Stellaris: Console Edition is a master of emergent storytelling. This 4X, real-time strategy game excels at immersing you in the role of the supreme commander of a space-fairing civilisation, and takes you on a journey of discovery, expansion, management and warfare amongst the stars. And while it can be slow-paced and cruel at times, it’s also utterly absorbing, endlessly replayable, and remarkably well-adapted to console.
Having released on PC back in 2016, Stellaris today is not the same games as it once was. It’s received several expansions, countless tweaks and fixes, and even entire redesigns of it’s mechanics and systems. It’s evolved. The result is a title that feels immensely well-polished and balanced; each facet of the game is intuitive, with clear menus and options to interact with for managing your empire, and the process of exploring, building and fighting is quick to access from the galaxy map. In fact, despite the ability to zoom in on individual solar systems, you can easily manage everything from the galaxy map, keeping you in a ‘big picture’ mindset and allowing you to better survey your growing empire.
And indeed growing you empire is very much the aim of the game. Starting as a recently space-faring civilisation with a single planet to call home, you venture out into the stars to discover more planets to colonise, anomalies and alien races to fuel your scientific research and diplomacy, and more resources to fuel your economy. Through warfare, scientific progression, expansion and diplomacy you can conquer the stars, immersed in the management of your empire and the emergent stories that come about from it.
These stories are by far the best part of the experience. Procedurally generated galaxies, and a huge option of races to play as – as well as the option to build your own from scratch – provides practically endless scenarios to experience. Meanwhile, technology is researched from randomly generated options each time you research something new, rather than a fixed technology tree, resulting in a unique developmental path each time you start a new game. Furthermore, the random encounters with alien races, anomalies and scientific discoveries you make through exploration, further dictate unique stories about your development. It’s remarkably free of structure yet still well-balanced.
Of course some stories are shorter than others. An envious or warlike alien race discovered early on can utterly decimate you and stunt your growth, if not eliminate you completely, but even in quick defeat there’s fun to be had and lessons to be learned. Despite the intuitive menu design, mechanics and systems, there’s so much to Stellaris that it’s beneficial to play a few throw away games just to familiarise yourself with everything. Discovering how the economy, technology research, diplomacy and warfare works is a big task, and not fully grasping how they work can lead to huge problems.
Defeating organisms that live in the void of space, as well as wiping out pirate bases, can provide a false sense of your military might. In reality, if you’re not researching powerful new military technologies, refitting your ships and increasing the size of your navy, an alien war can devastate you. Fortunately, warfare is structured in a way where the aggressor chooses what they want as an outcome for the war, and utter obliteration isn’t too frequent. often, the lose of a planet or two as well as some embarrassment is enough to quench an aggressor’s thirst, allowing you to rebuild and experience the story of humility and possibly revenge.
Minerals are key to your economy, not expanding enough to meet the needs of your production can lead to reduced ship combat stats and unhappiness amongst your populace, which in turn can lead to civil war. Furthermore, the hiring of governors for planets, and sectors when your planet count gets too large, helps you manage a large empire, but it’s still important to manage your sectors’ resource needs.
Meanwhile, engaging with alien races and managing your own government is crucial to stability, with your president promising the people certain things that you must help to achieve, and diplomatic relations requiring frequent attention to ensure relationships remain positive. There’s a huge amount to do, and yet between these tasks there’s just as much down time.
Stellaris is played over hundreds of years, and once you’ve got to grips with the many systems at work a lot of time is spent waiting for things to finish. This is particularly true of military technology. if you fall behind other races in the galaxy catching up will require far more than a single technological upgrade. This results in waiting for research to complete, then upgrading your fleet before potentially engaging hostiles, and it’s a slow-paced build-up. a huge amount of time can be spend pursuing something when in the blink of an eye you could be destroyed by hostiles or slowed down to a crawl by economic issues, and the larger your empire becomes to less obvious it is for these setbacks. Unrest can lead to planets demanding independence and suddenly you’ve lost the valuable resources it once provided, as well as the boarder influence that region had. It can even block you from other parts of your empire.
Indeed, Stellaris is a complex game on a grand scale but it’s wonderfully dense with adventure. Every triumph and failure is its own story, and every random discovery can lead to hours of shifting goals to chase and many more stories to experience. Furthermore, rare and dangerous technologies can be researched which can lead to disastrous or terrific consequences, and massive randomly occurring events can change the course of a game, destroying entire civilisations and deeply affecting your playthrough.
Stellaris: Console Edition takes the compelling management of a strategy game and the scale of a grand strategy game and injects emergent storytelling. Every game is different and exciting, although it does take some commitment from you due to the pacing and random occurrences that can slow it down even further. This is easily one of the best strategy games on the market, one that’s been polished over the years to a mirror shine. Moreover, excellent controller mapping and UI design makes managing your empire a breeze. However, the one disappointment it the lack of multiplayer, a feature the PC version has that elevates a great strategy game to a truly amazing one.