When we met with some of Paradox’s developers last summer, Stellaris had only just been announced the night before. The big reveal for Paradox during Gamescom, Stellaris was to be their first venture into the space/sci-fi world – of course making use of their vast experience in the strategy genre. Now that the game is here, it’s time to explore the universe in the shape of a review.
Paradox is a number of acclaimed strategy games and franchises, including the long running Europa Universalis genre and the very well-received Crusader Kings II (and its expansions). Their strategy games have always taken place on earth though, and often feature a historical context. In that sense, Stellaris is a huge step away from what the studio is known for, and a bold move on their part.
What sets space apart from the settings of all those other games are the sheer possibilities that space exploration brings with it – and it’s this limitless environment that makes the first half of Stellaris extremely enjoyable. Before you even get started, you get to select or craft your race of exploration-hungry space travelers. You can go with a relatively safe pre-defined race (like us humans) or go completely wild with all the settings that the game offers, ranging from the physiological all the way to how your race behaves amongst themselves and towards others. There are tons of choices, and each one affects how the game plays out – and of course how different a second playthrough might turn out.
No matter which race you choose, the early parts of the game involve a lot of exploration and discovery – and this is mesmerizingly fun to do and an easy way to sink tons of hours into the game. To meet your ambitions, you’ll need resources, technology and – later on – good relations with other races you encounter. You’ll uncover new solar systems and planets, and finding habitable ones are like striking gold – again, especially early on in the game, as it becomes easier later on when you learn to terraform pretty much any planet.
Growing your empire means more access to minerals, and you can grow in terms of population growth as well as in economic or military influence. All of is up to the choices you make as a player, and it gives you the feeling that this is indeed a game world with limitless possibilities. Even though the game starts out more or less the same no matter which race you choose or create, the experience branches out quickly after that – due to choices made before as well as during the game. It is therefore a tad disappointing to see all these paths more or less converge again later on in the game.
Once the exploration and building up of empires stops, the game turns into an interstellar simulator of politics and war. From there, you have two main choices in terms of winning the game, and that’s to either destroy your adversaries or to become the dominant force in the galaxy in terms of economic and political power. It’s decently executed, but misses that spark and sense of wonder that is so clearly there in the earlier parts of the game.
Having said that… Stellaris offers plenty of opportunity for Paradox to expand on what’s already there, and it’s something they’ve done with almost all of their previous strategy games. We’re hoping they’re not planning on breaking that trend with Stellaris, because we enjoyed the hours we’ve spent with it and can’t wait for its developers to unleash its full potential by adding more diverse scenarios for the game’s latter stages. Already recommended, with the chance of becoming truly great.