My Stellaris Review of 2.2 and All Available DLC
I’ve never taken the time to write my comprehensive thoughts on Stellaris since its May 9th, 2016 release date. It was one of the last reviews I was involved with before I left eXplorminate, but I admittedly got caught up in the “newness” of the game and was, at the time, 100% in support of the “eXemplary” rating it got over there.
Of course, I did crush like 60 hours of the game in a week, which is extraordinary, considering my schedule, real-life obligations, and attention span, and that may have led to some distorted ideas as to how the game really was. However, Stellaris felt exciting and different, which led me to buy into all its hype.
That being said, once the shininess wore off, I soon saw the flaws and serious design issues (IMHO), and I became a rather outspoken critic of the game. The economy was oversimplified, the diplomacy felt nothing like Paradox’s previous titles (to its detriment), there were no goals, races all felt too similar, the combat was convoluted, and I could go on. I don’t need to, as the issues are well documented all over the internet.
But now, after two and a half years of content updates, tweaks, major gameplay overhauls, and many patches, how do I personally feel about Stellaris? What, if anything, still needs some love? What did Paradox get right?
What I like:
The Scale: Stellaris’ maps feel absolutely huge, while still feeling mostly manageable. That’s an incredible feat. While I personally prefer smaller maps, even the smallest maps in Stellaris are bigger than the vast majority of space 4X games, yet they still feel like maps that I can adequately keep track of.
I’ve never, nor will I ever, actually complete a game on its biggest maps, with literally thousands of systems, but I know some people have and will. Most importantly, they’ll enjoy them (and probably still ask for more). If scale is something you crave in your 4X games, Stellaris has it in spades and is easily one of the biggest games in the genre.
Planet Management: Up until 2.2, planet management was pretty lackluster. In a lot of ways, it felt like a very elaborate “clicker game”, where I’d add buildings and upgrade them when the option appeared and thought little of it. A lot of them were built with the very same blueprint and it made for some really bland gameplay.
However, 2.2 adds some fantastic systems that force players to better plan out your colonies. With the addition of consumer goods, the changes to how minerals work, the changes to districts and colony upgrading, and the new use for strategic resources, Stellaris found its footing with colony management (and by extension, its economy).
Specializing systems makes sense now and is, in fact, a legitimate strategy and you genuinely need to reconsider those “jack of all trades” colonies, which leads to interesting decisions. (A series of) Interesting decisions are what make 4X games truly fun.
Mind you, the economy isn’t super balanced right now, but it’s in a much, much better place than it was pre-2.2.
The Quests/eXploration: Easily one of the best aspects of Stellaris is its exploration system. I can’t think of a single other 4X game that has as many quest lines, unique objects to find and learn about, various unique system discoveries and general WONDER in its universe. It might even be too much, as it sometimes gets a bit difficult to keep track of the various quest lines and exploration events, but as someone who loves this stuff, I probably won’t say that.
Sure, there’s a few quest lines that you’ll see every game, but there’s plenty that I’m still stumbling upon after 150 hours with the game, thanks to the moderately-frequent story packs, the additional events added with nearly every content addition, and the sheer size of the game in general. Not to mention how easy it is to add some mods that add even more to explore and learn about.
The only other space 4X game that comes anywhere close to this level of depth with regards to its exploration is Endless Space 2, and Stellaris probably has 4-5 times the amount of stuff to find.
If eXploration is one of your favorite X’s, Stellaris has more than enough to keep you busy and excited for a long, long while.
The Asymmetrical Starts: Unique to Stellaris are its asymmetrical starting positions. It’s clearly an idea lifted from Paradox’s own Europa Universalis series, but Stellaris allows for AI players to start the game at various levels of development, sometimes being FAR more advanced and spread out than that your faction.
It adds a sense of “realness” to the game, as surely space-faring races didn’t all just start from scratch at the same time. But it also provides challenges to those players that like that sort of thing. Best part is that it’s entirely optional, so if you do want a more traditional 4X experience in the form of equal starting positions, you can opt for that.
I’d like to see other 4X games adopt this option, especially as 4X AI tends to be less than great most of the time, so the added capacity and capabilities afforded by being larger from the first “turn” definitely gives the AI players an upper hand and provides players with added difficulty to overcome.
The Tech Tree: A blend of Sword of the Stars (which had a really rad random tech tree), and Master of Orion, Stellaris’ tech tree is random enough to keep you guessing and excited to see what your options will be, while being predictable enough to know roughly when you should start seeing certain technologies.
It also features various technologies that you’ll discover along your travels and occasionally drops a rare technology that promises to really shape the direction your faction could head in.
Bottom line is that I really like it. It’s random enough that I don’t feel bored to start new games and it’s also really fun and exciting to see certain technologies pop up a little earlier than they normally would, like one of my personal favorites (but also one of my bigger complaints): the ability to auto-explore with your science ships.
Stellaris finds the right balance, in my opinion, between keeping things fresh and randomized, while not feeling particularly punishing or frustrating.
The Variety of Races: While they may not be as asymmetrical as anything like Endless Legend, Endless Space 2, or even the classic Ascendancy, the sheer volume of different ethics, governments, and race types provide a great sense of discovery and variety to the galaxy.
The first race I might meet might be cute little gecko fanatical purifiers, while their neighbors might be butterfly-like ultra capitalists. Then there are machine races that prefer to be left alone, or Stellaris’ version of Star Trek’s Borg or Mass Effect’s Reapers. That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, too, as the sheer variety of race types are staggering.
I wish they played a bit more asymmetrically, a la Endless Space 2, and I still think there’s an opportunity to make the various race types play a bit more in that fashion, but what’s here works and adds to the overarching sense that you’re really exploring an alien galaxy, full of weird and interesting races with various agendas. I dig it.
The Willingness to Drastically Change Game Mechanics: What other studio has taken their game back to the drawing board as many times as Paradox has with Stellaris? Sure, the process has alienated some of their more die-hard Stellaris fans, but for people like me, who needed some significant changes to really see Stellaris meet its full potential, they’ve gained new fans.
Pre-version 2.0, I simply stopped playing Stellaris. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I had initially thought I did. However, once 2.0 was released, I managed to find some enjoyment out of the game again. Expanding your border via starbases feels functionally better and allows me to better shape my empire.
Now, with 2.2, the economic system and planet management are such that I really enjoy those aspects of the game, where before I was pretty unimpressed. Now those aspects feel less like a “clicker game”, and more of like an actual strategy game. Setting up systems to act as supply systems for particular resources, specializing planets to make up for resource deficiencies, and being able to plan out my planet composition is way more fun to me than the previous system.
If it weren’t for Paradox’s willingness to cut out the things that don’t work and dramatically rework them, I wouldn’t be playing Stellaris like I have been recently. Even if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I applaud them for being so bold.
The Mod Scene: There are an incredible amount of mods available on the Steam Workshop and through ModDB and an equally incredible amount that make that game better in small and large ways. I’d dare say that the modding scene is bigger in Stellaris than in any other 4X game right now.
No matter what you’re looking to change, I’m almost certain you’ll find a mod that’ll meet your needs.
I tend to play with the aesthetic mods, changing the UI color, providing more beautiful battles, and adding really cool voice-over work for alien factions, that all add to my experience. However, you can find mods that dramatically change the gameplay or completely change it into the Star Trek 4X game you’ve always wanted to play.
Modders, you guys are awesome!
What I Don’t Like
The Diplomacy: I’ll begin by saying that I don’t *hate* the diplomacy here, but with Paradox’s pedigree and library of games like Europa Universalis and even Victoria, you’d think that Stellaris would feature a diplomatic system for the ages.
You’d be wrong. So what I really don’t like is how disappointed I am by how standard the diplomacy system feels in Stellaris.
What I want to see is the diplomacy system overhauled/revamped next, as I feel most disappointed by how it works in Stellaris right now. Gone are the intricacies of diplomacy in games like the aforementioned titles and instead, we’re left with a system that feels like just about every other 4X game in existence.
Which is a shame, because had they attempted something anywhere close to Europa Universalis, with its plethora of options and actionable mechanics, then it’d have the deepest diplomacy of any 4X game I’ve ever played.
Still, it ain’t bad, so I’m going to call this a soft “dislike”, if only for my disappointment as to what it could have been
The Performance: Paradox doesn’t seem to know how to consistently get game performance under control. For reference, I have an Intel Core i7-4770 with 16 GB DDR3 RAM and an R390X graphics card, yet my system is brought to its knees every other patch.
2.2, as it stands now, has such an awful stuttering problem in the mid to late game that some people are rightfully VERY UPSET.
Strangely enough, 2.2 isn’t wrecking my system like some other patches have, but I know that there are a lot of people affected by these issues and I can speak from experience with other versions that they are certainly there.
It’s a bit sad that even Pardox’s most fervent fan base won’t upgrade to new patches and/or buy new expansions for the first few weeks so as to avoid the inevitable and very likely technical issues. I’d say that Paradox should do better, but they already know that they need to. My very humble suggestion would be to start having wider betas for these updates before they’re made publicly available.
I hope that they heed that advice some day.
The AI: Perhaps this could be a “con” for just about any 4X game in existence, save one or two, but Stellaris’ AI is especially egregious because it’s so hit or miss. Like the game’s performance, the AI seems to go back and forth with version numbers between being pretty damn good to outright stupid.
They don’t seem to truly understand the new economic mechanics right now, which slows them down, and they all seem a bit too passive as well.
But who knows, the next build may feature the AI of Stellaris’ yesteryear, where some complained that it “had to be cheating” because it was doing so well.
I just wish Paradox was more consistent in its testing. Period.
The Federation System: Another aspect of the diplomacy frustrations is the current federation system. It just feels like glorified babysitting. If you don’t micromanage them, you’ll have issues. Heaven forbid if you’re not the federation leader, too, because you’ll be at the whim of a schizophrenic AI that doesn’t seem to know when to quit or when to stick to their guns.
It’s decidedly not nearly as fun as it could/should be and my hope is that my past two complaints are rectified with the rumored-to-be-next “Diplomacy Expansion” that I’d imagine we’ll see in Fall/Winter of this year.
The Lack of Victory Conditions: This is my personal biggest pet peeve. I know many readers will ignore this set of paragraphs or simply disagree, but as a supposed 4X game, Stellaris lacks a variety of victory conditions that players like me crave.
I understand that possibly the majority of players would rather play their games of Stellaris much like they’d play their games of Europa Universalis (where there’s no real “end”), but there are players like me that need to see a conclusion, that want to see a victory cinematic, or that want to know that they’ve got options.
As it stands now, you either need to own 40% of the galaxy, conquer all of the other empires, or have the most points at a designated end-game year. For players like me, none of these are appealing. Especially with the introduction of a stronger economy system and the “Megacorp” expansion, one would hope that an economic-minded victory condition would have been introduced.
Better yet, let me determine how I want to win the game. Allow me to set the goals for my empire’s victory. See Distant Worlds and its race-specific victory conditions. Those were awesome and encourage various different ways to approach the game (and encourage me to play races I wouldn’t normally play). I would love to see that as an option. Either way, give me more varied victory conditions as soon as possible, please!
And please, add some cool end-game cinematics for people like me that want a carrot at the end of this stick.
The Lack of Goals: While I’m at it, I’d love to be able to set goals like I do in Europa Universalis, with something similar to its “Mission” system. Sometimes Stellaris feels a bit aimless, though I understand that it’s mostly up to the player to determine what they do next. However, even having general missions/goals laid out that are randomly generated by a group of advisors or something to that effect would be really cool.
It’s not a huge knock on the game, but it’s something I clamor for. So sue me.
The Clutter of the Map: Granted, there are ways to de-clutter your map and make it more aesthetically pleasing, but the more you do so, the less information you have readily available. While that may sound like a “no DUH”, I think it’s an issue particularly relevant to Stellaris and one that has been dealt with more elegantly by other genre options (See: Endless Space 2 and even Galactic Civilizations 3).
I understand that it’s an incredibly difficult balance to achieve and I’d rather they err on the side of too much information, but Stellaris’ map can look downright ugly and overwhelming. I mean, look:
Sure, that’s with most of the information options turned on, but it’s also a cluster-frack of a map screen and when things get hectic, it really starts to bother me. I want information, but I also want to enjoy the view a bit. Surely there has to be a better compromise.
The Factions System: Maybe this system is fun for someone, but my desire to manage groups of people like this is non-existent. The factions form over time and each have their own desires, likes and dislikes, and managing them just…isn’t fun.
If someone, anyone, could explain how to make this system fun for me, I’d be a grateful, grateful man. In the meantime, I tend to ignore this system as long as I can and deal with it when I have to. That’s not any sort of compliment on any level.
What I’m Not Sure About
The Combat: With the recent changes to travelling speed, the proverbial “doom stack” has finally been replaced with the need for more strategic placement of multiple fleets. That’s a good thing. Before, just moving your huge-ass fleet from system to system was silly and decidedly not fun. I’m appreciative of this change and applaud the devs for considering that fleet speed actually contributed to this issue.
However, combat in general amounts to very little more than throwing better equipped and larger fleets at your enemy. Which is fine, I guess. I just wish it could be more sometimes.
The other side of combat, ground combat, is far too tedious for my liking. I’d really like to see Paradox shamelessly rip from Endless Space 2 here and just allow all ships to carry varying amounts of space marines (depending on how you design your ships) and do away with the “Assault Army” shuttles. It’s a weird system that feels clunky and requires too many steps.
The “End Game”: This is mostly due to my admittedly few experiences with the “end game” events, called Crisis. On paper, they each sound pretty cool, but in game, they’re a bit overwhelming and not particularly rewarding (see my complaints about victory conditions). I’ve only had a couple of them and I’ve only seen them through a handful of times and each time I came away feeling a bit let down.
So I can’t really comment on them one way or another as I just don’t have enough experience with them. Maybe someone can chime in with their thoughts down below?
The Paradox DLC Model: There’s so much that’s been said about this in so many articles, on so many forums, and in every form of social media that I don’t really feel like I need to explain why I’m torn here. I am.
I’m the first person to tell you that I’m a
sucker, sheep, huge fan of the genre and will continue to buy these DLC, but sometimes I wonder why I’ve paid in excess of $100 for a 4X game that I only mostly like.
So There You Have It
My general thoughts of Stellaris have become increasingly more positive as each expansion pack and major patch releases. The biggest issues for me are the performance problems and the lack of victory conditions and goals. I realize that those last two may be part of what draws so many people to Stellaris and it may have ended up in another player’s “What I Like” column, but for me, I just need some direction.
When I wander, I’m fucking lost, okay?
However, as someone who was initially caught up in the hype of Stellaris and then fell sharply away from it, I’m happy to report that I enjoy playing Stellaris 2.2 with all of its DLC at this point. They need to fix the performance issues PRONTO and Paradox needs to get over themselves and start holding large betas for their upcoming major patches, but I’m beginning to believe that Stellaris will go down in history as one of the genre’s finest, eventually.
So what do you guys think of Stellaris as it stands now? Let me know in the comments section below or berate me on Twitter or up/downvote me on the 4XGaming subreddit. Either way, I’m interested to hear other’s opinions.