Third playthrough. My empire is covering 30% of the galaxy while avoiding war. My Overlord decides it’s time to get our fleet to work and declares war against the Kalaxenan Star Confederation. Our capable admirals are not having too much trouble invading our enemies though the rate of attrition is quite high. Victory is close at hand when an event pops up. Aliens from outside our galaxy? One second later 5 fleets appear in my territory and start ravaging my planets. This is my experience with Stellaris, Paradox’s new take on the space 4X genre.

I love Paradox and Europa Universalis is one my favorite games of all time. When I heard that they were releasing Stellaris I was over the moon. Not only do I love sci-fi but it’s been a while since a worthwhile space 4X game came out and my thirst for FTL travel was finally going to be sated. The first thing you notice is how beautiful the universe is. Each ship, each planet, each space station and star was carefully designed down to the finest of details, helping players get into the game. The music also fits the whole space setting and changes depending on what your empire is currently doing. Kudos to Paradox for their attention to details in the graphics and sound departments, as I think it’s one of the most important elements in a sci-fi game to help player immersion.

My starting star system - Stellaris review

My starting star system

The interface is relatively easy to navigate (for a Paradox game) but it might take a player new to 4X games some time and practice to understand where everything is. The UI throws a lot of information at you to process but everything is streamlined pretty well and the tutorial does a good job in guiding the player through it. When you start, you have your homeworld, a construction ship, a science ship and three corvettes (the smallest class of battleship in the game). Science ships are used to survey star systems, construction ships are for building space station to exploit different resources and I’m pretty sure you can imagine what you do with the corvettes (explosions!). Your first goal is to explore the star systems around you while researching technologies to build your first colony ship and really start expanding.

The game covers very well the first two Xs (eXplore and eXpand), better than any game I have seen to date. You send your science ship around to map the galaxy and boy does it find a lot of stuff out there. Beside the AI empires whom you are competing with to rule the galaxy, you can find other alien species to can interact with, either peacefully or not. Planets often host anomalies of different kinds like weird plants which pollen affects your people or giant skeletons hiding dark secrets. The writing of all these events is great and I enjoyed going around, hunting for the next one.

The ship designer - Stellaris review

The ship designer

When the majority of the galaxy is colonized, it’s time to pass to the next two Xs (eXploit and eXterminate). Here the game is not as engaging as before, though it still does a decent job. Take your ships and start fighting to become the new emperor. Space combat is not controlled by the player, instead once your fleets are in the right place combat will start automatically. The result will be determined by the composition of the fleets and by their armaments and other equipment. As you research, you will unlock new ship types and modules which you can customize in the ship designer. Here it’s up to the player to install the right modules to counter the enemy you are going to face: get shields against lasers, machine guns against missiles and so forth.

This brings in how research is done. In Stellaris there is no tech tree or anything like that. Instead you have three research categories and each gives you 3 options to choose from. Which technologies appear is chosen randomly from all the ones you have access to, which in some cases can really make or break your game. Want to colonize that arid planet you’ve been eyeing for a while? You might have to wait for a long time. Or you might get lucky in the next game and immediately access a super-duper-powerful rare technology and be set for galactic domination right at the beginning. A bit too random for my tastes.

My galaxy in the late phases of the game - Stellaris review

My galaxy in the late phases of the game

The game has only two victory conditions: either colonize 40% of all available planets or eliminate every opposing empire, which is a bit disappointing from such a massive game. I was especially disappointed by the lack of pacific conditions. I can only hope that in the upcoming updates they will add something along the lines of Civilizations 5’s diplomatic victory. Despite the limited amount of victory conditions, the game has a surprisingly high replay value. Every game you will find different anomalies and research different technology, ending up with a totally different scenario from your previous one. Also, each race has different traits and these can affect, among other things, how favorable other species will be towards you. For example, insectoid spiritualistic aliens will probably hate materialistic bird-shaped people. You better hope these arthropods are peaceful as well or you and your avian brethren might get hurt.

Overall I think Stellaris is a pretty solid space 4X in a time in which the genre is lacking good titles. I enjoyed the game, especially taking your first step out of your starting solar system at the beginning. It definitely has room for improvement (research… ahem)  but knowing Paradox and their modus operandi there are probably DLCs on the horizon that will fix a lot of the issues and improve even more on its strong points. Get your hands on it immediately if you like the genre or wait for the first couple DLCs and see how the game develops. Ah, if you were wondering about the opening paragraph, the game throws crisis events your way when you’re getting close to victory to shake things up. Turns out aliens from other galaxies are pretty strong.

You can find Stellaris on Steam here: http://goo.gl/rYSkjt