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Stellaris Review

Topping the sales charts on Steam for several weeks running is Paradox’s Stellaris. As a rabid fan of both Crusader Kings and Europa Universallis, I immediately picked up their first foray into 4x grand space strategy.

At its core it is a standard space 4x game, in which the goal is to expand rapidly by exploring, harvest and use resources efficiently, and then exterminate your opponents. For the record, that is what 4x stands for, Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate. So how does it do with each of these pivotal roles?

Meet the Space Foxes of the Wessari Imperium. They're lazy, weak, but live longer than Yoda.

Explore: Excellent. As The Hitchiker’s Guide tells us, “Space is big. Really big.” When you create even a medium size map you’re going to be astounded by how stupidly huge it is. There’s all kinds of fun things to explore. Anomalies to uncover. Decisions to make about weird space aliens. New races to meet and decide if you’ll embark on some thousand year plan to eventually conquer them. Stellaris starts right.

A humble start on the smallest possible map. Go forth my space foxes!

Expand: Good. Space is a random place. It isn’t fair, because life isn’t fair. Where and how you expand will largely be up to luck. However, just because life isn’t fair doesn’t mean Paradox couldn’t have found a way to give players a somewhat “balanced” start. Usually the expand phase is full of careful economic planning, balancing your need to build colony ships and collect minerals and research against your budget. At the end of the day though, the expand phase is just spamming as many colonies as you can for the most part. Not exactly thrilling, but it will hold your attention as you try to manage an ever expanding empire.

Exploit: Trouble Ahead. Here’s where Stellaris stumbles. Eventually your empire is going to hit another empire, or many empires most likely, and now your expanding and exploring is mostly done. Time to turn on the production in your empire full steam… There’s no more cool aliens to find, no more anomalies to discover. There’s maybe a few quests, but they’re probably deep inside enemy territory. You may get there someday, but someday is a long time from now. Expoit is the time of the game where you sit and twiddle your thumbs, mindlessly upgrading structures and building new mining posts. Maybe you build some ships to keep up with the Jones’ next door. Either way this is the longest part of the game and it’s downright dull. This is exacerbated by the simple fact this part of the game is by far the longest portion.

Getting kind of crowded in here. I'm sure our neighbors will be friendly, we're pacifists afterall.
Exterminate: Fail. What amazes me about this game is it is from the developers of Crusader Kings and EU4, games that entirely rely on a twisted web of political alliances and wars that can go on for decades, where a superior army can be defeated by terrain, attrition, or simply having some strong friends to back you up. Even when you lost in those games you could usually come back. In Stellaris diplomacy is sterile. Maybe you form an alliance, usually you won’t. Neither will they. It’s a lonely universe with none of the life and political backstabbery that made many wars in their earlier games so memorable. When France suddenly decides not to honor their alliance and what you thought would be an easy war turns into an economy crippling slugfest for all sides… you’ll get none of that in Stellaris.
Instead, what you’ll get is an AI that will chase you around until you either crush it or it crushes you. Recovering from losses is so difficult that once the battle ends it will only be a matter of time before the entire empire falls, one way or the other. War is all or nothing and there’s no duking it out with troops retreating and attacking and allies joining and leaving. It’s a one-pitch ball game, winner takes all.
Their Foxy Fleet destroyed, those bird people from the next star system over will feast upon our aged corpses. Turns out I didn't win the one-pitch ballgame.

Future: That isn’t to say there isn’t light at the center of the universe. The developers appear to be aware of the problem and claim their next two major patches will attempt to address these mid-late game issues. Paradox has a reputation of two things: Releasing a TON of DLC content ($$$) and making solid updates to their existing catalog. If they can turn the ship a little bit (are you getting tired of these space puns yet?) Stellaris may go down as the next Masters of Orion, but as it stands it’s a whole lot more forgettable. Something more like a Masters of Orion 3.

Verdict: Wait for the next couple updates and see.

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