Stellaris First Impressions

I’ve long wished for a space 4X game done is the Paradox style. For a long time, the Distant Worlds series was the only game in town, high-priced and primitively adapted to the modern GUI as it was. Now we have the long-awaited Stellaris, from Paradox itself, and it is at once very much in the style of their grand strategy games, and at the same time differs from their earlier games in a number of intriguing respects.

As the developers have explained it, Stellaris plays out in a three-act framework. In the first act you play a 4X game, in the second you play a more typical Paradox grand strategy game, and in the third you face some kind of final confrontation generated by the game based on the actions of the players. There’s really a fourth part, a prologue of sorts in which you create your species and would-be interstellar empire, that has huge ramifications on how you will play the rest of the game.

I’m closing in on the end of the first act in my own game, and the demarcation line isn’t a clean one. Perhaps I have just drawn a short straw; perched on the galactic rim, I have a vast expanse of uncolonizable space immediately to antispinward. On the one hand, this has seriously crimped the eXpand element of the 4X formula; but on the other, it’s kept alien enemies largely off my ass, including one “fallen” empire, advanced and powerful but stagnant and decrepit.

From the pre-launch video playthroughs I’ve seen (press copies issued to various YouTube bigshots had their blackouts lifted late last week,) this experience seems like a bit of an outlier… but nobody seems to be having quite the same early-game experience even with relatively similar races and empires. Which suggests a lot of variability to gameplay even in the early stages. This is a good thing.

Just because my colonization has been a bit crimped and I haven’t had that much contact with other empires, though, doesn’t mean the time has been spent sending ships out into empty space; there’s a lot to do even in unoccupied parts of the galaxy. There’s quite a bit of space-based life, some of it placid and some of it hostile. There’s also pirates, typically by dissidents from your own empire and using its cast-off hardware. There are also systems to survey and anomalies to investigate, and deep-space stations and mining and science outposts to build. I felt like my empire was straining against its borders, but maybe the solution is to find natural borders and let the game progress from there, developing your empire internally.

How well Stellaris segues into the second phase of gameplay is something I’ll be finding out in the next few hours of play. Meanwhile, though, my early impressions are very positive. The early exploration and colonization driven gameplay is a lot of fun, the randomized tech progression mixes things up nicely, and the choices you make designing your empire have a huge impact on your experience. So far it’s pretty much what I wanted from a Paradox Space Strategy game.

Not that there’s no room for expansions to richen the experience. Diplomacy in particular has lots of room for elaboration. But following the typical Paradoix model we can expect that Stellaris will get robust DLC support over the next several years, turning it into as deep and engaging — and opaque — a space game as we’ve seen anywhere. It’s good to get in on the ground floor of that.

On the flip side, by its very nature Stellaris is Paradox’s most approachable title, because everyone starts with just one planet and can grow and develop, with the player learning the game as she goes, before rubbing shoulders with other empires. In Europa Universalis IV, for example, you really shouldn’t start playing with a small country with hardly anything to manage; you’ll have few options and powerful neighbors that will obliterate you after a single mistake. Stellaris completely avoids that issue.

I’m going to keep playing and I am likely to have more thoughts down the line as my game matures. My first impression is very positive — if you don’t opt to pick it up now at full price, keep an eye on it when it goes on sale. If you enjoy space 4X at all, even if you think it stalls in the mid-game, Stellaris is still going to provide some quality hours.

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