From GTA to Skyrim to the upcoming No Man's Sky, it seems that video game designers are striving to create new worlds that are bigger, brighter and more explorable than ever before. The opportunity to roam freely in-game gives the player a sense of freedom and purpose beyond the completion of the campaign or multiplayer map. Replay-ability isn't an issue if there is seemingly never an end.
Released earlier this month by Paradox Interactive, Stellaris takes the open world genre one step further. This is a strategy game in its truest form, the aim? Conquer and explore the hundreds (and hundreds, and hundreds) of individual star systems in your galaxy, through diplomacy, war and trade agreements with the myriad of other races on your doorstep. By colonizing planets and building frontier outposts your empire expands, and through war your strength and alliances grow.
Design-wise, the game is pretty flawless. The detail attributed to every planet in every star system you encounter must have taken hundreds of hours to perfect. While most of the game is spent manoeuvring between vast empires and star systems through the galaxy map, you can zoom right down to watch your science ship scan a planet, or your war fleet destroy a space anomaly.
What makes Stellaris unique is its ability to evolve the longer you play. After a 'mere' 12 hours of gameplay, I have barely scratched the surface. It's a slow burn, no doubt about it, these grand strategy games take patience, but finally my fleets are strong enough, and I have enough powerful allies to start waging war on my rivals. You begin with just one planet, and a small fleet including a science ship, warships and a space port. The first several hours of gameplay revolve around exploration, sending your science ship off to search for resources. As you slowly discover your surrounding empires, diplomacy comes into play and it is at this point when rivalries are made and alliances are formed.
Galaxy-wide crisis' occur late in the game, meaning your role and decisions can impact the future of your empire. This was a deliberate move by Paradox to adapt the 4X strategy game formula, which usually ends up with one player dominating the game, essentially ending it. In Stellaris, external events could uproot your foothold, meaning you probably aren't as secure as you think you are.
Things to remember before you play 'Stellaris'
Stellaris is a beautiful game, but here are some things to keep in mind before you head out to conquer the galaxy.
1. The species you pick is cosmetic
At the start of each game you will choose your species, and even though it looks as though each species carries different traits (diplomatic, dictatorship, etc) these things don't actually effect that much once you start expanding your empire. It is, however, the ethos (materialist, milriartist, collectivist or xenophobe) you pick in your empire designer which can majorly effect the gameplay.
2. Don't accidentally trade loads of stuff for nothing
Yeah, don't do this. I somehow managed to trade star charts, migration access and a non-aggressive pledge for nothing. Just a heads up. It made a lot of empires like me though.
3. Everything can turn around very quickly
When things are looking dire, your fleets are being destroyed, you have unemployed pops and are into minus energy credits, be aware that it won't stay this way forever. The beauty of the game is that when all is going downhill fast, things can turn around just as quickly. Sometimes you just need to rethink your strategy and explore some new stars.
4. Don't waste your influence
This has been my biggest regret since starting, as influence is earned through both diplomacy, colonizaton and rivalry. It may be worth spending a bit to begin with on employing new scientists to expand your galaxy, but once they are gone they can be hard to earn back, especially as one of the main ways to earn influence is building frontier outposts, which cost influence to build and run. (Pro tip: if you choose the enduring trait for your empire, you spend less influence on your leaders.)
5. Upgrade your fleets
A great little bonus in Stellaris is the ability to build and customize your fleet, and do so regularly in order to keep up with your rivals. However, keep an eye on how much power your upgrades are draining, it's no use having a tank which can't move very fast.
With expansion packs on the way, and Nova and Galaxy editions available, it looks like Stellaris is nowhere near finished with its exploration of the galaxy.