Of all the games that let you pretend to be a god-emperor among the stars, Stellaris is certainly among the more comprehensive. In the span of several hours, you can claim solar systems for your species, craft all sorts of ships for your vast armada, and engage in light politics. Should your empire survive for another two centuries, you may have to put aside your dreams of conquest to save the galaxy from one of several extinction level events. Along the way, you may even choose to enslave, eat, or outright purge another species.
With so many gameplay elements in Stellaris (as one would expect in a 4X RTS), it is only natural that some of them are not fleshed out. Warfare is one part of the base game that lacked polish, being a bit of a mess when the game first released. Ground-based armies were an absolute hassle to manage. Space combat devolved into a contest of who can clump together as many ships as possible. Planetary defenses were rather useless since attackers could just overwhelm whatever defenses were in place with sheer numbers before a defensive fleet could respond. There is also the not-so-small matter of being able to bypass an empire's network of defensive planets and go straight for some important planet in one FTL jump. Every other part of Stellaris requires some small amount of thought, but this wasn't the case for interstellar warfare.
Thankfully, Paradox saw that this was a problem, prompting the 2.0 Cherryh update. For starters, managing your ground-based armies is no longer asking for carpal tunnel syndrome. Starbases are also now one of the most important parts of Stellaris. At their most basic level, starbases mark and defend your border while the more advanced versions function as both a naval shipyard and a fortress. Weapons, ship components, and fleet compositions thus have greater meaning, which is never a bad thing. With the changes, there is a distinct difference between a Pyrrhic victory and a victory that allows you to push deeper into enemy territory. To say that the Cherryh update is a necessary overhaul of one of the core pillars of Stellaris is no exaggeration as it gave depth to an aspect of the game that may as well have been a children's picture book for all the complexity that it offered.
With all the emphasis that the Cherryh update put on combat, it was no great surprise that Stellaris' next DLC was combat oriented. For what it's worth, the DLC lives up to its name by giving players an opportunity to construct planet-destroying superweapons. You can also make titanic ships and orbital emplacements that can split lesser ships in half with a single shot. There's also a new, fairly aggressive mercenary faction, collectively and aptly called Marauders.
From a practical standpoint, Apocalypse's content isn't necessarily a must-have. Blowing up planets deprives you of most of their resources, yet there's still nothing that gives quite the same feeling as condemning billions of aliens to an instant death. Other, less violent superweapons exist, but they're also decidedly not as fun. That being said, they are potentially even more terrifying depending on your imagination and far more useful since they generally leave a planet intact. However, given how most of the new content in Apocalypse revolves around big ships and big guns, smaller, more nimble ships like corvettes can easily ruin your Apocalypse experience since they are a hard counter to Titans and Colossi (not that that's a bad thing).
However, Apocalypse does offer something that an un-modded version of Stellaris does not, and that is an endgame for ships. In exchange for planet-destroying firepower, Colossi require at least three other late game ascension perks before you can attempt to construct them. This is in addition to the vast amounts of research and resources that you need to reach the point where constructing a Colossi is possible.
Without Apocalypse, there's not much to aim for in terms of ship development after you reach the battleship. The DLC gives you that long-term goal, namely in the form of a ludicrously expensive Titan/Colossus. To say that it satisfies that innate human desire to put really big guns on things to make other things blow up real good is rather accurate. The new Marauder faction also adds a nice touch to the game, providing an enemy to fight when things get a bit too quiet in the cosmos. Unsurprisingly, Marauders may also prove to be rather annoying if they attack your empire in the early game.
Needless to say, the Apocalypse DLC is highly recommended if you have 100 or so hours on Stellaris already. It's also a fair investment for newer players, offering a satisfying end-game experience. Unfortunately, since the vast majority of Apocalypse's appeal is linked to the Titan and Colossus, the DLC serves little purpose if you can't construct either consistently. Similarly, if your enemy's fleets can ignore Titans, then Apocalypse's effect on the game is drastically lowered.
Stellaris may be worth looking into if you're a fan of space-based RTS games thanks to the Cherryh update, but it's not for everyone. Given the nature of the game and its genre, it's certainly not for anyone who wants fast-paced matches that can be finished in 30 minutes or less.
Our Stellaris: Apocalypse review was conducted on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.
Stellaris' Cherryh update does much to make combat actually enjoyable, while the Apocalypse DLC acts like extra frosting on an already delightful cake, though it's definitely not going to be for everyone given the nature of the game and the learning curve.
- Comprehensive take on stellar domination
- Apocalypse content is satisfying
- Marauders are a fun, challenging addition
- Steep learning curve
- Apocalypse content isn't the most practical
- Slow pace is a turn off for newcomers