In Stellaris, progress is measured in light years, and empires are built between the stars. As your civilization leaves its home planet for distant solar systems, through wormholes and across slipspace vectors, developer Paradox Interactive wants to make the journey meaningful every step of the way.
“The best stories are the ones you just happen to come across,” director Henrik Fahraeus told me during a recent demo. In the past, the developer’s focus has centered around historical periods, such as Europa Universalis III’s French Revolution, or Crusader Kings’ holy wars. And although Fahraeus wants to tell similar sweeping stories in Stellaris, all of these are steeped in speculative future fiction.
Much like its grand strategy predecessors, Stellaris blends the macro and micro elements of empire building. As you settle new planets and engage alien militaries in turn-based strategy, you’ll also manage local governments, design starships, and analyze floating space debris. Expansion amounts to little if you lack a stable foundation.
This won’t be simple, either. Although Paradox’s games are always dense, Stellaris generates its galaxies randomly, creating a learning process in not just the first few hours of playtime, but throughout the game. And in Stellaris’ larger maps, as many as 1,000 stars could be present, each with their own celestial bodies surrounding them. If any of the systems are as big as our own in real life, that could mean 8,000 individual planets to explore.
“Much like it might happen in real life, you’ll never discover every star there is to find,” Fahraeus said, smiling. “Each galaxy you’re dropped into will have different star clusters, different planets, different alien races to find. Maintaining an empire requires a lot of choices, and because it’s all random, those choices will always be different in each playthrough.”
Take Stellaris’ tech system, for instance. While similar titles such as Civilization present the same tech tree across every playthrough, Stellaris changes on the fly. It asks you to invest research across three categories: physics, engineering, and society. Each of these gives you three specific technologies to choose from in an ever-changing array of options. Fahraeus compares it to “getting dealt a hand of three cards, and it’s up to you which card you play.”
This randomness has the potential to upset balance between empires when it comes to Stellaris’ 32-player multiplayer. But Fahraeus said Paradox is focusing on making sure that each technology is valuable, so you won’t be frustrated when you encounter a group of techs you don’t find useful, and lag behind other human players.
Paradox is also taking pains to make Stellaris more accessible. Even by Fahraeus’ own admission, the developer has never held your hand as you figure out the mechanics of its games. And while Stellaris does have an optional tutorial system, loyal Paradox players will still find a layered experience in this space faring 4X title.
“We’re not really trying to bring in people that aren’t traditionally into these types of games,” the director said. “But we are trying to make it more friendly. We want to give you the option to learn up front, and let the rest of our experience speak for itself.”
With Paradox’s earlier titles, and Firaxis Games’ Civilization series, the late-game turns often become monotonous: you’ve researched useful technology advancements, established your major settlements, and covered the map in your military forces. But in Stellaris, which sometimes may have planets numbering over 10,000, expansion is one of the main draws. Managing all that territory could be overwhelming.
“That’s where administrative sectors come in,” Fahraeus said. “They keep the late-game turns interesting, and lead to emergent situations when you thought everything was under control.”
These smaller governmental territories let you expand farther without much of the micromanagement that was engaging in the early turns. By assigning local governors and administrators to control established sections of your empire, you can focus on further expansion, out to the rim colonies you might otherwise ignore.
Administrative sectors also lead to surprising situations, in which a governor attempts to wrest his territory from your jurisdiction. Secession is hard to ignore, and when mutiny occurs, you’ll have to find balance through diplomacy or an iron fist. These choices can morph you into a peace-loving civilization, or a militaristic dictatorship.
Problems can arise from outside of your empire as well. Paradox is creating what Fahraeus calls galactic crises. These catastrophes affect your entire civilization, and can disrupt many late-game plans you might have.
Fahraeus lists a few: “robot revolutions, xenomorph uprisings, and problems with too many Warp stations between star systems.” He didn’t expand on this too much, only saying that some technologies lead to repercussions as well as advantages.
Although Paradox has ample experience with the grand strategy genre, none of its former titles have spanned galaxies. Stellaris, on the other hand, expands the developer’s scope exponentially. And by also implementing randomly generated galaxies, enemy empires, and technological advancements, Stellaris could stand out from similar titles.
“These games are all about discovery,” Fahraeus said, as he guided a trio of starships toward an unknown alien fleet. “Stellaris is no exception. In fact, in many ways, you’ll discover new things every time you play. That’s how the universe works, after all.”
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Author: Mike Mahardy
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