War and Peace in Space: 'Stellaris: Utopia' Enhances Galactic Empire Sim

Stellaris
Courtesy of Paradox Interactive

Last April, Paradox Interactive released the first major expansion to their May 2016 4X real-time strategy game "Stellaris." It was a great game at launch, allowing players to live out their fantasies of galactic conquest through a robust, if somewhat simplistic, system of resource management, political maneuvering, and gratuitous space battles. Copious amounts of well-written science fiction pieces accompanied every major event, making the whole experience feel like a cross between a choose-your-own-adventure novel and a strategy sim on par with Firaxis’ well-respected Civilization series. In April, Paradox Interactive released two major additions to the game: one, a free patch updating the game to version 1.6 codenamed “Banks,” and the other a paid expansion adding additional gameplay and narrative content to the game called “Stellaris: Utopia.” “Utopia” builds on the changes made in “Banks,” so I’ll talk about both here.

In "Stellaris," your mission is to guide your civilization—either a predefined race or a self-created one—to galactic greatness. At the outset, you’re equipped with only two ships: one for obtaining resources, and one for exploring the vast cosmos. After making progress on the game’s truly staggering research tree, you will colonize new planets and make contact with alien lifeforms.

Unfortunately, alien contact is perhaps the least satisfying element of "Stellaris" as diplomacy is extremely limited. You can choose to wage war on another race, insult them to worsen relations, trade with them, create or join a Federation, or attempt to Vassalize them (or, if they’re strong enough, ask to become their Vassal).

In theory, these might be all the actions required to simulate a fun, if not true-to-life, version of diplomacy. But the options are often not nuanced enough to be useful in gameplay. For example, although you can offer colonized planets to other nations as part of trade deals, you cannot ask them for the same. If a planet has already been colonized by another empire, the only to attain it is through war. This limitation means that towards the late-game, when most systems are under the control of one empire or another, the only way to expand an empire is war. By this point, diplomacy in “Stellaris” isn’t just lackluster, but actively annoying.

The original "Stellaris" also suffered from a lack of interesting mid-to-late game content and a user interface that didn’t provide enough functionality. Without “Utopia” or the accompanying “Banks” update, micromanaging perhaps dozens of units to explore and study the galaxy in the late-game lost the excitement of the early-game. Instead of an exercise in decision-making and the wonder of discovery, the micromanagement of Science Ships to explore the universe, scan solar systems for resources or habitable worlds, and research anomalies becomes an annoying distraction from the more interesting events that occur as your empire becomes more powerful and the galaxy grows older.

Though diplomacy remains for the most part basic, "Stellaris: Utopia” and the 1.6 “Banks” update released alongside it for the base game is a literal game-changer in almost every part of gameplay. “Banks” provided much-needed polish to the user interface, and indeed changed the structure of the game itself in too many subtle but important ways to count. It also entirely reworked the initially simplistic Government system into one which allowed the player to make more interesting decisions.

The most interesting change in “Banks” was the introduction of factions, which represent the political reality that not all members of an empire will believe in the same things. Your empire could be materialistic and warmongering, but anywhere from a few to most of your population might instead be collectivist and pacifist. Your responses to the factions and events which occur in your empire will create and influence factions. This makes your empire feel much more alive, and makes you think twice about unilaterally deciding to start wars or engage in gene modification.

The Utopia expansion works to build on these changes and diversify the player’s control over the narrative of their empire, as well as adding events to the galaxy which contributes to the overall story of the world you inhabit in "Stellaris.” “Utopia” adds a host of late-game upgrades called “Ascension Perks” which give the player something constructive to work towards after their empire reaches its late-game stage, but before the galactic crises—any one of a number of what are essentially game-ending surprises—start to emerge. This makes the late-game experience much more consistent, and allows the player to continue to develop the narrative of their species by focusing on, well, ascending, in one of a variety of ways. If you focused on computer technologies and artificial intelligence, you might replace your species with a race of technologically enhanced organics; if you focused on gene modification, your entire race might evolve into a superior form with upgraded statistics and new bonuses.

“Utopia” also introduces a number of megastructures to the game, which are special stations with incredible build costs but high rewards. You can build habitable planetoids, Dyson Spheres, and other wacky contraptions straight out of science fiction. This helps to address the problem of late-game expansion that I mentioned earlier—where you lose the ability to expand your population as the number of unclaimed habitable worlds approaches zero, and prohibitively expensive terraforming operations become tedious—though it doesn’t quite make up for the inadequacies of the diplomatic system. It comes pretty close, though.

I’ve poured many, many hours into "Stellaris,” and I can tell you that it’s worth your time. Performance tends to sharply drop towards the late game, as the engine has to simulate more and more AI movement and the number of calculations it has to make increases, but there are whispers that performance might be improved with later patches. The developers are still very much engaged with the game, and maintain an active Facebook presence, posting “Dev Diaries” every so often to keep fans apprised of design decisions and to provide teasers of new features. The modding scene, particularly on Steam, is vibrant, with everything from a “Rick and Morty” empire to a total-conversion Star Trek mod available for download, for free. All in all, it’s a great game, and with the Steam Summer Sale in full swing there’s never been a better time to get it.

“Stellaris” is normally $39.99 on Steam, but is discounted to $19.99 until July 5th. “Stellaris: Utopia” is normally $19.99, but until July 5th is discounted to $17.99.

—Staff writer Noah F. Houghton can be reached at noah.houghton@thecrimson.com.

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