Outer space has always been a tantalizing place. Our universe is so vast and unexplored that it teases the imagination and fuels our science fiction. This dream of discovery is what pushed us to send rockets into the sky and put people on the moon. Stellaris taps into that same itch to explore the unknown. Like space itself, Paradox’s new strategy sim is big, complex, and easy to get lost in.
At the beginning of the game, Stellaris drops players onto a single point on a galactic map and asks them to explore – and then tame – the unknown by building fleets of science ships, mining stations, and combat cruisers. At the start, you choose your galaxy-conquering race from a nice range of reptilian, avian, and fungal aliens. Selectable traits influence everything, from your species’ breeding speed to its overall heartiness, which helped me feel like my race of highly evolved cats was distinct from any other feline species the game might have auto-generated somewhere else in the galaxy. These traits also influenced my strategy for conquering the galaxy, as my species’ natural agrarian skill made it easy to grow food, so I rarely had to worry about starving masses.
Thankfully, it doesn’t take long to start exploring the galaxy and claim new planets for your empire. I had the most fun with Stellaris in the opening hours as I constantly uncovered new relics from extinct precursor races, reverse engineered abandoned space probes, and battled aggressive spaceborne crystals. Even Stellaris’ smallest randomly generated maps feel vast thanks to a wealth of mineral-rich planets and asteroids scattered across every solar system. I never grew tired of constructing new mining and research stations to exploit the universes’ riches, or terraforming a harsh alien world to establish a new colony.
As you continue to explore, your expanding borders push against other alien races and the galaxy starts to feel a bit smaller. I appreciated the wealth of diplomacy options, and I tried to befriend several other races. However, some aliens are stubborn, and no matter how I negotiated for border access or how favorable I made my trade deals, diplomatic relations eventually broke down and I was forced into war. Unfortunately, combat boils down to a numbers game; you make sure your military fleet’s attack rating is higher than your enemy’s, and then you point them at the alien homeworld.
I found it relatively easy to make sure my combat cruisers were always outfitted with the latest tech, but the game doesn’t clearly outline the progression of new technologies. Instead of a tech tree, you’re presented with three different technological research options. After you research one, three new tech options pop up. This means after you develop ion cannons, you might have the option to develop the next tier in that technology, or that option might not cycle into the random rotation for several hours. This random technology selection always keeps you on your toes, but I wish I had a better carrot to pursue while advancing my society scientifically.
Stellaris’ early game is full of exploration and promise, and the small nuggets of fiction I picked up after discovering an abandoned research station or dissecting the corpse of a space giant helped draw me into the fantasy that I was truly exploring the unknown. Unfortunately, the game eventually settles into a grind as you either try to convince neighboring aliens to become your vassals or slowly build up an army to forcefully take over their worlds. The rewarding moments are still there, but they’re spaced out significantly. Taking over the galaxy turns out to be a lot of work, but it’s a worthwhile mission for would-be explorers.