Stellaris: Utopia preview

Can this new expansion make up for past shortcomings?

Paradox Development Studio's Stellaris was our last, best hope for space grand strategy.

It failed.

But from the ashes of continued iteration and responsible acknowledgment of criticism, Stellaris could become something greater. Our last, best hope...for victory. Okay, this is silly, but the point holds: Stellaris was on the verge of becoming an all-time great strategy game, but something went wrong. Maybe it wasn't tested enough. Maybe it was released too early. But regardless of the cause, the net effect was the same: Stellaris was a solid foundation for a strategy game that was utterly missing its strategic considerations beyond the early exploration phase.

Basically, the mid-game of Stellaris was utterly lacking. But a year later, a patch/expansion combo promises to add motivation to the space 4X game beyond its beginning point. How? The combo is simple: the free patch, called "Banks," provides the stick. And a paid expansion, "Utopia," provides the carrot. By this I mean: Utopia promises to give players motivation to keep playing in the mid-game, and Banks promises to give players much-needed challenges as their empires progress.

But let's step back a moment to say what Stellaris is, where it failed, and where April's promised Utopia/Banks combo is supposed to fix it. Stellaris is a science fiction 4X game--that's eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate. It's a long-time genre; Civilization arguably its most popular example. Stellaris was Paradox Development Studio's (PDS--the group that makes Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings) first attempt at a full-on 4X game. When you start a game of EU4, for example, you start in an already-existing country--no need to explore or expand, unless you're playing a colonial power. With Stellaris, they had a full-on exploration system for the first time, and it worked brilliantly, with science ships scanning planets and finding galactic mysteries.

The problem for Stellaris was that those initial phases of exploration and expansion were incredibly well-polished, but the rest of it...wasn't. It was entirely possible that, if you managed to develop a strong enough empire early in the game, there was essentially nothing more to do once you'd settled in. This happened to me multiple times--the game was boring after a certain point. I had nothing in particular to work toward--the carrot--and no stick threatening me. I could sit in my corner of the galaxy for centuries, slowly improving and waiting for something interesting to happen. It never did.

So the Utopia/Banks combo is supposed to fix that, at least in part. Utopia's chief selling point is that it offers long-term goals for empires.outside of wars. Some of these are physical--you can build megastructures which require an empire's industry. Some of these are basically super space stations, but there are some classic science fiction tropes like Dyson Spheres and Ringworlds. The Dyson Sphere is the biggest of these, costing massive production and rendering an entire star system uninhabitable--but also providing a huge stream of energy (Stellaris' money) and looking really cool.

An even bigger long-term goal are the Ascension Perks, which let you pick a kind of transcending destiny for your empire. There are three main forms of ascension: cybernetics, psionics, and bio-genetics--so you can, for example, create the goal of having all your citizens' consciousnesses transferred to synthetic bodies. In theory this should work well: the three goals correspond roughly with Stellaris' existing tech tree; they allow for far-fetching science fiction storytelling; and they give you something to push toward when not at war.

The Ascension Perks are directly tied to one of the new mechanics from the Banks patch: Traditions. These are long-term buffs you pick for your empire over time, built as you acquire Unity, a new social resource. It would be easy to say they're like the Social Policies of Civilization V, but they're less like Policies than Traditions simply are Policies. As with many of the changes of Utopia and Banks, these should theoretically work for giving players motivation throughout the entire Stellaris campaign.

But most of the things I've described thus far are things to help motivate the player to set long-term goals. That's only half of a good grand strategy game. One of Stellaris' greatest failings upon release was that it was a Paradox Development Studio game, like Crusader Kings 2 or Europa Universalis 4, but it totally lacked the kind of constant internal crises. It's nice to have the goal of, say, uniting all of Britain, but if half of your nobles are in rebellion as you declare war on Wales, you're gonna have to put out some fires.

Stellaris lacked that level of internal politics almost entirely when it was released--utterly baffling given its Paradox pedigree as well as the fact that it had a system in place that could have worked for that. Stellaris' "ethics" system assigned every population group in the galaxy a set of political preferences, like being militaristic or pacifist. But then it didn't do enough with this--a population could get angry enough cause a bit of trouble, but you could just spend some resources to stop them.

With the Banks patch, however, the Ethics system, and its manifestation in the game, is getting a revamp. Now populations will have their Ethics drift according to choices you make in the game. If you have slavery on a planet, the owners will become more authoritarian, while the slaves become egalitarian. Or a militarist empire will find itself becoming pacifist if it doesn't declare war often enough. And now those populations will manifest as political parties, who can seize or be given influence in your empire--and if they get too angry, they'll attempt to secede and possibly be taken as a client by a rival whose Ethics match theirs.

To say that this is important isn't quite enough. This is, in theory, what Stellaris should have been--and seemed to promise that it was--from the start. The possibility of strategic dynamism, so essential to every other Paradox game, and so lacking from Stellaris on release, could shift this from "a mess with potential" into "a legitimately great game." The new systems will have to work, of course. But having the Ethics of populations actually change in reaction to player decisions, and actually have significant effects for your empire? This is what Stellaris should have been from the beginning.

We'll see on April 6th, when both Utopia and Banks are scheduled to release. They could be the turning point for Stellaris. Or they could be another rung up the ladder of iteration, with trade and diplomacy improvements needed for the future. Or they might not work at all. But even in that worst case scenario, Paradox is gonna keep on trying to make Stellaris better.