Stellaris is one of those rare games which becomes a parasite on your life.
I’m just like you: I’ve got a job, friends, family, nutritional requirements, but I found that after contracting an acute colonisation by Stellaris, my work performance degraded, I withdrew from the people who love me and may have dropped a few pant sizes. The scary part is that I am only in the beginning stages of this disease. While I may well be an emaciated corpse by the time you read this, I’m sure as hell going to lead my exosuit-touting parrot people to galactic prominence before I do.
For the uninitiated, Stellaris is a grand strategy title from the good prophets people at Paradox studios. Departing more Earthly dramas, this title puts you at the helm of a newly burgeoning space-faring race, plopping you down in a procedurally-generated galaxy for you to dominate/be dominated. Through colonisation, war and diplomacy, you’re tasked with nothing short of 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) galactic dominance. Stellaris is embraces this 4X distinction wholeheartedly: players of the Civilization or Galactic Civilization series will feel at home more so than veterans of Paradox’s older fare (Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis etc.). Despite this new territory for the studio, as you may have already surmised, they did a bang up job on this game as well.
Before I start my love letter to the game in earnest, I have to stress the fact that this game is not for everyone. So in case you’re en route to the bottom of the page to see the summary because reading is hard, buy it based on that, play it for 40 minutes, get confused, get a refund and complain how I don’t know what I’m talking about, repeat after me: THIS GAME IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. This is not a Total War game, nor Age of Empires, nor Starcraft. There are no flashy graphics. It is not an APM spamming spectator sport. It is an exponentially growing administrative task that will cow a great many of those who play. Running a galactic empire is not about gallantly leading troops on an invasion mission or heading an expeditionary scientific mission to a new world. It’s sitting on a comfy chair looking at a lot of little pieces on a big map making big decisions. If that doesn’t sound appealing, this game is sadly not for you.
This game is also not for the casual. While past games like Europa Universalis IV requires about a semester’s worth of work to learn how to play effectively (trust me), Stellaris is lighter in terms of sheer volume of mechanics. Make no mistake however, it takes a long time to learn in comparison to most games and takes an extremely long time to get your empire to a reasonable level. In-game game time is passable and flexible, but even on “Fast” speed, don’t expect to be waging massive interstellar war anywhere near the starting gate. I would also recommend that you have plenty of time to play. A single campaign can easily last into the 50 hour range depending on the map size you choose, and there are eventually a whole lot of things to keep track of. Playing a half hour every other day would be mostly spent piecing together what you were doing, so unless you’re willing to pay the toll and continue down that road, you might want to steer clear.
Caveats out of the way, Stellaris is 4X executed to near perfection. Paradox games have always excelled at putting you on the throne of a supreme leader and Stellaris is no exception. Unromantically boiled down to bare bones, the game is an endless stream of bureaucratic tasks: move science ship here, deal with slave unrest there, optimise planetary upgrades, talk to the mushroom people, insult those weird squid things etc. The game puts me in a strange trance-like mode where I become a whirlwind of administrative efficiency, smoothing wrinkles in my great quilt with spry grandma-esque deftness, cursing and muttering to myself like a senile lunatic. While this may not be the most enticing of metaphors, there’s something eminently magical about building a well oiled-empire a million tiny steps at a time.
The whole process is helped by a downright immaculate interface. Ignoring a few microscopic annoyances, a burgeoning space emperor could really not ask for a more logically organised and well-designed tools to rule with. Once you get a grasp of where everything is, you will not ever fumble around with unwieldy menus or illogical placements. It cannot be overstated how crucial it is that everything is where it should be, for when you have to access and check and click through information tabs 112,353 times, even a second of fumbling around each time will drive you insane. It should be noted however, in classic Paradox form, the tutorial is woefully over-matched for the task at hand. The stupid little robot advisor needs to remind you about every single stupid menu page every single game you start, so honestly, you’re better off having a learning the hard way with a throwaway campaign or two.
As fun as dealing with veritable deluge of small annoyances and optimisations is, it would be nothing without the proper motivation and backdrop. Thankfully Stellaris is literally a machine for creating a rich and interesting world to play in. There’s a healthy number of empire permutations to build and encounter, representing a wide array of potential alien foes/friends to contend with. While it’s kind of fun to use the preset races, I highly suggest you take the reins and start your own race of interstellar bugs or birds or fungus and modify everything from scratch. You can edit the characteristics of your race, their ethos, philosophy and starting technologies. The game isn’t shy to do so either and you’ll meet a near infinite number of different races who all have varying agendas and principles for you to consider. The procedurally generated galaxy isn’t short of character either, as you’ll find a wealth of weird interactions with pre-existing races and anomalies, resource rich systems to fight over and chance encounters to deal with. It punctuates business as usually in a refreshing and natural way, with the classic wry humor and references courtesy of the Paradox team sprinkled in for good measure. If I had to gripe about something, I think they could have done a little bit more in terms of race traits and types of sentient beings (currently “limited” to vaguely Earth-like definitions of life) but it’s really a tiny tiny concern which can be filled by DLC or mods.
The crown jewel however is that grandest of strategy, and as overly affectionate as I’ve been with the Paradox guys, they really do know how to craft an engaging and challenging yet natural narrative building engine. Each game is a unique story; a dramatic history of your people’s climb to galactic ascendancy or how they became dust under some bird-creatures space boots, all due to your choices as it’s eternal leader. Where you put that new colony, who you gave border access to, those multi-headed hydra people you decided to fight, what components you equipped your destroyers with, grand strategy has never been more grand than making a million tiny choices with trillions of people of the line. Interactions with AI races feel almost human, whether it’s the religious zealots who will kill you for colonising a holy world or the fungus people I found my empire symbiotically entangled with, the opportunities for a unique, engaging storyline is endless as space itself. The game also manages to subvert what I call the “late-game 4x exhaustion” by letting you delegate effectively to focus on bigger details as your empire expands. While I could never get to the modern ages in a game like Civ 5 without succumbing to tedium, between intelligent system adaptation, worthy/realistic adversaries and an awesome tech system, Stellaris effortlessly zooms out and staves off the weariness to keep things fresh.
I wouldn’t be the self-declared cynic I am without a few minor complaints. The setting of space is perfect for 4X but is a bit sterile compared to more historically-based titles Stellaris is related to. You’re not so much the emperor as the spirit which permeates the civilisation itself, but the drama between two human kings with lovers and intrigue and personal failings/gripes is a bit more compelling a narrative than the story of space shrimps vs. six-eyed owls, at least to my bifocal, land-dwelling self. The technology system is really awesome in my opinion: you choose from a bunch of options in each of three categories with no set order or “tree” to constantly reference, but your warrior squirrel race can really be neutered if you don’t get the right techs, which is at least in part random. Most glaringly however, the game is quite safe. In its execution, it’s exemplary, but doesn’t have anything that really brings any significant forward motion to the genre. The best games both execute and innovate. Stellaris is a lot of of column A, and only a little of column B.
Unreasonable expectation of perfection aside, Stellaris is an expertly blended mosaic of 4X, grand strategy and self-created narrative. For the relatively small niche that this game occupies, it is the undisputed master and commander. It’s also a nice platform for DLC and modding so as if the game didn’t provide enough substance out of box, then I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of content for years of come to constantly rejuvenate the experience. If you’re the type of person who dreams of galactic empire, write a nicely worded letter to the people in your life saying “see you later” and pick up Stellaris.