’t what Stellaris is attempting to do, anyway.

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Some of the Megacorps-specific options are really cool.

The problem is that, like the vestigial options I mentioned above, each of these different empires have very different needs that aren’t always accounted for when the game changes through subsequent updates. The current Internet wisdom (oxymoron, I know) is that Hive Minds are OP in 2.2 (because pop growth is easy for them) while Machine Empires are seriously hobbled (because they don’t trade). Whether this is actually true or just perceived as such is a whole other conversation. I’ll just repeat that when the developers make sweeping changes, they often leave a few dust piles around. You never know when you’re going to get lost in one of them.

Regardless of how you plan out your burgeoning empire, Stellaris still drops you in the same place: on one planet with a construction ship, a science ship, three military ships, and an eff-ton of work to do.

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The same old new beginning.

One of the biggest changes to the game, which came with 2.0, is that empires are now all limited to travel by hyperlanes only. It’s possible to discover natural wormholes and mysterious warp gates that will carry fleets across the galaxy, but they’re not a reliable path to build your empire around. The developers were transparent about the switch to a unified mode of travel: they felt it was necessary to improve combat by creating a more reliable map geography. Choke points and the like. Whether it worked is a discussion for later, natch.

The impact on exploration, however, is a net negative. As science fiction travel macguffins, I’ve always found hyperlanes to be the least interesting, and there’s nothing in Stellaris to convince me otherwise. The change has made the game flatter, more predictable. Un-Stellaris-like, in other words. It’s the perfect example of my philosophy that making Stellaris more mainstream also makes it less good.

Another limit introduced in 2.0 was that only science vessels could explore the galaxy. That is, if a system has not been visited by a scientist, no other ships can go there. The game pretends at offering you an option to either survey or explore a system, but selecting anything but survey is a waste – your ships will have to return if you want to do anything. Also, the nomenclature for these two options is really opaque, I can never remember right off which is which.

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This empire is a really big fan of envelopes, I guess?

Gameplay-wise these change are OK, I guess. It was done to break a workaround where players were sending their fleets on a madcap adventure across the galaxy for faster exploration. Thematically, though, it’s weird and annoying. Stellaris used to be a game that let you interact with it in multiple ways. That has slowly been winnowed down, forcing you to play in just the one way, and the game is lesser for it.

Even small changes have made exploration feel more straightforward and limited. The old days where a science ship might fail a particular event is gone. Tougher events just take longer to complete. While failing quests was random and annoying, the ability to always succeed at them doesn’t really work either. It makes Stellaris feel less like a game and more like a visual novel. “Click here for story!”

The early game, in general, seems to get slower and slower with every release. As if the developers realize that the game becomes problematic in the later stages, so they’re trying to keep you away from it for as long as possible. At this points, it is starting to feel artificially dragged out- like someone trying to distract you, rather than entertain.

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Traditions have been adjusted for 2.2, but it’s still basically the same. Like a lot of things.

I can understand the impetus though, because exploration is still the best part of Stellaris. I’ve got over 200 hours in the game, and I’m still – STILL – finding new content. Or stuff that looks like old content but that ends up having a slight, new twist. Even going through the familiar stories is fun. The universe feels alive with possibility. Stellaris is at its best when it acts as a random sci-fi content generator, and exploration is the area where that is the most evident.

eXpand

Once a science ship has fully surveyed a system, you may think it’s time to start looking for a nice neighborhood to move into. However, Stellaris 2.0 added a second step to the colonization process as part of reworking the combat system.

Now, empires must build a starbase at the center of any system in which they wish to build mines, research stations, or even new colonies. The benefit of this is that borders (always a little wonky in Stellaris classic) now make perfect, logical sense. The negative is massive, annoying starbase spam. My God, protect me from the starbase spam.

Sometimes, the system works. When you find yourself abutting an antagonistic empire, the race to build starbases in key systems can be as pulse-pounding as a first person shooter. But most of the time it’s just more busy work. Having to build a starbase in every [darn] system gets really old, really fast.

It also creates weird scenarios. Let’s say there’s a system in the center of your empire. It has 1 social research point, but that’s it. Is it worth building a starbase there? Maybe? I’m sure someone can min/max the math on this to see if it’s financially appropriate, but I’m not going to. Sometimes this can lead to tough choices – aka, good gameplay – where you’re forced to build a starbase in a system that is resource-poor but strategically placed. Unfortunately, the other scenario, where it all just feels so pointless, is far more common.

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The updates with Stellaris 2.2 further exacerbate expansion issues. The old way of counting settled planets to determine empire size is dead. Empires are still punished for sprawl, but now the game uses a suite of different criteria, including the raw number of starbase-held systems and the number of districts you’ve built on your planets.

This fixes some of the problems that have been plaguing the game since launch, like two planets in the same system both counting against your overall limit. Mostly though, it just makes the empire sprawl penalty really opaque. It’s far too easy to accidentally over-expand and suddenly find yourself economically hobbled. And, of course, it also works in direct contrast to the rest of the game that encourages starbasing every damn system in sight.

Ideally, this would work as an interesting decision tree where you have to balance the expansion of your empire vs the sprawl penalty. In practice, though it just makes everything more frustrating. You’re getting punished both for expanding and not expanding, so it simply isn’t fun.

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What does it all mean?!

The new way of accounting for sprawl also, for all intents and purposes, kills the sector system. Yes, sectoring has been put out of its misery. The game still offers it as an option, in fact it will automatically split your empire into sectors on its own, but that’s just cosmetic.

Players can still choose to delegate sector responsibilities. It’s a fool’s errand, however, because – surprise! – the sector AI is flat-out stupid. As if the devs never bothered to teach the AI how to manage the new districts systems at all. The developers claim that there are fixes coming in the upcoming 2.2.6, but considering the history of this feature, I’m pretty skeptical.  

I have mixed feelings about losing sectors, overall. On the one hand, I always loved the idea of them and thought that they were a great way to remove the busy work endemic to so many 4X games. On the other, the implementation was never ideal and I know that a lot of people simply hated sectors. So, congrats, we all get to micromanage all our planets. Hooray?

Stellarisreex#209

Building some buildings.

But before you can do all that, you’ve got to get to settling. Once a system is claimed with a starbase, you can then begin collecting resources and consider settling a planet. Stellaris 2.2 has, once again, slowed down the settling process. Colony ships feel a little easier to build, but once they land they sure do sit on the planet for a while before becoming a true settlement. Even once that happens, the changes in how pops grow and the organization of the districts features mean that colonies can take quite a while before becoming viable parts of your empire. I suppose this is intended to make colonization feel like an undertaking and boy does it. But not in a way that’s fun or interesting. Mostly just frustrating

Since there’s nothing to do but wait, there just aren’t interesting decisions to make. A system like Endless Space 2 that lets you make different choices to accelerate growth feels needed here. Yes, there’s an edict to speed pop growth, but it’s a background click and, again, just doesn’t feel weighty or impactful.

Overall eXpansion feels very much like a piece of content that is suffering from the needs of other, more recently updated, game systems. What’s best for combat or exploration has not turned out well for expanding – and gameplay that was effortless or interesting has been made more complex and less fun. It’s a chore.

eXploit

Exploitation, and specifically colony management, is where Stellaris 2.2 has made the most changes. Gone is the old pops-in-a-tile planetary management system. Instead, Stellaris has borrowed from a very interesting place: the Anno series.

At its most simple level, planets still produce the base resources of food, minerals, energy, research (all three flavors), unity, influence, and population. However, minerals on their own are no longer enough to drive your empire. Instead, they must be manufactured into different resources on planet. There are alloys, which are what is used for ship building, and consumer goods, which keep your people happy.

This added step makes the process of resource collection a bit more interesting. It’s also part of a far larger, rethought system for planetary management in general. Base resource collection happens in districts, of which there are four types that can be built on most any planet. Mining gives you minerals, industrial gives you energy, farms give you food.

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Mo’ districts, mo’ problems.

Cities – the fourth district type – are a little less intuitive. Cities give you places for your pops to live, but they also create other, white collar, jobs like clerks, technicians, and even priests. Pops in these job types produce the other base resources you need to run your empire in different amounts depending on the jobs. Again, this feels very Anno-y. Noticed how that also spells annoy? Yeah, that’s pretty accurate actually. Hang on, we’ll get there.

The other thing you can build on-planet, beyond the districts, are buildings. Buildings are unlocked by growing pops. For every five pops, you can build a new building. These are specialized centers that manufacture the more complex resources like alloys and consumer goods. They can also boost production of other resources like Unity, increase happiness, or even steer your planet’s economy toward being more urban.

This is all extremely interesting. A perfect example of keeping Stellaris weird. I can’t think of another 4X that does planet management with this much depth or options. That’s also the problem.

You see, Stellaris is a game about building an empire and exploring the stars. With 2.2, Stellaris has become a game of optimizing the upward mobility of your pops, massaging the middle class, and micromanaging society. One pop at a time. They’ve dropped Cities: Skylines smack into Stellaris! Why, God, why?!

Take a look at this screenie.

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Space LinkedIn has not yet been invented.

Yes, you can drill all the way down to individual pop jobs. I get that clerks provide different resources than technicians, but what’s the optimal balance? Do I want more clerks? What happens if I have less? And then how many priests do I need on top of that? I DON’T KNOW. I’ve been playing for twenty hours and I STILL DON’T KNOW. There are tutorials you can find. Videos from players. They help. But they don’t make any of this easier to parse or tip the balance of the game back to the space stuff – you know, the things we’re playing the game for in the first place.

This also raises the accompanying problem with Keep Stellaris Weird. When the game switched to starlanes only it was annoying because it was the same thing other 4X games already offered. But it was intuitive. I could fire up Stellaris and understand exactly how the travel system worked.

The new planetary management system is awesome. It’s filled with possibilities and promise. It’s also frickin’ inexplicable and the game does a terrible job of teaching it to you. As I’ve said, there are good guides written by people far smarter than me that help. But despite all of that, I’ve yet to feel like I have a handle on it.

Even if you do “get” it, the amount of micromanagement this now demands really takes away from the overall game. You could spend hours figuring out how to min/max your planet to get what you need, but then you have 12 of the darn things in your empire. And, as mentioned above, the AI doesn’t understand these systems. Simply putting your planet into a sector or just letting it fly on its own isn’t an option. In other words, this level of attention isn’t just opaque, it feels necessary in order to play the game at its best. That is a bad combination.

The other problem with the planetary management system shouldn’t be surprising at this point, it wasn’t cleanly integrated into the other, existing systems of the game. You’ll notice it constantly as you play.

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Factions are another mechanic that were cooler in concept than execution.

The biggest instance of this lack of proper integration has to do with pop growth. While the planetary system is completely changed, pop growth hasn’t been altered at all. Everything you do on a planet is driven by the number of pops you have. You can build the right buildings, strategically manage your districts – but none of it matters if you don’t have the pops to work there.

And you won’t, because pops still build at an astonishingly slow rate. There are tons of interesting options to unlock for your planet, but chances are you’ll never see them because you’ll still be waiting to fill jobs on the buildings you had two centuries ago. I’ve thrown every resource I have into goosing my pop growth, but it doesn’t do enough to make the city management feel like anything less than a tease.

There’s also a feature/bug with building pops that has become the signature issue with 2.2 on the Stellaris online boards. Let’s say you have a bunch of bird people, happily living on your planet. Then, one day, a rhino race forms an alliance with you and – poof! – a rhino pops up on your bird planet. Because of the way Stellaris handles pop growth in 2.2, that rhino race will now be the only pops that grows until the rhino population is equal with the bird population.

That’s fine if you want a ton of rhino people, but what if you don’t? For example, let’s say you built the bird people to have very fast growth (because let’s be honest, it’s kind of game-breaking right now). The rhino people, on the other hand, grow at a much slower rate. Guess what? Your planet is now stuck at their speed and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is a game where I can literally manage the career of one of my pops like I’m playing The Sims, but population growth is locked into this quixotic racial balance system.

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A map to the stars.

I say feature/bug because the devs say this is intentional and the players say they don’t care because it breaks the game. Do minorities grow faster than the majority group in real life? Maybe. So I guess you could argue this is “ripped from the headlines” or whatever. From a gameplay perspective though it’s frustrating. At least give players the option to discourage/encourage certain pop types. Or allow for more than one pop to grow at a time – honestly that would fix a lot of problems with the game right now. Version 2.2.6 claims to better balance this “feature,” but it’s unclear right now whether it’s a true fix..

This new economic system also adds something new to Stellaris which has been missing since the beginning: the sense of an actual economy. Players can now build trade routes across their empires. Trade should be exciting and interesting, another set of challenging decisions, but for the most part it just isn’t.

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The silk road, this is not.

Certain planets will create a resource called Trade Goods, which can be turned into Consumer Goods which, in turn, help keep your people happy (you can also change how your economy works to make Trade Goods turn into other resources). If you settle in that system, you will automatically gather Trade Goods like anything else. However, if you want to collect Trade Goods in a system you claimed but did not settle, you can upgrade to a space station that can collect the Trade Goods a certain number of systems away.

No matter what you gather, however, it all gets funnelled to your capital planet which creates trade routes. The further away you’re collecting Trade Goods, the longer the route. There is a new map overlay that lets you see these routes, though it doesn’t have too much utility, except for checking that things are working as they should.

The one thing the overlay is good for is showing you pirates. Yes, once again the pirate system has been reworked in 2.2. They are now a constant presence on any trade route, slowly siphoning off some of your precious profits. Pirates can be managed by assigning several of your ships to patrol the routes, but they can never be completely purged.

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Yar matey?

The problem with all of this is how passive it is. There simply aren’t any interesting decisions to make. I’ve never been a fan of how Endless Space 2 represents pirates, but at least it gives me choices where I can weigh the benefits and risks. In Stellaris, it’s just another button to click – another switch to flick. That’s busy work, not fun.

Trade itself is also a bit limited. Reinforcing the need for space station spam isn’t really something I’ve been looking for with Stellaris. Furthermore, the station limits introduced in 2.0, and the space limitations of the stations themselves, means that there isn’t much to engage with when it comes to trade. Placing a trade station in the best spot to collect the most Trade Goods is neat, but after that the system just rolls along on its own. Trade is also only intra-empire, so there’s no building trade routes to foreign lands or anything of the sort.

Speaking of things that Stellaris has lacked, 2.2 also adds a Galactic Market. Players can now trade resources on the market with a dynamic value for each. They can also set up automatic trades to constantly turn surpluses of one good into another, less common resource. How we survived without a Market before now, I’m really not sure.

In the early game, the Market is specific to your empire only. But as the game progresses and you meet other aliens, it becomes truly Galactic. When this happens, there is a fun competition to decide which empire will host the Galactic Market. It shows up as a quest, and you can decide to spend a set number of resources to campaign for one of your planets.

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At the Galactic Market, the minerals look good, but the cantaloupes are overpriced.

This process sets up the risk/reward challenge I’ve been looking for in other game systems. Getting the Galactic Market is a huge boon for your empire, but you can spend your economy down to nothing trying to win it, and if someone else spends just a little more, it’s all been for naught. It’s not simple, you actually have to make a choice that could transform your empire for good or ill in one press of a button. That’s smart game design that, unfortunately, isn’t carried over to the most of the new features in Stellaris.

Another change brought to eXploit is special resources. There is a set number of special resources that can be found throughout the universe and applied to key technologies. In this way, it’s very Civ-like. Except instead of finding coal to build factories, you’re acquiring nanites that open up certain other techs.

This is a smart evolution of the special resources, which previously felt ancillary. But it would be cooler if only certain resources appeared in games, making their discovery far more important. Right now it’s more like checking them off a supermarket list. Oh there’s the dark matter, next to the dishwasher soap.

The eXploit part of Stellaris could almost be its own game by itself. For some people, I imagine that’s very attractive. For those of us who want to get on with the job of galactic emperor, it’s a bit of a drag. These gameplay options aren’t really optional anymore. You can’t just set it and forget it. Players will have to get involved and, unfortunately, it’s all or nothing. Either you are min/maxing your individual pops or your economy is turning to poop.

Overall, the changes to eXploit feel unique, creative, and immersive. They’re also almost impossible to understand clearly and take way too much time away from the things that matter. This is a problem that will fix itself as more people learn the systems and create guides, but it really shouldn’t be that way in the first place.

eXterminate

As 2.2 was about eXploit, so too was 2.0 about eXterminate (In case this has been bothering you, the step between them, Stellaris 2.1, was a story-based update). Stellaris 2.0 (along with DLC Apocalypse) stripped the combat system down to the studs and rebuilt it completely, sometimes for better, but mostly for worse.

The problem with Stellaris, at the outset, was that combat felt boring. The multiple travel options removed any sense of “geography” from the game. There were no choke points or strategic locations because an enemy could come from anywhere. Border placement often felt random and out of control. And the basic “strategy” was to take all your ships regardless of size, stuff them in one big blob, and throw them at each other like a toddler with too many action figures.

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The enemy is on the hunt.

2.0 purported to fix all of this. As discussed above, now everyone travels by hyperlane at the onset of the game. This means that key locations to defend/attack are obvious, which helps the combat but makes the game far less interesting overall. The borders system was replaced by space stations which also works from a strategic standpoint but is hella annoying from a gameplay one. Finally, armadas are now capped. So you can only group a limited number of ships together at one time. Thus, combat has been fixed. Hurrah!

Or not.

As we’ve said, removing the travel options makes the galaxy far less interesting. And the space station spam is out of control. As for the rules governing how you organize your ships, well… The problem is, there’s still no strategic reason not to manage your multiple fleets as one big blob other than that the game forces you to keep smaller, separate fleets. The benefits of a small ship vs. a large one are not immediately apparent (though the documentation swears they are there) and while it’s possible to create several diversified forces it isn’t clear to the player why they’d want to.

In the end, for all the nuance that’s supposedly ingrained in Stellaris now, the big armada with bigger ships will still wipe the floor with any other fleet construction. This is nowhere close to the far more interesting systems found in games like Age of Wonders III or even Civ VI. Yes, even the much maligned Civ VI has a better combat system than Stellaris. Ouch.

Weapon differences are also not clear. There does appear to be a rock-paper-scissors system underlying everything, but it’s never communicated as clearly as in ES2 where I know that building some missile ships to compliment my lasers are necessary. Or where I can see an enemy is dependent on shields and so I quickly throw together some mass drivers.

Stellarisreex#218

Pew pew pew!

So we’re back to mushing up a whole bunch of ships and throwing them at each other, only the mushes have to be in smaller groups. The controls for organizing and maneuvering your multiple fleets are not intuitive or easy, either. Something like sending in a smaller fleet to knock out key systems and then sending a larger fleet in to mop up often fails – not because the systems don’t exist (they do) but because your armadas will often enter battle in whatever order they please, even as you try to babysit them.

Thus, for all the work to force interesting decisions into combat, there’s still no need for tactics, and all the changes make the game less interesting and less fun.

There are some other issues, as well. Ship travel is far too slow now. An enemy can cross your border, destroy a heavily armed space station, and pop right back out. If your fleet is more than two systems away, they’ll be there just in time to sweep the space debris. It just takes forever. But splitting your ships up to defend all possible entry points is also a waste because it will never be large enough to defeat the enemy’s incoming fleet.

This isn’t to say that the game should reward turtling, I’m glad aggression is rewarded, but the fact that a defender is always back-footed is really annoying, and I’m sick of watching my navy crawl it’s way across the galaxy while the stupid, greedy space turtles dismantle my empire.

Not that the AI is all that clever, anyway. I’ve seen some strange decisions in my time watching the Stellaris galaxy. Single ships sent in to be thwarted. Attacks on highly defended systems when a nearby one is completely vulnerable. Look, Stellaris is a complicated game that most humans will struggle to play perfectly. But the more systems the devs add, and the less their own game and AI can use those systems optimally, then the less fun everything feels.

Apocalypse also added megaships to Stellaris and overall these are a lot of fun. Massive planet-killers have been an integral part of sci fi since 1977 and these are a great addition to the game. It doesn’t really make up for the other missteps (and being honest, again, ES2 did it better), but they’re a nice addition.

Diplomacy, however, continues to be the most disappointing aspect of Stellaris. Those of us who played other Paradox games were really looking forward to seeing the complex relationships of something like Crusader Kings II come to space. They never have.

There are plenty of intriguing options when setting up your empire. But the potential for nuanced political theater is kneecapped by how little the game actually recognizes and translates philosophical differences into actual gameplay. Too often, the consequences of say, a religious empire meeting a materialist one is left to the imagination of the player.

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All the subtlety of a shovel to the face.

Stellaris simply doesn’t allow for personality to shine through in any way beyond binary love/hate relationships. There’s no nuance. Players can spend hours crafting a very well thought out race with unique motivations, but the result comes off as very generic. Egalitarian empires like other egalitarians and hate supremacists. It takes an oceanic level of options and drains it down to a puddle of gameplay.

Conversations with allies and enemies are flat, boring affairs that are little more than trade windows with a bit of useless brinkmanship. There’s no nuance or negotiation. Everyone who is not like you will eventually despise you. Anyone sort of similar will get along smashingly. It’s fine, sure, but it isn’t at all intriguing or fun. Yes, I’d rather have the crazy, bi-polar personalities of Civ VI compared to this. At least they feel interesting and surprising, if slightly insane. At least I have options to improve/degrade our relationships, if I wish.

It’s really frustrating to have to say this, but eXtermination is in need of a major overhaul. The fact that it just got one in 2.0 is a searing indictment of that DLC/expansion. Combat should be the culmination of the game, instead it’s mostly frustrating and clumsy. After all the work that the devs did to try to make things better, that is particularly galling.

eXperience

2.0 was billed as the big reboot of Stellaris, but in many ways it was the 2.2 update that felt like a true sea change for the game. The thing you’ll notice first off is the new UI, which has done something I previously thought was impossible: they cleaned up the interface and made it feel intuitive again. I was complaining about crowded menus over a year ago, so you can only imagine how bad things got. The fact that the devs were able to come up with an elegant solution is nothing short of miraculous.

Stellarisreex#220

Don’t stare directly at the… Too late.

Graphically, Stellaris is the same as it ever was. For a game that has a fairly low processor requirement and uses a graphical engine developed two weeks after Washington crossed the Delaware, Stellaris is often shockingly beautiful. Same goes for the soundtrack, which continues to be marvelous. We can argue about the so-called 4X Renaissance, but there’s no doubt in my mind that we are in a Golden Age of 4x music with Stellaris, the Endless games, Civ VI, and even AoW3.

Would it surprise you to hear that both 2.0 and 2.2 had buggy, problem-filled launches? It should not. What may be shocking, however, is that many bugs from 2.2 have still (STILL) gone unaddressed. More troubling, however, are the number of “features” that are undeniably broken yet are instead categorized as intentional design choices. For instance, the pop growth conundrum I described in detail above.

For some of these things, the Stellaris developers have promised fixes. The upcoming 2.2.6 patch seems to be set to do a lot. For others, however, like the unbalanced Hive Mind empires, the devs have been disappointingly mum. That’s been an ongoing problem with the new dev team actually, they’ve been far quieter than their predecessors. And when they do communicate with the community, they’ve been ham fisted or unclear. One recent post had to be corrected because they made it sound like work on Stellaris had been stopped entirely. That is not good. Whether it’s language barrier or simply programmers struggling to communicate to us muggles, it has pushed an already anxious set of Stellaris fans closer to the edge.

So that’s it, huh? Stellaris is a buggy mess with poorly thought out updates and features that is unable to escape the weight of its own gravity? Well, yes.

But also no.

Because, in the end, Stellaris is still STELLARIS. To dig into my well of American political slogans one last time (Clinton, in this case), there is nothing wrong with Stellaris that cannot be fixed by what is right with Stellaris. Yes, I’m aware that some of my fellow eXplorminators will never forgive Stellaris for not being the game they wished it would be. But for those of us who have always appreciated it – guess what? – the game we love is still there.

Stellarisreex#221

What’s missing in this picture? My fleet. The enemy done blowed them up already.

We just need to come to grips with what Stellaris is. Stellaris is not a “game” that you “win.” It’s closer to a simulation, but I’m not sure that’s really fair, either. Stellaris is an open universe story generation system. There’s nothing really else out there like it. Which, in many ways, is why it is so polarizing, so hard to improve, so impossible to truly evaluate.

It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae, especially in a review where it’s my job to criticize the game. But when I’m actually playing Stellaris all the little problems fall away. I feel like I’m in a universe filled with possibility and wonder. There are 4X games that are more tightly designed or curated, but none of them feel as open as Stellaris. Space, by definition, is infinite and Stellaris conveys that. It’s a playground, but one filled with lasers, spaceships, and weird aliens.

While some of the new features are annoying, and many seem not as well integrated as I might wish, I can still sit down and accidentally burn eight hours playing Stellaris. The new economic system brought by version 2.2 is interesting and while I can spend all day complaining about how it was implemented, I actually really like a lot of what it offers. It adds a new dimension to the game that really is unlike anything I’ve seen before. I’m not a fan of almost everything in 2.0, but the devs have already begun walking back a few of those features. And the strengths of Stellaris – it’s vast size, ability for storytelling, and unique approach to 4X – are still there, just waiting to be explored all over again.

My guess is that the next large expansion will address the eXpand aspect of the game, which is probably needed at this point. My wish is that diplomacy would get a complete rethink, but I’m not holding my breath. Also combat is still junk. Sorry.

Stellarisreex#222

The battle is lost, but the war… Actually, no. We lost that too.

Honestly, the big expansion that Stellaris really needs more than anything is just a chance to catch up to all the changes and smooth out the rough edges. It sure would be nice if someone came along and plugged all the leaks in this ship before adding yet another sail and then sending her on her merry way. A game where every feature works well together for a unified whole? What can I say? I’m a dreamer.

So, to answer the question we started this article with: For many of the people who are into Stellaris, the latest expansions offer the best thing possible, more Stellaris. For those who remain unconvinced, however, there is nothing here that will change your mind. All of these expansions don’t really make the game better, just different. Whether it’s good different or bad different will depend on your personal preferences.

Like the hyperlanes introduced in 2.0, the future of the Paradox 4X space game, more than ever, seems locked in one direction with a singular destination. For some, that’s an indictment of a game that once seemed filled with unending possibility. For others, however – for me – there’s nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the journey.

TL;DR: Stellaris has changed in a multitude of ways since we last reviewed it – combat and planetary management have been completely reworked, though almost no system has been untouched. Yet, for all that, Stellaris is the same as it ever was, for better or worse. It is a fun, immersive 4X game that is at its best when it is not mimicking other 4X. There are bugs, and issues, and the game seems to glorify in its own imperfections, but in the end Stellaris is as engaging as ever and a credit to the genre we love.

You might like this game if:

  • You love space 4X and you’re looking for something different than MoO clones
  • You play games for the stories they create
  • You’re a big Sci-Fi geek
  • You like to dig deep into complicated systems

You might NOT like this game if:

  • You want a straight up 4X game with clear decisions and win conditions
  • You have no patience for half-finished systems or bugs
  • You want to buy a title once, rather than invest in ongoing iterative DLC
  • You don’t want to do research to learn how to play a game

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Joshua his own copy and played for 200+ hours on a Powerspec g313 with an Intel i5 6600k processor, 16GB DDR4 RAM and a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070. He was provided with a copy of the game for the purposes of this review.

10 replies »

  1. I found that as a whole, Stellaris 2.0 improved over 1.0, but is far too boring for me to want to play it. Sometimes it can have good flavor, but the actual game play decisions tend to be fairly mundane. The game can use some more interesting buildings for planetary development and some civ-like wonder options. Even the mega structures are rather boring.

    Hyperlanes do make expansion and system defense more interesting. Identifying a system as a chokepoint and doing what it takes to own and secure it can be exciting.

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    • I agree with this. Stellaris seems to rely on a great deal of roleplaying input from the player to become fun, something I’m just no good at. I only ever play by a game’s systems, and the systems in Stellaris, while fine, are not terribly engaging.

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  2. All this Stellaris business is so far too obscured to me, as I never played it (yet). And I would really like to hear an oppinion of a long-term Distant Worlds player on the current form of Stellaris – mainly in terms of the richness of Stellaris’s systems and such…

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  3. Nice, long, detailed reexamination but once again I have to say it is a crime to review such a game as Stellaris without mentioning anything about its moddability, especially when it really shines there with many exceptional mods giving players almost endless fresh gameplay experience. What is possible one could see trying eg. STNH – a vast in scope total conversion that rivals and often surpasses the vanilla game in how it presents emerging stories, implementing original mechanics to do so. Eg. look at the Klingon houses mechanic showing how much potential is even in current Stellaris factions, look at the Federation Council mechanic showing what is possible even without a planned diplomatic update… Stellaris can be so easilly (for a player of course) much more.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Good and entertaining review. Haven’t bought any expansions myself literally because all of what was said in this review – they’ll screw up the game in multiple unpredictable ways. Let’s wait and see the next two years, Paradox are quick learners so to speak.

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  5. as always an awesome Rereview of and Masterpiece game that dont stop to impresse me/us !!!
    Dear Gwydion thank you a lots for all these respectful work a real enjoyed every word !!! hat up

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  6. Never did work out as good as Distant Worlds.
    I really, really hate buying a game, then it morphs and changes into something else. Especially when that something else no longer represents what I initially bought.
    No more Paradox for me, i’m afraid.

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