Stellaris, a 4X game by the good folks at Paradox, has likely been one of the most hotly anticipated strategy titles of the year. I know I was excited about it. While I’ve never gotten too much time in recent Paradox games, I’ve loved them for their depth, breadth and complexity. I was hoping Stellaris would continue that tradition. While I’ve tried to be as objective as possible in my views on Stellaris, it’s had an enormous mountain to climb because of one game: Distant Worlds. Is Stellaris the new crown jewel in the 4X crown, or is it just an also-ran? Read on to find out how I feel about this whole malarky.
How Easy Was it to Get Into?
Fairly easy, thanks to a pretty comprehensive tutorial. The game also has a pretty solid interface, which helps. While I would’ve LOVED an actual manual, the tutorial did a decent job getting me into the game. I’d frankly say it’d be a decent tutorial for a newer player (though the tutorial in the new Master of Orion is more geared toward new 4X players). For me, though, I had little problems grasping the basics.
What Did You Think of The Game’s Usability?
It’s good, but there’s room for improvement. While the tutorial is pretty comprehensive, there were still things I was a bit confused on. Also, while the UI is pretty good, it could be better. Do you have any idea how much I would LOVE an expansion planner? You know, a screen that shows all potential colony planets? SURE I could look at the map and kinda see that here or there, but I want a LIST man. Again, I’ve been spoiled, and this is likely my fault, but after playing Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis IV, I’m shocked at what just appears to be MISSING in terms of menus, data and so on from Stellaris. It’s just WEIRD man. Regardless, while the game’s usability is solid, there’s definite room for improvement.
Was the Gameplay Challenging and Fun?
Well…yes and no. It was challenging and fun in the early part of the game, where you’re exploring new worlds for resources, meeting new friends/frenemies/enemies and painting the map as you uncover it, but it kinda stopped being fun as the game went into the mid game. While the idea of sectors is neat, I didn’t like giving up control forcibly like that. In Distant Worlds, I can set certain things to be automated, yet still have a hand, if I wish, in how things move and progress. When I was told, “You need to make a sector and trust us to know what we’re doing with it.” I just…didn’t… Beyond that, I found the game getting more dull the more I got into it. A good 4X has a variety of systems that the player can fiddle with in order to feel like they’re making fun, interesting choices. The best 4Xs have elements of espionage and trade, for example, things that were sorely lacking here. Overall I found the game kinda fun, but it has a lot of holes it needs to fill in.
Did you Find any Glaring Flaws with the Game?
As I mentioned above, the lack of some specific systems for espionage and trade are horribly glaring omissions that I figure we’ll be buying into with DLC. I’m not entirely happy about that. Eventually I felt like I was running out of things to do. There are so many ships you can build or planets you can explore, you know? Eventually I just became delusioned with it all.
How Did it Look and Sound?
Say what you want about how the game plays, it looks very charming, and the music is lovely.
Are you going to Keep Playing It?
Not until the first DLC pack comes out. This is because the more I play it, the more I see that needs fixing and filling in, and that’s not fun.
Which Were Your Favorite and Least Favorite Parts of The Game?
Favorite part was the early part of the game. Exploring and building are great in this game, and I wish there was a way to keep that magic alive during the entirety of it all. My least favorite part? Slowly getting further into the game and wishing I could do things like spy on other races and the like.
Should I Buy It?
Tough question. If you thought Distant Worlds was too difficult/obtuse to get into, this might work for you. It’s much easier to grok early on than DW, and can be fun for a while. However, if you’re buying this expecting EUIV or the end-all-be-all of 4X games, you’ll be disappointed. While it’s a competent game, you might be better off buying more complete (I feel) experiences like Star Ruler 2 or, again, Distant Worlds. However, if you come to this knowing you’re buying into the potential, the promise of what it COULD be after a few expansions, your expectations might work better for you. Regardless, unless you need to be part of the conversation, and I hate to say this, I think you can wait on this one.
Stellaris Specific Question: This vs. Distant Worlds?
This is what so many people have been asking me from the moment they saw me playing Stellaris on Steam, “Did it dethrone Distant Worlds for you?” If you’ve not figured it out by now, the answer is clearly, certifiably and certainly no, it hasn’t. To be fair, Distant Worlds didn’t fully click for me until the second expansion, Legends, so maybe that will be true of Stellaris as well. Who knows though, by that point Distant Worlds 2 might be out or on the horizon.
While Stellaris isn’t a bad game, I don’t feel it’s really a complete one either. It feels as if this was shoved out as a barebones 4X, riding on Paradox’s reputation of post-release support, rather than being a complete experience from the get go. I mean maybe Distant Worlds has spoiled me in how it does exploration, trade, espionage and so on, but hell, Stellaris doesn’t even have some of those things, which is baffling.
I know Distant Worlds is a much more challenging game to get a grip on for a variety of reasons, but once you grok it, it’s a 4X experience like no other you’ll encounter. Getting to that point is a much steeper climb than Stellaris, but the result makes it that much more satisfying in the end because Distant Worlds just has so much more to offer. Not just espionage and trade, but playing as a pirate empire, in-game editing, fully-developed espionage, civilian trade and so on.
One thing Stellaris did is make me have a great realization about Distant Worlds: I love playing Distant Worlds so much because the exploration and expansion part of the game takes so much longer to end. Even when you have a burgeoning empire, which would be considered the mid-game in many games, the universes are so chock-full of stuff to see and do that exploration ships are still out there finding stuff.
Distant Worlds is my desert island game, and Stellaris hasn’t changed that. Might it in a few expansions? Maybe, but I’m commenting on the game’s state now, not the promise of what it might be down the line. If Stellaris ends up surpassing Distant Worlds in terms of features, scope and so on, no one will be happier than I. I just have my doubts that such a thing will come to pass.
The hardest games to write about, in my experience, aren’t the great ones or the terrible ones, they’re the middling ones. The games that COULD be great, but aren’t. The games that should somehow have been awesome but missed the mark. The C-range games, to use a report card as an analogy. Stellaris is such a game. It’s not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is it great. This is the kind of game for which I wish Steam had a “Meh” rating. Again, Paradox’s reputation for post-release support is very promising to the future of this game, but as it sits right now, there’s better stuff out there to play, in my opinion. I can’t tell you to buy a game based on promise, however. Again, if you feel you need to be part of the conversation and want to get in on the ground floor, by all means pick up Stellaris. Otherwise…sigh…you might do well holding off and playing something else for a while while this game matures into the greatness it could be. Thanks for reading!