That Stellaris was so eagerly anticipated (and ended up becoming Paradox’s most successful launch to date) is, perhaps, unsurprising. While the historical grand strategy/4X subgenres are consistently well-catered for, not least by the Swedish studio itself, the sci-fi side of the family felt a little undernourished in recent years, spawning the occasional mildly disappointing sequel or relaunch, but lacking a definitive entry like 1996’s Master of Orion 2.
Key to the wave of goodwill Stellaris enjoyed in the weeks leading up to release was the promise of accessibility. Paradox titles are famous for their depth and quality but also for a level of complexity that makes genre classics like the Europa Universalis and Victoria series all but impenetrable to newcomers. Indeed, the game delivers with an intuitive, mostly uncluttered interface, an exhaustive set of hyperlinks to explain every concept of the game, and an exemplary tutorial that, astonishingly, manages to smoothly guide you through a process of gradual familiarization without ever feeling intrusive. And that’s how, almost despite yourself, you build your first mining station, colonize your first planet, customize your first combat vessel. A passing acquaintance with the genre helps (it always does) but Stellaris is the rare strategy title one can recommend to players with no prior experience.
The early game is easily the best part as you assess the strengths and weaknesses of your empire (after going through the necessary restarts until you chance upon the ideal, resource-laden star system), make your first tentative steps towards expansion, and send out your science ships to survey your immediate vicinity. Surveying is the paramount activity in the opening stages of your bid for galactic domination, as it allows you to uncover, not only habitable planets and vital resources, but also the randomly encountered event chains known as anomalies.
Researching those is arguably the most consistently fun pursuit in Stellaris. Aside from the more practical gains a successful research will award, it will also add a minor piece to the jigsaw puzzle of the game’s lore consisting of abandoned alien theme parks, long-lost holy texts, reptilian castaways, and mercenary poets. The additional narrative layer they provide is very welcome, especially in some of the longer chains hinting at cataclysmic, galaxy-spanning consequences. Failure at researching an anomaly is a minor heartbreak every single time, and it’s less for whatever bonus was on offer than for the chunk of text gone unread and the possibilities it would have suggested.
In terms of resource management Stellaris is helpfully streamlined. There are three basic economic resources: food, minerals, and energy. Food is needed for population growth, minerals for constructing stuff, like buildings and spaceships, and energy for their upkeep. There are also three types of scientific resources each contributing to the study of their respective discipline: physics, society, and engineering. Finally, once the appropriate technologies have been acquired, you can identify and uncover numerous strategic resources, meaning that what, to your unsophisticated civilization, looks like a barren, useless planetoid may conceal a pretty good reason for your neighbor’s seething, simmering envy. As ever, finding a balance between the basic resources, particularly construction and maintenance, is vital to success.
Technology operates under a lottery system that is bound to be divisive. Players are not entirely free to direct their path upon an underlying tech tree in the usual fashion. Instead, after research has been completed on a given subject, you are given a quasi-random selection of three new ones to pick from. Obviously, these have to be from the same discipline and have no outstanding prerequisites, so the process is not completely arbitrary, but it does instill a degree of unpredictability in your trajectory, especially with the staggering number of technologies available. Inflexible tacticians may frown upon the decision, but it’s undeniable that it brings some excitement to the stale tech-tree formula and there are several ways to circumvent its disruptive side-effects with relatively little harm to your long-term plans. More disappointing than the quirky system, are the technologies themselves, the majority being simple statistical improvements for buildings and combat units.
Having said that, custom-designing future additions to your fleet or upgrading your existing ships with the latest warp drive, UV lasers, and durasteel armor is always gratifying. Since battles in Stellaris, as with most similar games, are won and lost before the first shot has been fired, customizing a cruiser or a battleship means more than achieving a vague improvement of their combat capacity. It’s an immediate, tangible opportunity to enter into previously inadvisable scenarios: attacking the base of those pesky space pirates, driving away the colossal creatures blocking your science vessel’s surveys, or declaring war on a rival empire. And declare you should, since the game, once your galactic cohabitants have been revealed, their borders stifling the pace of your exploration, can become a bit of a drag without some bloodshed to keep things interesting. Belligerent players are bound to get the best out of Stellaris’s slower mid-game as the enemy AI tends to be rather passive, rarely raising a demand or objecting at your expansionism, let alone initiate a conflict.
Not to suggest that all your problems are external. Typically for a Paradox game, your population plays a more complex role than that of mere consumers, producers, and general pawns to your megalomania. Each empire holds a specific form of government and a set of beliefs that dictate which courses of action are considered permissible and which are not. Wanna enslave the puny, pre-industrial tribe you discovered in a nearby system? Good luck convincing your fiercely individualistic citizens. Does your current leader provide you with a bonus on a vital resource? Better hope they are reelected if you’re running a democracy.
Governing your empire in Stellaris can be a much more complicated proposition than simply allocating population units to different resource tiles, but the game is admirably balanced to allow you considerable progress before introducing you to the nuances of galactic administration. By the time you are handing out empire-wide edicts and rigging elections, you’ll have hardly realized how a bunch of initially perplexing stats and figures, hidden away at some submenu or other, have acquired meaning and transformed into useful political tools in your hands. Which really points to Paradox’s greatest achievement with Stellaris: taking a game of intimidating complexity and engineering it into a perfectly accessible title for genre rookies, without compromising any of its depth.
Stellaris is not a perfect game and there are aspects that Paradox could (and, judging by their track record, probably will) improve, including an unexciting range of technologies, a potentially plodding mid-game and timid enemy AI. But the fact that they have managed to present such a complex premise in so accessible a form is an achievement in and of itself. Stellaris was going to draw in the genre buffs with its intricacies, that was practically a given; Paradox’s masterstroke was enabling it to get its hooks into the rest of us.