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.