The last space strategy game I truly loved was 2008's Sins of a Solar Empire - a mix of 4X and real-time strategy elements that mainly served as an excuse to watch a lot of spaceships blow up. It was flawed in a lot of ways, but I haven't played anything like it since.
Stellaris, the upcoming space strategy game from Paradox, is in many ways 180 degrees removed from Sins of a Solar Empire, but it has nevertheless managed to capture my attention in a way that a space strategy game hasn't since Sins. Where Ironclad appeals to the side of me that likes big, explosive space battles, though, Stellaris is more for the part of me that likes thoughtful science fiction. Assuming that it lives up to its promise - and there's no reason to expect it won't given Paradox's track record with critically acclaimed strategy games like Europa Universalis - it could well turn out to be something very different and interesting.
The differences start at the top.
Almost every race is randomly generated
"My vision for this game is that each session should be completely new, and that there should be a sense of wonder and surprise with the galaxy and the race you start with," Stellaris's project lead Henrik Fåhraeus told me during Paradox's recent press tour. "In many of these games, you face the same alien opposition, so there are eight to twelve aliens you grow to recognize. This is not the case here because, again, I want the player to be surprised."
With that goal in mind, Stellaris is taking the rather interesting step of having the game generate aliens from a certain set of characteristics, among them which planets they can live on and whether they tend toward philosophies like collectivism. Other space strategy games going back to Masters of Orion II have in the past made it possible to create your own race, but this is the first instance I can think of in which none of the A.I-controlled characters are preset either. The upshot of all this is that when you run into an alien race for the first time, you won't automatically know whether they're friendly or bent on reducing your civilization to atoms and scattering them in the wind.
There's one exception to this rule: humans, who figure to be the natural choice for most players when they're first starting out. But even they can be customized with from a set of traits like ethics, projectiles, and what form of space travel they prefer - the last of which has a major on technogical decisions going forward.
As it happens, technology is also handled differently in comparison to other games of this type.
There's no tech tree
"We don't have a technology tree in Stellaris. Technology is not that predictable," Fåhraeus says.
Instead, Stellaris features three branches of science led by a scientist. They're individual characters with traits and skill levels, and their personalities to some extent affect which technologies become available. When researching a new piece of tech, you are presented three options, two of which are essentially reshuffled into the deck with the possibility of returning later (or not). Which three technologies you are presented with depends on the ideology of your race, and which traits your scientists have.
Chances are you'll see most technologies again, but there's nevertheless an element of risk to the choice you make. The further you get in the game, the more likely certain technologies will vanish, never to appear again. Fåhraeus likens it to a collectible card game - there are rare technologies, epic technologies, and so on.
The scientists aren't just static characters, either. They travel from star to star in their ships, where they survey planets or investigate strange anomalies. If they discover a primitive species, it's possible to build an observation post over their planet and give them technology in exchange for their loyalty, not unlike the original Star Trek episode "A Private Little War." They can in turn potentially colonize planets for which your species is poorly suited, allowing your empire to thrive in locations it wouldn't otherwise.
There's a downside to uplifting another species, though. After a time your empire will begin to splinter into different factions, including the races that you decide to help develop. And if you're not careful, a friendly race can quickly become an enemy.
One empire can become many
Factions have a large role to play in Stellaris. To wit, your planets will develop certain political beliefs over time, which will inevitably put them in conflict with other parts of your empire. If you're not careful, they will break away and become their own empire. Over time, the face of the galaxy can change dramatically as empires splinter into new interests, all of which have a part to play in the unfolding narrative.
Your system of government partly determines how matters develop. Rulers are separate from players, and over time they will get old and die. Their death in turn has the potential to trigger a succession crisis in which multiple factions attempt to fill the power vaccuum. In that respect, Stellaris takes on a little of the character of Game of Thrones, or if you prefer, Dune.
Such conflicts are inevitable in Stellaris, and they play a large role in how the game ultimately plays out. If they aren't managed correctly, they can even devolve into a bloody civil war. It's a frightening but interesting gameplay prospect that has to be weighed carefully when dealing with the interests of different factions. There's no way to make everyone happy, of course, but the wisest rulers can keep everyone placated long enough that they won't all turn on each other at the same time.
And even then, you have to be willing to put some trust in your regional governors - the leaders who run the frontier outposts that lie well outside your sphere of influence. At any given moment, you only have direct control over a handful of your systems. As in real life, there could well be a corrupt governor plotting a coup behind your back, or if you're lucky, simply taking bribes under the table.
"The problem with strategy games in general is that there's a point where you realize you've won and there's no point in continuing because it's just going to be an endgame grind," says Fåhraeus. "That's where these factions come in. The more you grow, the more problems you will have with these factions and fractious sector governors, which will play a role in keeping the player's interest alive."
Or you can accidentally let loose a robot apocalypse
Of course, any sci-fi fan knows that things can easily fall apart in other ways as well. Maybe you accidentally discover an ancient alien race bent on your destruction. Or maybe you accidentally unleash something from beyond your dimension when taking a wormhole to your local 7/11. These sorts of situations can crop up in Stellaris as well, and they have the potential to make a rebellious sector governor the least of your worries.
Artificial intelligence, for example, is quite dangerous. On their own, robots can be extremely useful, as they are able to colonize any type of planet or serve as deadly and effective soldiers. If they go rogue, though, their revolt will rapidly snowball as they take over planets and incorporate the robot workers of other empires into their ranks. The best way to stop them is to ally with your rivals and crush them quickly; though, if you want to wait until they've hurt your enemies, that's an option as well. In general, researching new technology can carry with it certain risks that have to be balanced against their rewards.
Like the rest of Paradox's strategy portfolio, Stellaris takes a fairly unique approach to a well-established genre, eschewing turn-based mechanics for real-time (but plausable) design while incorporating as many sci-fi tropes as possible. What's especially interesting is the way that it takes control out of your hands, turning you into something akin to a project manager as you set the agenda for your empire while dealing with competing factions and personalities. The min-max crowd might not like it much, but the resulting narrative has the potential to be fascinating.
Having seen it now, I've got high hopes for Stellaris. With so many other space strategy games following in the footsteps of Civilization or Masters of Orion, I've been hungry for something new and interesting that also has a lot of depth. With its emergent factions and unique approach to technology, Stellaris has the potential to be just that.
With Stellaris, Paradox is already showing that they can handle the further reaches of space every bit as well as Medieval Europe. The sci-fi nerd in me would like to know more.