Two years after the launch, Stellaris still feels like a work in progress. This as a negative, Stellaris is not incomplete, but, like his older brother, Crusader Kings 2, is constantly redesigning and improving. It feels like a game that could continue to release updates for the next decade.
Do not just buy a game when you buy Stellaris, buy in an ecosystem, a constant conveyor of free patches and downloadable paid content that means that the fundamental aspects of the game can change years after launch. Today I write this review to reflect the last two years of changes, but I am well aware that this revision will probably be out of date within a few months. The updates never stop.
Each game of Stellaris goes through three different phases. The first, exploration and expansion, was by far the strongest at launch. The ships deploy slowly from their planet of origin, exploring nearby systems. Some may contain habitable planets that can then be colonized, other extraterrestrial life forms that can be investigated and, if they are sensitive, contact.
Along the way, you will find anomalies, small nuggets of science fiction history that add color to the universe. These range from the simple, such as finding a giant skeleton embedded in a planet, to complex "choose your own adventure" vignettes that are played as an episode of Star Trek. The anomalies are still one of my favorite parts of the game, adding a small dose of awe and mystery to the universe, it agrees paradoxically, since their most recent DLC, Distant Stars, is largely dedicated to adding new ones.
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The expansion has also been updated. In the huge "Cherryh" patch released earlier this year, Stellaris switched from an analog system, in which the territory was decided by amorphous spheres of influence, to a binary one, in which each system is owned by who controls its base central star
This also had the domino effect of moving the game to a "hyperlane" system of travel between stars, where previously other transport systems were available. The enormity of the change caused a massive upheaval, with a flawed initial version and disagreement among the community, but in retrospect it worked, giving the developers much more control over the territory and star geography.
The second phase occurs when the majority of the territory is affirmed and alliances and wars begin to emerge between the various empires. This is still the weakest area of Stellaris. The war itself is very satisfying, with custom-designed fleets and huge bottlenecks that hold space stations that lead to interesting strategic options, but those who are not playing an aggressive and expansionist empire will find the IA surprisingly reluctant to attack a player.
Unfortunately, diplomacy is one of the few aspects of Stellaris that has never been redesigned. There is very little interaction among the allies, and the acclaimed federations act more as an obstacle than as an aid, since AI's response is often confusing to war requests. All of these factors contribute to the general feeling that Stellaris is infinitely more fun if you play as Warhammer 40,000 than as Star Trek.
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It's about half game that another problem appears. As your empire expands and manages the production of each planet, previously it was a nice little optimization minigame, it feels more like an arduous task. Once you have half a dozen densely populated planets, the amount of micromanagement becomes onerous.
T The game gives you the opportunity to avoid this, by dividing parts of your empire into sectors controlled by AI, but artificial intelligence is poorly optimized, forcing players to choose between inefficiency and boredom. However, even as I write these words, I am reviewing the twitter of the game's director, Martin Anward, who is showing progress for a future patch that will address this exact problem. The updates never stop.
The final phase is actually where the biggest idea of Stellaris lies. By now enough wars have been produced that the galaxy is probably divided into a handful of superpowers. This is a difficult point in most strategy games, as the status quo becomes too difficult to break, and many players simply stop without achieving total victory.
The trick of Stellaris is to bring a "Crisis" out of the map that represents an existential threat, extradimensional invaders, a biological swarm or a robot uprising. This shakes the old order by forcing new alliances and destroying old empires. At the launch, it did not work so well, with empires that often did not recognize the threat, forcing the player to fight until to face the crisis.
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Over time this has been solved, with the robot upheaval in particular completely modified and a fourth crisis, a war between lonely and advanced empires, added. The crisis now works as much as it was intended, a live grenade thrown into a stagnant status quo. The same conditions of victory could be considered too arbitrary, with the game "won" when a player controls 40% of all the planets, but once the crisis ends, the game seems to be over. Even if you stop playing voluntarily, it feels like a climax, a natural ending to the arc of your empire.
I have described a typical Stellaris game, but I have not yet described a fraction of what is offered. Who your empire is, for example, greatly changes the way you approach the game. You can play as a swarming swarm of hives, a race of overprotective robots, a group of cybernetic snails, or many more.
I have played more than 250 hours of Stellaris and I'm just testing the psychic route. I did not even mention that you can build ringworlds and dyson spheres, because you will not do that in every game, but the option is there. Although it is worth mentioning that all the features that I mentioned in the last paragraph are blocked behind an additional DLC, Utopia, the only expansion that I consider really essential.
Stellaris is not a perfect game, but it is one that is always improving. Now it is much better than it was two years ago, and I firmly believe that it will be even better in two years.
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