Some great ideas get lost in interstellar bureaucracy.
The promising new space strategy game Stellaris has the pedigree to be great. With the experts at Paradox putting their own spin on a classic genre, it seems like a can’t-miss proposition. But it does miss, turning great early-game potential into a slow, dull grind.
Stellaris makes a great first impression. The empires in each game are randomly generated to have their own species traits, backgrounds, and government types. By far the most interesting twist is a set of ideology scales, with four ranges of Xenophobe-Xenophile, Spiritual-Materialist, Collectivist-Individualist, and Militarist-Pacifist determining how they behave. So you could create the Vulcans from Star Trek with Fanatic Materialism and Pacifism, or an angry swarming hive of Fanatic Collectivist Xenophobes to mimic Master of Orion’s Klackons. These decisions are meaningful enough to offer slight buffs or debuffs to most aspects of a campaign, from population happiness to diplomatic buffs or penalties with other races. With dozens of empires in any given galaxy (24 in a normal-sized startup) the randomization is flexible and strong enough to make the early empire-building fascinating.
The early game is divided into two main parts: first, you send you science ships to explore new systems, finding quests and new planets to inhabit. This works well: exploring is fun, and the quests you uncover are well-written and react well to empire’s ideologies. My favorite moment in all my 80-plus hours thus far with Stellaris involved discovering another race’s lost sacred text, but my Xenophobic race thought it was poorly written and refused to give it back out of spite. That caused a permanent negative penalty to my diplomacy with that race for the rest of the game. Arbitrary and random? Sure – but this rift between empires has a memorable story behind it.
Moving the pops around a planet to maximize resources and simple and surprisingly satisfying.
The second component of the early game involves deciding how to grow your empire. It’s a more detailed take a fairly conventional strategy game model, in that you must manage the populations (or ”pops”) of your planets by putting them to work on food or minerals or energy, then deciding whether to build factories, clear land for future construction, or send out colony ships. Moving the pops around a planet to maximize resources and simple and surprisingly satisfying, and doing this across a few planets keeps the early game moving quickly. What gives it depth and complexity is that each pop also has an ideology which can slowly change; so, for example, if you start developing Individualists, they’ll be unhappy to share land next to slaves.
There are some neat ideas involved in colony mechanics as well: your starting race is only adapted to life on a few types of worlds, so a species of ocean-dwellers simply won’t be happy on a desert planet. In most games that would limit your growth, but in Stellaris you can find primitive races on other worlds and either conquer and enslave them, or uplift them into your empire as citizens – or you can send in the robots. Science fiction games rarely portray multi-species empires, but Stellaris makes them essential.
So there’s a strong beginning, but then it all goes wrong.
So there’s a strong beginning, but once you get five planets or so into a decent-sized empire….then it all goes wrong. In the transition from the early game to the mid-game, Stellaris grinds to a halt. The vast majority of my time playing was spent staring at the screen, waiting for something, anything interesting to happen. It usually didn’t. And campaigns can last for dozens of hours.
Part of this is the fault of the overly passive AI. If they’re stronger than you, they might declare war. If they’re not, they don’t do anything. It took me 50 hours and three games, progressively raising the difficulty and giving a computer empire a huge buff before they declared war on me for the first time. Multiplayer is obviously preferable, but solo players will suffer – and that’s the primary way most people are likely to experience a game that requires such a massive time commitment.
Adding to this problem is how Stellaris’ diplomatic system is simplistic and frustrating in equal measure. It’s built for grand alliances with exciting names like the Harmonious Axis or Galactic Concord – and if the alliances are strong, they can be turned into Star Trek-like Federations with special ships taking the best of each member race’s tech.
The diplomatic conception of war in Stellaris doesn’t work well at all.
The problem is that alliances are built for war, and the diplomatic conception of war in Stellaris doesn’t work well at all. Essentially, the issue is that the goals you set before a war are too big: things like capturing or freeing an enemy colony or vassalizing an enemy empire. There are no options for something smaller-scale, like shifting a border star system into your sphere of influence in order to get that tundra planet for colonization. It all feels all-or-nothing. But resources are balanced by planet, so you don’t really need massive expansion except for its own sake. I found myself declaring war out of boredom rather than for any strategic benefit – never a good sign in any grand strategy game.
An especially annoying quirk of the alliance system is that it’s impossible to get out of wars your alliance members dragged you into. (Maybe it’s a little too real there.) In one game, I had a powerful enemy empire declare war on the weakest member of my alliance, even though all their wargoals were my planets – they attacked my little brother to get to me. They won the war, and slowly worked their way across my empire, destroying my entire infrastructure, and I couldn’t surrender to get out of it because I wasn’t the empire who was initially targeted.. I spent an hour or two just watching in increasing frustration before giving up and starting a new game.
Trade and espionage don’t exist in Stellaris.
There also aren’t any significant non-war reasons for engagement with foreign empires. Trade and espionage don’t exist in Stellaris. Trade in particular seems like a missed opportunity given Stellaris’ systems, as trade could set up chaotic intersections of species and ideologies. There is resource trading between empires, but it’s so clunky to use and has so little information available that it’s not worth it except in desperate situations.
Endgame catastrophes like robot rebellions or massive invasions are supposed to apply pressure and give reasons to take action other than conquest. But they don’t appear in every game, or appear early enough to prevent in-game boredom. Maybe it was just bad luck on my end, but I played multiple campaigns for at least 20 hours each, and never faced any surprises.
Sectors are black holes where fun gets sucked into an event horizon.
Not only is Stellaris externally inert, its internal empire management turns dull as well. Once you expand past five star systems, you’re penalized with a mechanic designed to prevent micromanagement. You’re forced to create sectors: clumps of your empire given over to an AI governor in order to give you resources without hassle. Unfortunately, these sectors are black holes where fun gets sucked into an event horizon, never to return.
Sectors take the best part of Stellaris – planet management – and turn into…nothing. They don’t do anything except contribute resources. Most importantly, they don’t create compelling internal politics to an empire – at worst, a discontented sector might threaten to rebel, but that’s easily stopped with a tiny payment. Ideologies would seem to be a great way to keep internal politics fresh, but they have such a minor effect at the macro level that they’re easy to ignore. Developer Paradox struck gold in its previous game, Crusader Kings 2, by turning intra-empire politics into essential gameplay, so it’s astonishing how utterly boring a seemingly similar mechanic is in Stellaris.
That’s a frustrating process that actually creates more micromanagement.
It gets worse! Putting planets in sectors hides them in the menus that show lists of planets, so there’s no way to quickly access them. And planets in sectors don’t build ships or improve their space stations on their own, so if you ever want to do that you have to find them on the map, and that’s a frustrating process that actually creates more micromanagement than the sectors solve.
Even the quest chains, which are so promising in the early game, simply stop appearing in the mid-game – and the long-term ones get stuck behind AI borders or broken by, say, a rival empire destroying a fleet you were supposed to destroy without Stellaris registering what happened. The only thing I found to look forward to at all was getting new technology, and even that has its issues.
Stellaris uses a neat system of drawing “cards” for each new tech, so you have a few options to choose from every time you advance in its three categories: Engineering, Physics, and Society. So, for example, a Society draw might see you have an option to terraform mountains into useable land, or buff your empire’s borders, or be able to colonize a new kind of planet. Whichever ones you don’t take, you risk never getting at all if they don’t appear in another drawing. At their best, this creates some tough choices.
The flip side of this is that almost all the interesting choices are in the Society category. Physics is occasionally useful, but Engineering is almost always a slight improvement to your ships. That sounds like it might be useful, but it’s incredibly hard to get excited about a new gun since combat, as in most Paradox games, is fully automated. Thus, whether you have a railgun or a mass driver makes no perceptible difference beyond one making the ship’s power rating go up.
At the strategic level, meanwhile, wars are solid but rarely exciting. Far too much time is spent chasing enemy ships down and forcing them into combat (or playing cat-and-mouse with your own fleets).