I’ve never really played a 4X game before. I don’t really even know why. To my credit, I’ve tried the base version Civilization V, Crusader Kings II, and Europa Universalis IV. Each time I would put a few hours in, looking for a reason to continue playing, but I found nothing that intrigued me. So when Stellaris was announced, I dismissed it. At the time, I thought I had figured out whether or not it was for me. I had already given this genre three chances, so why should I even bother with a fourth? Why should I even care?
However, when Stellaris came up for review, I decided to give it another look, because a 4X set in space intrigued me. It wasn’t about an alternative history, but something different altogether.
And you know what? I’m really glad I checked it out.
I’ve quickly found that Stellaris is the type of game (or probably genre) that you can literally play for hundreds or even thousands of hours and not discover every facet of it. For example, I haven’t discovered a Fallen Empire in my three games so far, and I’m looking forward to it. All I know (from looking through the rabbit hole that is the Stellaris Wiki) is that they are a superpower that would probably view me as an irritating gnat to be squashed.
Stellaris is one of those games that keeps drawing back the curtain and impressing me, but to dive into the metaphorical, the way that the curtain is being drawn back could use some work. To dive even deeper into it, the curtain’s unveiling is loud and creaky and distracts the audience.
For starters, the UI is nuts.
There are a ton of screens, and after a very long time, I am finally starting to understand where everything is and what everything does. This is after playing on in the smallest possible universe on the lowest difficulty while playing with the full tutorial. Is it instantly intuitive? Not really, but I also don’t know how someone could make it more intuitive, save for changing the size of most of the screens. Why Paradox thought that scrolling was needed is unclear, as the screens could have easily been enlarged so that no scrolling would be necessary. At least make it an option. However, the good news is that Stellaris supports Steam Workshop, so if there is something that bugs you, someone will have probably created something that fixes it.
What can be fixed on your own is slow reflexes. For instance, when I first started playing Stellaris I felt overwhelmed, as there are so many things are going on at once that I felt like I was playing a ping pong game against myself and losing. Do I have enough Minerals? No? Well, better build some mining facilities then. Do I have enough Energy? No? Well, better start building some Power Plants. Do I have enough Influence? No? Well, better declare an alien species that they are my rival and prepare for war.
I get a quarter way through a game and I have a bunch of Sectors (essentially parts of the galaxy that are literally sectioned off and run by AI) and a massive fleet that has me micromanaging it to the nth degree. It’s mentally exhausting, but I keep coming back for hours at a time like an addict. Speaking of the AI, there are two things that are aggravating, with the first being that the AI does not manage the sectors particularly well, with the second thing being that the AI is generally not very aggressive. They will declare me as a rival, but they won’t insult me or declare war against me. Handy for me, but also predictable and boring.
Right now, there are only two ways of winning a game. You can colonize a lot of planets, or conquer the other AI (or players if you are online) in the galaxy. Personally, I frequently monitor my would-be competitors and conquer them if they are weak, but otherwise I try and colonize my way to victory. It’s a house of cards, which grows all the more precarious as my empire expands. I found that this was one thing that’s particularly affected by the UI because I spend much more time flipping through menus than actually exploring the galaxy. It’s not something that can (or needed) to be fixed, but it is something that is worth pointing out.
While this is happening, one can admire the sights, such as they are. Viewed from a top-down perspective, Stellaris is quite pretty all-around, save if you are looking at profile pictures, which sometimes has the profiles blinking like they are trapped in the Phantom Zone. Disregarding that, and you have a title that looks appropriately exotic, which can range from the species to the sights you see in the galaxy, which varies from nice-looking to downright beautiful at times.
Speaking of beautiful, the music is lovely. It’s the only thing that stands out from the sound department, which is perfunctory. It comes in at nine on Monday, does its job, and clocks out at five. The music, though, is the person who volunteers for more overtime because they just love their job, which subsequently has the whole department alternatively hating and loving him because he makes so much money and because he is making everyone else look bad. Seriously, though, the music is outstanding. A lot of games I end up playing music in the background with the in-game music muted, but not this game. It fits the experience like an enhanced glove.
Overall, Stellaris is really interesting. When I first started playing it I was confused and bewildered by the plethora of screens and things to do in-game. There wasn’t a specific moment where everything ‘clicked’, but eventually Stellaris started to make sense, like the slow unveiling of a puzzle. Stellaris is a game that rewards patience, and is something that should be considered if one even has the most passive of interests in the 4X genre.
Stellaris was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.
Stellaris builds a foundation that will hopefully yield something wonderful within the next few years of patches and expansions. For now, this is a good game that I recommend for both the newcomer and the hardened veteran that probably already has this game.