I am closing in on 900 hours in this game and I can't stop. Sure I will take a couple months off now and then but the damn thing always call me back. Be it a new DLC and update, a new interesting mod, or just because I want to design and try out a new interesting race or approach to ship and fleet design this game holds all the cards when it comes to 4x Strategy games. Read on to find out why ....
I could write a pretty substantial tome on this game, and this blurb will be pretty long anyway, but I am going to stick to the key elements that I feel set this game apart within the 4x Space Game genre and 4x games in general.
I have played them all from Alpha Centauri, through the Master of Orion series, Galactic Civilizations, Sins of a Solar Empire, Sword of the Stars, Endless Space, Beyond Earth, and pile of 'also rans'. And the ones mentioned here, especially Endless Space 2 and GalCiv 3, will certainly still get some play. But I feel Stellaris is in a class by itself.
Pretty much every 4x strategy game has a tech tree, a faction, empire, or race with some specialities that you play, city building, unit design and building, resource gathering and control, diplomacy, and of course combat.
At their core, these games are about controlling resources to fuel the building and expanding part of the game so we can control more resources and build up more so we can expand further ... rinse repeat. Along the way we run into other factions, races, or empires doing the same thing and we deal with them using diplomacy or more often, harsher measures. :) It is a pretty tried and true formula but I often find myself feeling like I am just grinding to the next city, faction, or empire take over with not much happening in between.
The other major problem these games is a lack of interesting later mid and end game content. Take CIV 6 or GalCiv 3 for example. You get to a point that by mid game you pretty much know if you will win or lose. I frankly don't finish many CIV 6 games for that very reason though I love that game.
So with that said, what is so great about Stellaris, and why do I feel its probably my favorite game of all time in this genre; so much so that I am moved to write about it. :)
A good game in this genre doesn't feel like a tech up, explore, expand, build, and rinse repeat game. Rather, you create and experience an evolving and interesting story worth retelling. Further, that interesting story and experience can be quite different from game to game. Paradox's Crusader Kings 2 is one of the best examples of this. But now, with Stellaris DLC's and over nine thousand mods in the Steam workshop, even with 900 hours in game I still see things I have not seen before on each play. It is the first game in this genre where the inital phase of exploring and expanding did not just feel like a simple rush to find the next world and set down on it.
The Space Genre
While its not just specific to Stellaris, focusing on the Space genre provides a virtual blank canvas for game development and expansion. The games developers are not limited to our understanding of historic events or known technologies. The sky is the limit and developers and modders have really shown their creativity as this game continues to content expand at the speed of light.
Mid and End Game Content
As most of these games do, Stellaris, while a great game out of the box, suffered from a lack of mid and endgame content. DLC's and at least one pretty incredible and well supported mod call More Events Mod (MEM) have drastically changed this. Like I said, 900 hours in and still experiencing new stuff. So just when you think have things well in hand and have the rest of the galaxy's empires kissing your ring ... well then this happens ... :)
The other thing here is the way events and anomolies work in Stellaris. While you might see some of this in other games you see a whole lot of it in Stellaris. In many games you may find a piece of tech or some resource and thats about it. In this game there are hundreds, and I am sure with MEM, well over a thousand unique events and anomolies. Many of these will be chained events where you have to make decisions on how you want to deal with what you you find. Choices matter and this keeps things interesting. Some of the event chains are pretty deep and some real funny ones as well.
Modding and Mod Structure
With over 9000 workshop entries this game rivals popular moddable games like Fallout 4. It is a vibrant community. This level of active modding is not only driven by Stellaris being a great game and tons of people playing it, but also by a very accessible and well thought out structure for modding in general when compared with other moddable games. I have my own personal mod I play which tweaks a few settings I would like to see work differently. Make no mistake, modding and the ease of using those mods via Steam Workshop keeps games fresh.
Diplomacy and Other Empire AI
Supporting the idea that a game that results in an evolving memoriable story is a good one, Stellaris has done a nice job with how diplomacy and AI empires work. They just seem more unique and more alive. They also seem to follow their own ethos more realistically rather than everyone pushing hard for military domination of the galaxy. Sometimes its 'all about me', but there are many instances where empires are forced to push for common goals.
In my current game I have a military alliance with the Sythari Trading Authority and we are on good terms despite the border friction caused by my expansion. One of their ethos is Federation Builder. They like federations. I have large factions within my own empire that would prefer to see us go it alone and would not be happy if I got involved with a federation. So I want to stay independent and I probably have the power to do that. However I would still like to the Sythari in my back pocket.
So then along comes my main rival, the Commonwealth of Man, and they start their own Federation. And then the Sythari become associated with it. Now they have not actually joined it yet, but they are in a position where they might. And damn, I don't want a member of the Golden Chalice Federation on my southern border.... Anyway more stuff to make things more immersive.
At the end of the day, if you have any interest at all in 4x strategy games, Stellaris needs to be in your collection.