Review: Stellaris: Utopia06 Apr 2017 5
Review: Stellaris: Utopia
Released 06 Apr 2017
Gargantuan grand strategy games like Stellaris have an expansion problem. Long term players want new levers to pull, but it's also a chance to tempt fresh meat into the fold. People who might otherwise have shied away from the precipitous learning curve. With the previous "story pack", Leviathans, aimed squarely at the endgame, you might expect this first full expansion, Utopia, to be more even. You'd be wrong.
Which isn't to say it's no good, of course, or that there's nothing at all for the neophyte. Like Leviathans, it arrives alongside a free patch that offers a bunch of interesting new mechanics. Chief among them is Unity. This is a sort of cultural resource that you can spend to send your civilization down one or more specialist paths, called Traditions.
Unity is a great new toy to play with. If you're planning on a lot of galactic conquest, you can build a fleet an choose the Supremacy path for increased build speed and Admiral skills. Or if you're in a sector of space short on resources, Prosperity can help compensate by reducing build and upkeep costs. In one game, I started out in a barren area with few systems. An early Tradition extending my borders was a big boon.
An increase in strategic options is always welcome. But as your empire expands, the cost of traditions rockets from tens to many thousand by the mid-game. This makes completing a whole set of five Traditions a far-off dream. If you manage it, and have the paid expansion, you'll also get an Ascension Perk. These offer more massive bonuses, like double Terraforming speed. If you've got the patience to keep one in reserve while you unlock a second, you can spend both on an actual Ascension for your species.
Yet the resources required to get Ascension Perks pales into insignificance compared to one of the things they unlock. The full expansion adds huge new structures like Dyson Spheres and orbital Habitats. The cost of these is astronomical. To build a Ringworld, for instance, which is worth four habitable planets, you first need a dedicated Ascension Perk. Then you'll have to spend almost 100,000 minerals over an eon of time to build it to completion. Ringworlds are the most extreme example, but all place huge demands on your empire.
All of them look incredible. But the time needed to build them is such that often, you'll have resolved the reason you wanted one by the time its finished. They do offer new ways to play, like building tall rather than expanding, but more turn out to be celestial white elephants. Grand but useless things that already expansive empires can build to show off their wealth and power. Maybe that's the point.
The other major changes in both patch and expansion encompass politics, ethics and communication. At the patch level you get civics, new ways to tweak your race, plus the ability to set different rights and privileges for all the species in your empire. In time, the appeal of different ethics and civics can cause your empire to split into factions.
Factions are essentially political pressure groups. If they approve of the way you're running your empire, they'll give you small bonuses. Fail to appease them and you'll get small penalties instead. The thing is, you can end up with a lot of factions so the modifiers stack up. And you get a bunch of tools to help manage them, but you can't please everyone. Juggling your priorities with theirs for best effect is a circus in itself.
Just like with Traditions, paid users get to build on this with new race options available that push these concepts to the extreme. Most notable are the Hive Mind [Paid Feature] who have evolved beyond squabbling factions, and even happiness. But they can't live with other species, only render them down for resources, which makes them unpopular with the neighbours. It's an attractive option at first, but playing one can actually make the game less interesting, with less internal strife to solve.
Again, how useful these are depends heavily on how much you play. All of the new options change the game significantly. Of particular note is an overhaul of the slavery mechanic, providing more options and control for those that use it. But given the hours needed to see a single campaign to conclusion, only those willing to invest massive amounts of time will get the most out of them.
Between them, the patch changes stealthily start to solve Stellaris' biggest problem, its tiresome mid-game. Factions give you something to occupy yourself with while your empire grows. Traditions give you tools to compensate for problems forced on to you by circumstance. Both are brilliant, and change the game for the better. So much so that players who broke off a few teeth on the original iteration of the game ought to take a second look.
Paradox deserve commendation for giving such great stuff to players for free. But it's hard to escape the feeling that the extensions to these new concepts they've asked you to pay for are underwhelming in comparison. They're not useless, nor unbalanced, nor un-fun, just things that will only interest the most dedicated. Perhaps that's just the way it should be, in which case Paradox deserve further praise for putting players before profit.