Stellaris, one year on

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Stellaris

Amidst the brightly shining stars, the Mushroom Domain’s legacy shall endure. The Mushrooms were not the galaxy’s most populous species. They did not control its largest empire. Yet they were its most influential. It was a Mushroom-created federation that brought peace to the galaxy and defended it against an invading scourge, and it was a Mushroom battle fleet that fired the final, victorious shot.

One year after launch, Stellaris remains best approached as a science-fiction story generator. Its strengths and weaknesses are recognisable from launch: in Jesse Schell’s “toy vs game” classification scheme (a toy is something you play with, a game is a problem-solving activity approached with a playful attitude), Stellaris is still more of a toy than a game — not uncommon in the 4X and strategy genres, where a rich experience such as Total War or Master of Magic can represent more than the sum of its parts. Stellaris is not a balanced set of finely-honed decisions, and I wonder if it ever could be one without jeopardising what it does do well: providing a sandpit to enact grand sagas of galactic ambition.

More detailed thoughts below:

At a design level, this is still one of the most interesting 4X titles around. Thematically, Stellaris‘s well-written flavour events, randomly generated species (peer empires, brooding precursors, upliftable pre-spaceflight worlds, and more), and abundant science-fiction homages combine to produce a galaxy that is “ancient and full of wonders”. Later on, the galaxy begins dividing into blocs, precursor races awaken, and intergalactic invaders emerge, representing radical potential changes to the game board: when the victory screen popped up, my Mushrooms and their federation partners were defending against a mighty “Awakened Empire”, a once-dormant precursor now turned aggressively expansionist.

Mechanically, Stellaris is still strongest early on. Since the Utopia expansion came out, I’ve started four campaigns, shelved three after reaching the mid-game, and finished one. Early-game exploration remains the highlight; the mid-game is weakened by bland mechanics such as planetary construction and ship design. Patches and DLC have helped to some extent, providing new mid/late-game foes (Leviathans DLC), internal politics that feel rewarding instead of punitive (the 1.5 patch), buildable megastructures (the Utopia DLC — I’ve only built a few so far), and a Civ 5-style traditions system (Utopia again).

Applying mods and experimenting with custom game settings let me address the game’s weaknesses, build on its strengths, and tailor the experience to my preferences. In 4X games, I hate micromanaging large empires — I prefer a smaller scale where every settlement matters — and I prefer to play as a peaceful builder. I was able to achieve this in my completed Mushroom Domain game, a relaxing experience in which I let federation allies extend our control across the galaxy while I focused on building and exploration. To do so, I opted for a small galaxy with the proportion of habitable worlds set to 25% of the default. Meanwhile, I installed the More Events Mod (more to discover), Megastructures, Improved Megastructures, and Stellar Expansion (more to build), and assorted quality of life mods (AutoBuild). For future games, I intend to install Guillis Planet Modifiers (more planet variety) and perhaps The Zenith of Fallen Empires (ambitious endgame options).

Endless Space 2 impressions

I have mixed feelings following my first game of Endless Space 2. I went in with high hopes: after bouncing off Endless Space 1, I went on to love Endless Legend. At first, I had a great time. Six hours later, by the time I finished my beginner game, I was bored.

Its strengths and weaknesses are those of Endless Legend at launch. Re-reading what I wrote about Endless Legend in 2015, much of my critique applies equally well here. Endless Space 2‘s headline strengths are gorgeous art and imaginative worldbuilding, while several aspects of nuts-and-bolts gameplay deserve praise – spaceship design is simple and elegant (I set up two main ship classes: one fast and powerful for my field forces, and the other well-armed, slow, and cheap for my garrisons), while building up planets is pleasant and satisfying. Its weaknesses include bugs, what seems like an AI inability to upgrade spaceships, and something more fundamental: the late game is a slog. While I was willing to forgive Endless Legend at launch, and that game went on to take significant strides, I’m a little disappointed that after several years, Endless Space 2 has gone back to square one.

Stellaris presents an interesting comparison. Both games enliven early exploration with quests, events, and anomalies to investigate. Both games reflect their developers’ pedigree – Endless Space 2 has superior ‘4X’ mechanics (ship design, planetary buildings) while Stellaris has more interesting diplomatic options (a successful military campaign in Endless Space 2 took me over my planet limit, at which point I wished I could set up unwanted planets as a vassal buffer state). Both suffer in the mid-to-late game, although Stellaris tries to address this with endgame crises and the War in Heaven.

… highlighting underlying issues in 4X game design. Most 4X games are built around the player acquiring more stuff, and with it, more to do (more units to push around, more cities or planets to manage). Mechanics that work in the early game, such as managing city build queues, fail to scale in the late game. At the same time, the late game loses much of its challenge as the player snowballs across the map. A handful of games address these problems: the recent Total War games add powerful late-game foes (the rest of Japan in Shogun 2, the Huns in Attila, Chaos in Warhammer); Imperialism centralises all production in the capital city, reducing micromanagement; similarly Armageddon Empires restricts the player’s production to whatever is in his/her hand of cards.

What next? While I’d like to play more of Endless Space 2, I’m not whether I’ll do so as-is (perhaps on a higher difficulty setting or playing a different faction) or whether I’ll put it back on the shelf for now. If Endless Legend is any indication, I may well be more positive in several months.

Further reading

Troy Costisick at Explorminate has a positive and very detailed review.

Chris Thursten at PC Gamer argues that the game needs more polish.

My gaming year: 2016

Hello, and welcome to my gaming wrap for 2016.

For me, the year was defined by five new PC strategy games — Stellaris, XCOM 2, Total War: Warhammer, Civilization VI, and Hearts of Iron IV, each of which I really enjoyed. I also dabbled with a few new releases in other genres (Titanfall 2 and House of the Dying Sun), replayed several older games (Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, Total War: Shogun 2, and a little Dishonored), and discovered the joys of iPad gaming (Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy, 80 Days, Desert Fox, and the mobile version of FTL). Two final notable releases were Dishonored 2, which is waiting in my Steam library for me to finish the DLC for the original Dishonored, and The Last Guardian, which I intend to eventually buy alongside a PS4.

Digging more deeply into the five new strategy games, it’s interesting to see how they represent different blends between innovation and execution:

– XCOM 2 is the excellent, evolutionary, sequel to one of my favourite games. In terms of game mechanics, it’s probably the strongest on the list: it is a delight to mix and match the complementary abilities of a late-game squad.

– Stellaris is imaginative, beautifully scored, and has the potential to become one of the most significant 4X games in the last 20 years. I am particularly interested in the extent to which future updates flesh out internal politics, an area where the 4X genre could learn a lot from grand strategy games.

Hearts of Iron IV and Civ VI are built on strong underlying designs, combining the best elements of their respective predecessors (HOI 2-3 and Civ 4-5) with new innovations; I expect both games to be stronger after AI tweaks and expansions.

– Finally, Total Warhammer successfully adapts the apocalyptic, “rage against the dying of the light” experience of Total War: Attila to a fantasy setting.

In the broader game industry, the most interesting development for me has been Nintendo’s counterattack across multiple fronts: (1) the Switch announcement, aimed at the traditional console/core gamer market; (2) well-received moves to bring Nintendo IP to mobile, through licensees (Pokemon GO) and  outright development (Super Mario Run, supported by mobile specialist DeNA); and (3) laying the groundwork to take that IP beyond gaming by partnering with Universal Parks. I love the concept of the Switch — playing core games on the go is a big draw — and I look forward to learning more in 2017. While I’m also very interested in VR, I expect this to be more of a medium/long-term story.

Other releases I’ll watch in 2017 include Frozen Synapse 2, Persona 5, and Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (especially if it’s ported to PC).

Note: I will soon be travelling overseas and won’t have access to my gaming PC for several months — during that time, I expect to survive on a diet of Paradox, Slitherine, independent, and classic games. I wish all of you Merry Christmas, Season’s Greetings, and all the best for 2017!

Musical Monday: “Faster than Light (instrumental)” (Stellaris), composed by Andreas Waldetoft

This is one of my favourite pieces of music in Stellaris, embodying the game’s – and the science fiction genre’s – spirit of exploration and discovery. At its start, it’s understated and almost ethereal; it takes on a questing, inquisitive tone around 0:45; and finally blossoms into liveliness at 2:40. Enjoy!

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Space Opera, Act I: Thoughts on Stellaris

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Stellaris

Stellaris ESS startHumanity triumphant! My first game of Stellaris was a short one, as my fledgling humans were ground to dust by a nearby computer player. My second was more successful. Under the banner of the Empire of the Shimmering Stars, humanity spread out from the Deneb system – befriending the pre-spaceflight Immathurans, bringing more species and more worlds under its sway.

Stellaris - Immathurans encounteredSome of humanity’s neighbours turned out to be friendly, or at least benevolent neutrals. I signed migration treaties, allowing us to populate one another’s worlds. Some were hostile. When my first spacefleet was destroyed in a bid to protect my Immathuran proteges, I built a second one, the Remembrance Fleet. The Remembrance Fleet went on to turn the tables, and the would-be aggressors became first vassals and then subjects.

On and on the human tide rolled, until finally I stretched too far. The Ubaric Progenitors, an ancient “Fallen Empire” (ornery precursor races populating the Stellaris galaxy), objected to my colonies near their borders. The Remembrance Fleet fought them off – just. I attempted to take the war to the Ubari capital, an ancient ringworld. It was a disaster: the combined Ubari forces crushed mine. In the ensuing peace treaty, the Ubari forced me to abandon a swathe of colonies, and to add insult to injury, assassinated my leader.

Fortunately, the Shimmering Stars had the size and strategic depth to recover. Rebuilt newer and stronger, my Grand Fleet fought off an extra-galactic invasion (one of Stellaris’ “late-game crises”)… and returned to unfinished business. Once again, a human fleet, supported by allied and vassal contingents, appeared above the Ubari ringworld.

Stellaris grand fleet 2This time, the allies outgunned the Ubari several times to one. One by one, the Ubari warships and starbases winked out. The Ubari leaders surrendered. The bronze eagle flag of the Shimmering Stars flew over a ringworld that was already old when the first humans rubbed sticks together to make fire.

Stellaris defeated UbaricHumanity now presides over the galaxy’s dominant empire. No threats remain. The empire itself is home to many species, most co-existing happily, and its highest offices are open to leaders from all species. That, for me, is victory!

Stellaris end mapGood game, 1-2 expansions away from potential greatness. Stellaris’ appeal rested on two promises: (1) a vibrant science-fiction universe, and (2) blending Paradox’s specialty, the grand strategy game, with the established space 4X genre. It delivers on the first; I am not convinced it delivers on the second, as its limited internal politics feel more like a traditional 4X. I suspect players will enjoy it to the extent they’re looking for an interactive science fiction epic rather than a crunchy GSG. Overall, I enjoyed my 20 hours with Stellaris, and I look forward to playing again several patches down the road. (Update: the developers have posted their roadmap for the next few updates, which look great! They address many of my issues with the game.)

Below, I elaborate:

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