Reviews 22 Mar 2018 23:36:56

Stellaris, Redux

Since so many love Stellaris and Paradox’s grand strategy games, I put another 25 hours into a game I otherwise concluded wasn’t very good. You’ll be happy to know that after those many more hours, I can now conclude that Stellaris is actually just bad.

At its current state, this is a skeleton of a game that may some day be available via DLC, though I somewhat doubt it. Stellaris is incredibly shallow. The first hour feels roughly the same as the last hour, and roughly the same throughout the whole journey to get there. Nothing interesting happens.

That isn’t to say that nothing happens – except that’s also partially true. But as I wrote in my previous post, the scripted events are severely lacking if you’ve played any other modern space themed 4X. And the way you interact with them is invariably the same – send in a science ship. Oh, and you better keep a science ship at home in case a time event happens while they are busy exploring the edges of your empire. And after you’ve exhausted the scripted events, truly nothing can happen for very long stretches of time, even when playing on Fastest speed.

The other events of the game can be boiled down to one thing: War. You have no diplomatic, direct, indirect, or surreptitious ways to influence the other empires. For example, the Policy of Liberation Wars sounds really promising by letting you have an Ideology casus belli – until you realize that’s all it is, a casus belli. You don’t get to diplomatically, culturally, or otherwise peacefully pressure other empires into changing views – you must aggressively pound their head in to make them see things your way. And this feels even worse when one of the random events is that you catch an enemy spy that’s assassinated one of your leaders: Spies don’t actually exist, except for this one event teasing at greater depth.

Even worse, some empires are Fanatical Purifiers or similar. They completely refuse to engage even in the limited diplomacy that is in the game. The only thing you diplomatically can do with them is Close Borders. You can’t even open your borders again, as they refuse to talk to you. So the only option is to wipe them out, or wait for them to maybe change ideology due to random factions gaining power.

But ok, they finally declare war on you because they know nothing else, and you’ve decided it’s time to wipe these xenophobes from the galaxy and proceed to gobble up their empire. Except suddenly you’re halted because of war exhaustion. The only tool you have to effectively affect the game is to send in your fleet, but even that is heavily curtailed by this mechanic. Even though you know they will just attack again in 10 years, peace is forced upon you for now. You may not even get to keep all the systems you took.

At its core, the game is real-time with pausing. You can give all orders while paused, thankfully. And important notifications will pause the game while you read them, which is a good thing. Except, what is considered important enough to pause needs a whole lot of tuning. For example, if you are a democratic’ish empire, elections will happen every few decades. Elections are mysteriously not important enough to pause the game, meaning you can entirely miss one happening and suddenly one of your researchers leaves their post to go govern, so now you have an idle mostly useless leader and need to recruit another scientist.

Speaking of pausing, you will be spending a lot of time in that mode. There is a lot of micromanagement that you need to attend to. Whenever you research most new techs (which doesn’t pause or pop up), you need to individually go through and upgrade whatever you just go access to. So have fun every few minutes pausing the game and clicking through 5-10 planets, 10-20 star bases, and 5-10 fleets, each of which needs multiple clicks to upgrade everything applicable. It’s tedious. I often just left planets for later when I had accumulated more upgrades, and towards the end I gave up and designated sectors for everything but my capital. Sadly sectors won’t take responsibility for starbases.

Even technologies that are designed to reduce micromanagement fail miserably. Science ship automation sounds great on paper – set your science ships to automatically survey the rest of the galaxy. Except they will all head in a straight line some bizarre direction away from your empire rather than prioritize systems closest to your borders. And they’ll all pick the same system rather than fan out. So forget that tech and have fun manually directing surveying.

And the micromanagement is extra annoying because you are strongly incentivized to expand forever. If you pause expanding, pirates will spawn in adjacent systems. This is especially aggravating when there is a Fallen Empire of the Fanatic Xenophobe variety. If you expand up to their borders, they will punish you. So until you are powerful enough to slap down a Fallen Empire, pirates will endlessly spawn in those border systems.

However, expanding to avoid pirates reveals another bizarre mechanic: Research and some other costs increase with the number of systems you control. I guess this is for balance reasons, but it feels really counterintuitive and plain not fun.

Leaders also fall in the plain not fun category. Unlike heroes from MoO II, you don’t get attached to the leaders in Stellaris. They have no personality, no presence beyond their icon, and they will just die every so often. Trained up a level 8 scientist? Well tough, she dropped dead of old age and had to be replaced with a level 1 rookie.

In conclusion, Stellaris is a shallow shell of a game. Is this what grand strategy is supposed to be?

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