Stellaris, Stellaris, Stellaris…where have you been all of these years? I almost feel like calling out, just as Marlon Brando once did: “Stellaaaaa…ris!” In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, Stellaris is Paradox Interactive’s new grand strategy game with a science fiction twist, and boy, does it put the grand into grand strategy.
Paradox Interactive, which gained prominence with complex strategy games such as Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings 2, goes galactic, eschewing the more restrictive historical contexts of those games in favor of an open-ended space odyssey—starring you as the leader of a full-fledged burgeoning space empire on the rise. This time, however, the action is in real-time as opposed to turn-based, but allows you to pause the game or slow it down when important matters demand particular attention.
I think just about everybody who has tried Stellaris can remember their very first game (and are probably still playing it), which is testament to the game’s powerful built-in, narrative-building architecture. That is to say, Stellaris provides you with the basic scaffolding in terms of rules and mechanics, but drops you off on the front doormat of creativity with regards to how you want to develop and tell your particular empire’s story.
For instance, for my first game I built a humanoid (mammalian) race called the Grand Hierocracy of Evanda Zunn. After choosing one of the many animated portraits to represent my people, I chose such things as their characteristics (mine were a xenophobic and spiritual people who were okay with owning slaves) along with their perks, and then selected a government type (based on earlier choices), determined what sort of planet they are most comfortable with, their FTL method of travel and basic starting weapon-type preference, and other such factors. Overall, I found Stellaris’ empire generation process akin to lovingly creating a role-playing character in any good RPG.
Once I started the game, I was given the option of having a tutorial assist me—which I wisely chose. Paradox Interactive did a very smart thing here as they did away with the more artificially-imposed, separate tutorial, and actually integrated it directly into the game. Coupled with Stellaris’ grand pace—which means slow and measured, and game mechanics that are revealed in a much more natural and organic way instead of feeling doled out in an artificial manner, and you’ve got one hum-dinger of a game.
I began at my homeworld within my home star system and quickly noticed something that I’d remembered from watching one of the developer’s diaries: Each of my planetary bodies was named something specific as opposed to “Evanda Zunn II” and “Evanda Zunn IV”, etc. As the developer had explained it, each of the planets or planetoids within your own system would be one that your people had already known about and so would have named long ago. This sort of attention to detail is increasingly rare in today’s gaming world so it was refreshing to see, here. Luckily, I learned that these sorts of fun and logical minutiae are sprinkled throughout Stellaris, which makes it just that much more immersive.
As I played on throughout the first few hours I learned about the game’s basic resources, types of research, planetary surface buildings (and orbiting space ports), the ship builder, empire borders, alien encounters, and much more. It was a lot to take in but as previously mentioned, the tutorial is very helpful and the UI is intuitive and presents everything handily enough.
Delightfully, most of my time during the opening hours was just spent guiding my several science vessels around from system to system on exploration missions, which gave a whole: “…on our five year mission, to seek out…” (Star Trek) vibe to it. It really felt like I, as the leader of my blossoming empire, I was sending out science expeditions with the hopes of discovering anything that would help my people. I soon discovered, however, that these science missions were unpredictable, and a couple of my vessels were even attacked after coming upon some long lost military post or alien technology, etc. In this regard, you can really become attached to your wayward explorers as they try to bravely navigate the new systems.
Later, one of my mining bases was set upon by a scraggly band of savage pirates, so I had to quickly scramble my meager fleet of Corvettes in order to deal with them. I barely managed to defeat them, and soon discovered where their base was situated. After building up a more formidable force I assaulted their base before they could muster another raiding party and blew it to smithereens. But in a game as detailed as Stellaris, even the space debris from their destroyed base was useful for research, so I promptly tasked one of my science vessels to scan it, and what do you know? Through my research I discovered a new point defense technology.
Soon afterwards, one of my homeworld scientists proposed the idea of constructing a grand museum housing the bones and mummified remains of certain alien species which were scattered amongst several distant planets. And so off my science ships went…
If you could imagine little mini-stories such as these evolving at a natural pace, and as your people’s leader, you deciding what course of action to take in each instance, a larger tapestry or story arc begins to emerge, which I haven’t seen in any other strategy game to date. Stellaris almost seems like a story-building game (with heavy role-playing elements present) first, and an RTS second. But then again, one doesn’t have to come at the expense of the other, and therein lies the innate ingeniousness of this game.
Usually, games as open-ended as Stellaris wind up being a little too open and feel sort of vacuous (I couldn’t resist) as a result. Not so in this case. Stellaris provides you with the basics in terms of game mechanics but allows for you to develop your people’s story in an open-ended yet fully-interactive way. Since this is a truly subjective experience you really must play Stellaris to even begin to approximate what I’m talking about. Suffice it to say that Stellaris is jam-packed with powerful narrative elements that are just waiting to be tapped into.
The visuals of Stellaris are solid and evoke a very space opera-y feel. Planets and asteroids are detailed and space ships look great. My one niggle is that I wish they would have included some additional models for human-looking types (there is only a single female one) as well as more types of ship designs per species type (there is also only one for each so far). However, since the developers were thoughtful enough to release full modding tools soon after the game’s release, I’m sure we’ll see much more content if we don’t in official patches.
Stellaris is indeed the grandest strategy game that I’ve ever played, and that’s saying a lot. Its native storytelling features ensure that each game plays out like a unique space opera that unfolds organically, and its mid-to-late game never gets bogged down as they do with other similar strategy titles. Deep strategy elements (which Paradox is known for) abound and the game’s measured pace never makes you feel too rushed, allowing for complex, multi-faceted, stratagems to equally challenging issues. In Stellaris I’ve found a new favorite strategy game, one that I’ll be playing for years to come, and hopefully you will too.
Stellaris features some superb visuals to go along with the equally elegant gameplay, but you can only enjoy them with a decent gaming PC or gaming laptop, such as this one:
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