Saturday, October 21, 2023

Stellaris (PC, 2016)

 One of my favorite games from my childhood is Escape Velocity (and the subsequent reboot Escape Velocity Nova). As a budding new captain of a tiny but loveable space ship you roam the galaxy, explore worlds, trade with aliens, fight off pirates and build your fleet. It is great and I highly recommend it still today.

Ever since EV I've been looking for a similar game to give that feeling of exploration and expansion. I failed hard with Star Control and got lost in the stars with Rymdresa. But Stellaris looked promising, with a similar world map to EV.

One major difference between EV and Stellaris that was obvious from the start is that in Stellaris you play the controlling God of your kingdom, not a character with their own ship to control like in EV. In Stellaris you end up creating an empire, in EV you end up creating a fleet. What this mainly means, gameplay wise, is that in EV you have a natural learning curve from your one ship and onward. And while you start off small in Stellaris there is already from the get-go a hundred things to keep track off. 

Dozens of resources, leaders, ship types, planet types, ship skills, planet buildings, events, hostile and friendly aliens and so on. Things happen so quick you often and suddenly find yourself in a situation and have no idea how you got there. When my kid tried the game his planet was annexed by a hostile alien after a handful of turns, even though he played on easy.

I figured from the start that this was a game where I would need a lot of help to begin with, at least to get acquainted with the different systems and how to control them. Fortunately Stellaris realizes this as well and offers different tiers of tutorial. I ticked the "full" one which meant I had a friendly robot chatter in my ear without pause about everything I needed to look at and deal with. You can pause the game at any time, or choose to play it at different speeds, which all also is very helpful, at least once you learn to identity what situations require more focus.

So I send my science ships on missions to survey new systems, after I have chosen an appropriate science leader from the leader pool. I choose edicts and things to research. My construction ships build mining stations and research stations and star bases. There are limits to how many leaders I can have and other limits to my resources and expansion that can be changed with the right research. I survey more systems and send my colonizing ships to terraform planets when I have the luck to find a suitable one. Then there is another planet system to take care off, what should they produce and how do I want to treat the people that live here? 

The list of things to deal with quickly grows long. I make contact with aliens, prompts pop up every minute about curious things that my science ships find on their survey missions to different systems. I end up feeling like most of what I do is click things, without really having a grasp or understanding of it. I could've just as well played Cookie Clicker at this point.

I can't deny that it is fun though, somehow. I don't get a sense of purpose and empowerment the way I do playing EV, but I do get a strong sense of achievement. Every second there is something to tinker with and tweak, something to explore and possibilities to expand your territories. I almost feel like I need to be three people to be able to properly manage everything. When the tenth alien contacts me about a trade agreement or breaking down in our relationship I really want to care. But while the alien is talking, seven other things have popped up on my screen that need my attention just as much.

The UI does a good job at helping you keep track of things and there are quick buttons for everything important, as far as I can tell. After having played around 7 hours on easy and normal mode I didn't find the game particularly challenging, besides all the things you have to keep track off. Even when aliens did attack me or declare rivalries I didn't notice it make any big difference, except maybe block out a certain area for me to explore. Maybe my kid was just very unlucky on his first try. But I have been playing it extremely safe and peacefully, making sure to grovel and throw smiles and goodwill at any and all aliens that cross my path. It would be interesting to play the game as a military race, and attack everything on sight.

The creators of Stellaris have put a lot of time into making the universe feel alive and full of fascinating things to explore. Almost too full (which is also proven by the fact that it takes 1-2 minutes just to start the game). In EV there is a quiet and, unless you're being chased by pirates, serenity to space that Stellaris just never comes close to. It probably doesn't have the intention to either. But it fills you so much with the bigger picture that you lose the meaning to why you want to care about the smaller stuff. On the other hand there is so much to see and do and probably different ways to approach the game (this is also true for EV I want to point out) that the replay value feels high. In that sense I guess Stellaris is probably a pretty good Empire Management-game (that's a genre I just made up). There is a lot to get good at, a lot to fine tune, but you can also just click around randomly and get pretty far, at least on the easier modes. Something for everyone then, maybe.