15 April, 2017

Stellaris Review

Stellaris is an early alpha game that is to be finished in DLC. If you buy it now, you get to enjoy all the placeholder mechanics that they will ask you money for to replace with something resembling an actually thought out game. And even then it will be half-assed and with minimum effort because you're already invested (See also the Sunk Cost Fallacy). You'll have to buy it or be stuck with an unfinished version that isn't really good at anything.

And it's that version I will review here. Stellaris attempts to merge Grand Strategy games and 4X games, managing to take only the worst of both worlds in a nice looking jacket to hide the lack of things to do. To begin, the early game plays much like a 4X game. You explore, you look for places to expand and colonize, and you work on your planets. After everything is mostly claimed and you've met a fair amount of alien empires the grand strategy game is supposed to take over, but it never does. This leaves you with a rather poorly done 4X game that has no real mid or late game. Once you've finished exploring, you build up a military until it's bigger than your neighbour and throw it at them until you have no more neighbours.

To begin with the good things about it, it looks pretty decent, as screenshots will show you. And the events have decent flavour to them, and a few stories that actually made me want to follow up on them only to be disappointed when it results in an anticlimactic "+500 energy credits" for finishing the entire storyline. Many events and anomalies imply you'll be able to do great things once you end up with highly advanced technology, but you never do, and the simple events and anomalies start repeating before you're even done with one game. Most of these storylines and events do not seem to matter whatsoever, with all of them being self-contained minor effects that do not interact with anything outside of them.

Nearly everything in the game is, I would hope, a placeholder mechanic- Technology ends in the mid game and you research repeatable technologies that give you a slight numbers bonus, military matters are simple with no debt to them whatsoever, species are all interchangeable except for a few fringe cases, diplomacy doesn't really exist, just like many options to control your empire don't seem to exist and there is no real grand strategy part of this. It offers you three ways to travel the stars with FTL technology, yet two of these are completely useless.

The AI, in all ways, is completely incapable. Diplomatically it doesn't do anything of real note, often remaining passive until a certain value just happens to rise by coincidence and triggers it to do something. Militarily it doesn't do anything- It makes ships that are poorly planned and optimized by just putting on whatever seems like the latest technology, even if it's terrible. It develops its lands randomly, completely ignoring any sort of planning or goals it may be able to do, and in general feels much less like it's trying to emulate an opponent and more like they just hooked up an RNG to the controls.

The military and combat stuff is, in one word, bad. While there is a minimum of customization to try to counter your opponent, in the end everything comes down to who just has the bigger stack. The entire military game is essentially a dick measuring content. If yours is bigger then you win, take your opponent's stuff and move on to measure against the next guy. There is no strategy, no tactics, and no maneuvering. You do not even get to control what your ships do and do not engage. Planetary invasions are a joke- You leave some ships above the place and then bring in a big stack of armies to wipe out the defenders. It's more of a formality at that point, because you have the bigger naval dick from the earlier measuring contest so it's not like you can't just wait a few years to bring in more armies

As mentioned earlier, technology is a joke past the early game, but even at the early game you will find a large amount of completely useless technologies that will never be even a little bit useful. You get a choice of a few randomly selected technologies to research, and while I like the idea of it, all it really means is that you're going to just research the cheapest technology of the set until something actually useful comes up.

Most of Stellaris is set up to be pretty and to pretend it has depth, but if you look even a little bit at it you will find that most of it is empty and flat. Past the initial experience of the early game and expanding there is nothing to do except waiting or continued dick measuring competition with your neighbours, and then moving on to measure against the next guy.

Is it worth getting? Maybe if you can get it really cheap on sale. Maybe in a few years when they've finished it.
At release, I'd have called Stellaris a technically playable tech demo. At the least with the latest DLC(Utopia) it is now a  barely playable early alpha game. So hey, there's some progress here.
Shame it's going to take another 200€ of DLC and several years for it to be finished

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