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Lifewire / Thomas Hindmarch
Lots of content
Intricate, complex, adaptable, and accessible gameplay
A huge amount of player customization
A haunting, ethereal soundtrack
Tutorial feels like a high-level online course on a complicated subject
Often end up with lots of waiting time
A truly steep learning curve
A lot of cool features are locked behind paid DLC
Stellaris is a centuries-long epic game of universal exploration, diplomacy, and conquest designed to chew up all the time you can afford to give it.
Developed in-house by the Swedish strategy developer Paradox Interactive, Stellaris marks a departure from the company’s typical fare, as it takes your dreams of empire from medieval Earth into deep space. You sit in control of your custom-designed species and can determine its ethics, civics, ideology, and development paths, then go out to explore a procedurally-generated universe in search of resources, habitats, and possibly trouble.
Over the course of three years, multiple patches, and several expansions, Stellaris has been built into an intricate, customizable galactic empire simulator, where you can set up and achieve whatever civilizational goals you feel like attaining. Whether you want to be a peaceful federation of space hippies, a purge-happy militaristic order fueled by zealotry, a bunch of sentient plants that want to wipe out anything with thumbs, a billions-strong post-biological hive mind, or whatever else your imagination can come up with, there are options in Stellaris that will allow you to do it.
Like a lot of Paradox games, however, it’s a like-it-or-hate-it experience, slow and thoughtful, that rewards thinking ahead, pre-planning, patience, and the ability to make your own fun. It’s one of the best flavors of an acquired taste; either you’ve already on its digital storefront by now, or you’ll never want to get anywhere near it.
Stellaris does not have a physical edition, so you need to purchase it from the online storefront of your choice–the PlayStation or Microsoft stores, Steam, or the Humble Store–and let it set itself up. The base game is a light local installation by today’s standards, and only takes up about 8 GB on your hard drive.
Like many of Paradox’s grand strategy games, Stellaris has the feel of a vast, complicated board game. It’s the kind where you have a designated corner of your home to play it, possibly with its own kind of table, and don’t expect to complete a round for months or years of real time. If other strategy games are action figures in a display case, Paradox games are handmade, delicately detailed ships in bottles. This is a long-term commitment.
In the year 2200, you become the guiding ruler of a species–human, or something else if you prefer–that’s on the cusp of becoming an interplanetary civilization. Faster-than-light technology has just been invented, leaving you with a vast galaxy to explore, system by system, in search of resources, opportunities for colonization, and the occasional grand mystery.
Through bribery, conquest, politics, diplomacy, or whatever else you might have in mind, you’ll be called upon to continue building your empire, possibly on top of the bones of your enemies.
Much of what happens after that is determined by you, the player, or by random chance. You may stumble across ancient artifacts, end up dealing with political strife back home, wade headlong into a territorial dispute, or actively seek to destroy every other civilization you run into.
Stellaris is a big game that’s almost entirely either dynamic or emergent, depending on if you’re playing by yourself or with someone else. No two runs through it will ever be the same. You can even go so far as to customize your civilization’s ultimate goals, whether they’re peaceful, economic, violent, or even genocidal.
At the beginning of a new game of Stellaris, you’re dropped in your home solar system with a couple of ships, the beginning of a military fleet, and a helpful AI that will show you the ropes if need be. After that, you’re on your own.
You need to keep securing resources to grow your empire, which means expansion. You dispatch science ships to explore the various solar systems next door to your starting point, where they run surveying missions to figure out what’s there for you to exploit. Once they give the all-clear, you send in a construction ship to build a starbase and a series of mining and research stations. The energy and minerals generated from your new acquisition gets turned into more ships, which you can use to explore more solar systems, and so it goes.
Give it enough attention and practice to sink its hooks in, and you’ll still be founding new empires a year from now.
The excitement starts to kick in as you gain enough political influence and popularity to start researching more and better features of your civilization, such as its civic values and advanced technologies. That’s when you can start shifting your empire towards a nice theocratic dictatorship, or whatever else you like.
Eventually, though, you’re going to run into other fledgling civilizations, and that’s when Stellaris’s grand strategy aspect kicks in. Through bribery, conquest, politics, diplomacy, or whatever else you might have in mind, you’ll be called upon to continue building your empire, possibly on top of the bones of your enemies.
Imagine a board game played on a mile-wide holographic map and you’ve about nailed the Stellaris aesthetic. It’s not really a game you play for the visuals.
You can get some cool sights if you zoom all the way in on your ships while they’re performing various tasks, though. Each ship in your fleet is intricately modeled and has a full suite of animations to use while they’re taking care of business. There are a lot of neat little vistas and cool planets to see.
Stellaris’s base game is frequently marked down on flash sales or given away for free for one reason or another. By itself, it’s $39.99, although it’s often $9.99 during Steam’s regular sales. No physical editions are currently available.
As with many of Paradox’s big strategy games, the base Stellaris experience exists primarily at this point as a marketing scheme for expansion packs.
A Deluxe Edition exists for both the PC ($49.99) and console ($59.99) versions of the game, which adds a number of extras including a novel, a signed wallpaper, a digital copy of the game’s soundtrack, and a strictly cosmetic exclusive playable alien race.
As with many of Paradox’s big strategy games, the base Stellaris experience exists primarily at this point as a marketing scheme for expansion packs. At the time of this writing, there are seven–Leviathans, Utopia, Synthetic Dawn, Apocalypse, Distant Stars, Megacorp, and Ancient Relics–each of which introduces new playable races, game mechanics, campaign goals, and other assorted features. The Plantoids Species Pack and Humanoids Species Pack are purely visual, adding some new ship designs and portraits.
These range in price from $9.99 to $19.99, and while none are mandatory to enjoy the game, many fans will advise newcomers to at least pick up Utopia (the first major expansion, which introduced features like habitat stations, hive minds, and keeping your population in line with horrible brainwashing) and Apocalypse (now you can destroy planets outright!). Both retail digitally for $19.99, raising the total product’s price to $89.97.
If Stellaris leaves you looking for more space-empire simulators, you can try Wargaming’s Master of Orion reimagining, 2016’s Conquer the Stars. It’s a remake of the original, classic 1993 game, and while it isn’t as popular or complex as Stellaris, it’s much friendlier to novices. If you’re deliberately looking for something to get your friends to play with you, you’d do better with Conquer the Stars than Stellaris. You can also pick up the original 1993 Master of Orion for a pittance on Steam.
For a more modern game, 2017’s Endless Space 2 is a popular 4X space game from an independent French studio that ticks many of the same boxes as Stellaris, including the one that says “multiple paid DLC updates.” ES2’s DLC is a lot cheaper, however, with several going for as low as $2.99. ES2 is also much more focused on conquest and combat than Stellaris, so it’s a rougher pick for people who’d rather take over the galaxy through diplomacy or blackmail.
Paradox’s 2018 release, Surviving Mars, might also be of interest, if you’re interested in offworld activities and Paradox’s style of games but would rather scale back the scope. It’s a relatively realistic simulator that puts you in charge of building a city on the Martian surface, with development led by the studio behind the popular Tropico series.
The newest hotness, though, is Age of Wonders: Planetfall, a cross-platform 2019 release for Windows, PS4, and Xbox One that’s also published by Paradox. This is really a genre where sooner or later, you either need to stop playing these games or get used to the idea of paying Paradox Interactive. Planetfall is notable for being much less utopian than Stellaris can be, as it’s set in a more warlike period immediately following a civilizational collapse.
Finally, no discussion of modern games set in space is complete without mentioning 2014’s Elite Dangerous, a space trucker simulator that lets you explore and trade goods across a realistic model of the Milky Way.
The greatest grand strategy space game.
Paradox games have a nasty habit of not being really worth talking about until they’ve got a few major patches under their belts, but Stellaris has been at this point for a while now. It’s still got some problems with pacing, but it’s now more complicated and satisfying, especially once you start sending war fleets out against your enemies. The current version of the game is a customizable, addictive game of space exploration and occasional conquest that you can play for weeks at a time. Give it enough attention and practice, let it sink its hooks in, and you’ll still be founding new empires a year from now.