The ultimate marriage of 4X and Grand Strategy! That's what we were promised with Stellaris. So I'm here to tell you if that's what we got. A mixture of the likes of Master of Orion with the Grand Strategy complexity that Paradox does so well? Or is it Europa Universalis in space?
You know what? I don't really like those reviews where they're asking you a question at the beginning, and then withholding the answer until the end like some kind of weird detective mystery. So I'll come right out and tell you. No, this is not a mixture of Grand Strategy and 4X. What is it then? Oh, that one's easy. It's a 4X game.
What exactly is the Grand Strategy genre? As far as I can tell, it's Paradox Interactive's term for the kind of hugely complex games that Paradox Interactive makes. I can't really name anything I'd call 'Grand Strategy' that isn't a Paradox game. But if you're expecting steep learning curves, complex procedurally-generated stories and interpersonal conflict that sucks you in for weeks at a time, this ain't it.
Stellaris is a 4X game. You start out on your homeworld with a species you've designed from scratch (including ethos and traits, so it's possible to create fertile, xenophobic mushroom people or fiercely religious yet physically weak toucan-penguin space bird guys), and from there you research techs, build exploration crafts and construction ships, which in turn build stations around planets and stars to harvest resources, and eventually spam the galaxy with colony ships to take whatever the heck you've created as your species to other planets.
The game splits itself neatly into three main acts. Firstly, you're expanding as rapidly as you can, spreading your stellar borders until they bump up on all sides against other empires of equally unusual space guys. Then, for much of the second act, you just kind of sit there, perhaps invading a bit . Finally, something unexpected happens at the end and you're forced to try to contain a disaster of some kind.
So far, so 4X. Stellaris does not have the learning curve of a Paradox Grand Strategy game, which means it's easy to get into, but it also means that it lacks the depth that is so worth the struggle. I spent more time learning how to build EU trade routes, or understanding the laws of succession in Crusader Kings 2, or puzzling out how best to assign generals throughout the order of battle in Heart of Iron III than I spent learning the entirety of Stellaris. Everything makes sense right off the bat, at least at first, and watching your science ships zipping around the galaxy scanning planets and discovering fascinating, text-driven anomaly events (many based on familiar sci-fi settings, but ultimately all adding to Stellaris' own unique lore) is immersive and intriguing.
Attention to detail is a Paradox 'thing', and it's true in Stellaris, albeit in a scaled-back way. It's true that the galaxy is absolutely huge, and there are enough settings to tweak to ensure that you can explore for a long time if you'd rather do that than interact with the star empires. You have leaders in your empire to do science, fight wars and govern, but there's little of the Crusader Kings personality in these guys - they're just bundles of buffs for the most part.
So at this part, let's take stock. A lightweight strategy game (by Paradox's standards) with a slow mid-game slog and a limited number of random events. Did I mention that there were a limited number? Well there are.
And there are bugs. Playing as the humans of Earth, venturing forth from the Sol system, I found another system a mere two jumps from my starting system, also called Sol. With the exact same planets as our solar system, in the exact same configuration, and even a human civilisation on Sol III. There are missions with missing or broken text. Nothing that's going to screw the game up, but in something like this that relies on immersion, it sort of wrenches you back to reality.
BUT! There's a very important caveat to all of my sneering remarks. Paradox is the master of fixing stuff once it's released. I have every certainty that they'll be fixing many of these bugs, and even re-balancing the mid-game as we speak. There are a few other gripes I have - creating a sector is supposed to reduce your time spent micromanaging everything but you still need to do tons of it, and as your sectors tend to be at the outskirts of your empire, which is also where you are likely to build your colony ships and fleets, the bewildering decision to just make all of these things invisible to your usual unit selection panel is a feature bordering on a bug. But I'm sure these will not be problems in a few months once the Paradox patch-o-tron is kicked into overdrive.
Something that might be a little harder to fix, however, is the diplomacy. It's hard to get people to trade with you, at least at first, and the weighting system seems to be a little off-balance. Once, I asked a servile empire to assist me in my research. They had a -1000 modifier to the deal, which is as bad as it gets. So I offered them one single mineral resource per month (I was making a surplus of over 100 per month at the time) and suddenly they were all about it. Weird, and hard to really feel comfortable with.
So how to go with recommending it? Were this a creation of any other developer or publisher, I'd have my concerns. But the truth is, once they get it all sorted, it's going to be a heck of a game. From the modular ship constructor system and the impressive (if automatic) fleet battles, to the ethical tensions between interstellar neighbours reminiscent of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, to the endless moddability that'll allow, no doubt, classic sci-fi reskins (the likes of Dune spring to mind), I can't wait for Stellaris to be the game it is so obviously going to be. For now, though, it's still struggling with escape velocity on its mission to the stars.