I love Paradox Interactive’s historical strategy games like the Hearts of Iron series, Victoria, and Crusader Kings II. Built on the same game engine, Stellaris is something different–an open-ended space exploration and empire-building strategy game. Unlike Hearts of Iron and Crusader Kings, which are confined to a familiar geographic space and time, Stellaris allows you to explore and interact with a multitude of species in a randomly-generated universe. Its randomness adds to the fun, but its open-endedness, well, gets kind of tedious after a while.
Stellaris starts out strong. The initial game play, in which you can choose one of several default alien species (including humans), or create your own, is full of promise. In fact, creating my own alien species, then plopping them in an uncharted universe, is what I enjoy most about the game. You have so many options to choose from, including Humanoids, Mammalians, Reptilians, Avians, and well, you get the idea. The problem is, other than changing the appearance of your population, ships, and cities, species type doesn’t seem to have any affect on the game.
When you start a new game, your species is confined to its home world with a small fleet, a space port, science ship, and construction ship. You begin by researching basic technologies and using your science ship to survey the solar system, hopefully discovering resources on planets and moons, or discovering and researching anomalies (which give bonuses depending on the nature of the discovery).
How you interact with other species is largely determined by your government type and ethics. If your civilization is fanatically pacifist, for example, you can only fight wars to defend yourself or your allies. You can be xenophobic or xenophile. A xenophobic civilization is allowed to purge and displace aliens from planets and enslave them. A xenophile civilization has better relations with other species and benefits from migration. You can set different rights for different species in your empire.
Researching technology is pretty straightforward. You spend influence points to recruit scientists, who have various traits that make them more suitable to research some types of technology over others. There are three areas of research: Physics, Society, and Engineering. When you start the game, your species begins using a certain type of weapon, either lasers, missiles, or projectiles. This has virtually no effect on the game. You can still research all types of weapons and equip them to your ships. In fact, every species has an identical research tree, with almost unnoticeable variation.
Every species has a certain preference for its habitat, which restricts which planets you can colonize (shown by a habitability percentage). Planets with a similar habitat to your home world are easy to colonize and your colonists will be happier there. You can colonize harsher worlds, but this can breed discontent. Advanced technologies allow you to terraform planets into different environments. Every planet has a certain number of tiles with certain resources, which determines population limits and how many resources it can generate. Resources can be increased with buildings, which of course can be upgraded by unlocking new technologies.
Space combat is probably one of the least interesting–and most frustrating–aspects of the game. The ship designer is pretty cool, but there are only four varieties of combat ships. Combat is frustrating because, aside from researching technologies and recruiting admirals, once combat starts there’s nothing you can do but sit back and watch, or order a retreat if things start to go bad. Wars are generic. Build a big fleet. Invade planets. Ground combat takes place in a side bar with you as a passive observer.
Stellaris is visually stunning, but not very innovative. It’s basically Star Wars: Rebellion with updated graphics and more intricate government and diplomacy, but with less exciting space battles. Personally, I have the most fun just exploring the galaxy and colonizing new worlds, but between deciding whether to research “Hydroponic Farm IV” or “Shields V”, I find myself wondering, could I be doing something more productive with my free time?