Stellaris review

This is a fantastic game if you love spending hours meticulously crafting a beautiful empire, micro-optimising it to a cutting edge, and then having the AI come in and wipe you out instantly. Fun for the whole family.

As best I can tell it’s fatally buggy, because it lets the AI essentially cheat, and you can’t turn that misfeature off.

But in its defense it kind of sets expectations right from the beginning. My very first game failed as described above, though it was at least because my empire was weak and I’d made some actual mistakes. There’s no manual or tutorial, just the in-game tips which are sparse, terse, and simply don’t cover a lot of essential elements of gameplay. So my first abrupt loss was unsurprising – unfortunately, trial and error is the name of the game here.

Subsequent games went no better, however.

I eventually found that there’s a config option when starting a new game, for how many AIs start way ahead of you. Ah, that sounds like the problem. Unfortunately even when set to zero, at least one AI still does this. And it’s not just a little ahead – they seem to start completely advanced in tech tree and with effectively infinite resources. And the most infuriating of all is that they can lurk for hours of gameplay before actually deciding to annihilate you on a whim. I’d appreciate if they just wipe me out straight away and save me all that wasted time.

For example, in my most recent game I had taken control of nearly a third of the galaxy, beating out half a dozen other AIs, and was shown by the game as equal or greater in strength than all the AIs I’d contacted. And then an AI from the other side of the galaxy declared war on me without any warning – I didn’t even know they existed – and wiped me out in literally about sixty seconds. They cleared out all my space stations, all my defenses, killed my main battle fleet in literally a single shot, and made short work of taking over all my planets with hundreds of invading armies that individually were more powerful than an entire planet’s defences. They had multiple battle fleets that were each more than a hundred times more powerful than my entire armada.

So that sucks. I went back through my saves to try to find a branch point where I could retry from, but came to the sad conclusion that there’s no possible way to beat that AI – at best I can hope it simply doesn’t decide to kill me. But they always do, eventually.

And it’s depressingly insightful what happens next, which is to say, nothing… the game just keeps going, with you unable to do anything at all – all your planets are conquered, all your shipyards long gone, all your ships at best hiding in dark corners of the galaxy. And yet the game just keeps trudging along, revealing the truth: it’s not for you. You were just a transient.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s hypothesise that they soon fix this crippling bug. In that case, the game is… meh. There’s a lot of time spent waiting for something to happen. Particularly at the beginning, when your empire is small and you’re completely growth & resource constrained, it’s 90% just waiting for the real game to develop. The ‘Fastest’ game speed option isn’t nearly fast enough.

It shares a lot with Cities: Skylines, in that respect. A pretty, intricately detailed game that invites you in alluringly, but turns out to be fundamentally repeatitive, and missing the actual gameplay part. Not to mention the fun that traditionally accompanies games.

One more point, because it’s something I always look and hope for particularly in strategy games like this – deep diplomacy. Unfortunately, in Stellaris the ‘diplomacy’ aspects are pointless. Aside from the options available being rudimentary and very difficult to manage – good GUIs for diplomacy have been well established by many other games, so it’s a mystery why they couldn’t follow suit – it’s moot in any case though, as AIs will never, ever give you anything without you giving them way more in return. Most AIs won’t even deal with you. And there’s also crippling bugs in the diplomacy code too, such as the fun one where you finally find a deal the AI might accept, that’s not totally, ubsurdly unfair, and you offer it, and then the game enacts all the things you promised to give to the AI and not one single thing they were required to contribute.

Suffice to say Stellaris is a pretty big waste of money, and more importantly, time.

In many respects it feels heavily ‘inspired’ by Endless Space. Endless Space can be unforgiving to beginners, and has a few minor bugs & GUI flaws, but it’s actually winnable if you give it some time and develop some skill, and can be enjoyable to play if you invest some time to learn it. So just go play that instead, and save yourself money & irritation.

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