"Civilization in Space" would definitely be my immediate summary of what Stellaris is, and hey, if that sounds like something you need in your life, this may very well be the shortest review you've ever read. "Civ in Space, 4X players are going to have a good time". Done.
I suppose we better go deeper than that, though. And oh boy... trust me when I say that with a game like Stellaris, you can definitely go deeper. First, I want to point out that this is the Console Edition of the game, as Stellaris itself has been out on PC since early 2016, so nothing in this review is really "new news" by any means. That won't stop us, though, will it? Let's get into it!
Stellaris may have built upon Civilization's success, but the scope here is much bigger (as you would expect). The game's story is entirely self-driven, as when you start you will either pick a pre-made race or create your own. These races range from humans to a wide variety of aliens, including sentient mammals, birds and even fungoids (there's a LOT of options here). From there, you pick your race's traits and government type as well as perks, but all of that is more of your own identity than it is narrative.
In truth, Stellaris is like many other 4X games in the fact that there's no real overarching story here. You pick your own identity and from there strive to win the game through diplomacy or conquest. That isn't to say there aren't adventures and stories along the way. As you explore the universe, you will uncover anomalies that will turn into their own pieces of story, from discovering ancient civilizations to late game crisis events. They spice up your game fairly regularly throughout, but the real story here is still all self-driven with how you choose to rule, and that can be fantastic. I found myself starting several games just to see how differently I could rule my people and the combination of end goals (domination, peaceful) with the entire governing system didn't disappoint.
Speaking of combinations, the customization is ridiculous. Not only do you have all those races, but dozens of race traits to pick from. These include both positive and negative traits (so you can get more positive ones, if you're willing to sacrifice). You'll design your flag and name your people. You will even pick what government traits you want. These grant certain bonuses and abilities, but others will lock you out of certain abilities (for example, Extreme Pacifists can only be in a defensive war, not a trait you'd take if you wanted to take over the galaxy). You'll then pick what type of government you want to run (with some choices locked out based on your government) and then pick two bonuses. Yeah, like I said, there's a ton of customization here, and we haven't even started actually PLAYING yet!
Once you do start a game, you'll be placed on a home planet with a science and a construction ship (your species has just begun exploring space). Early on in the game your science ships are probably the single most important thing as you can chart star systems with them, discover what resources are on what planets, and go discover new planets. Your science ships are also how you discover anomalies in space and begin questlines related to the things you find.
While all of that exploration is going on, your species research and population will continue to grow. You automatically start researching abilities for technology, society and physics, all based on your resources. This was actually one part of the game that impressed me the most: depending on how you built your species (and your government choices), your actual ability tree choices will change. That and what you can research is your choice, as the options are picked from a pool of possibilities (you can also get rare research opportunities, too). This is way cooler than most 4X games where you have the same static ability tree from game to game.
So, we've got exploration (which turns into building and resource gathering) and learning technology and abilities. Pretty standard stuff, but as you keep playing, you'll gain the ability to use other resources to obtain traditions, which is just further customizing your people by giving them further abilities (again, very similar to the Civilization series). You can also pass down edicts for your empire, as well as hire "Leaders". Oh man, we're getting into Leaders now! So, you can hire them to run your research labs, as well as lead your armada, army and cities. Leaders bring huge bonuses with them, but when you hire them, you have to select them from a pool of candidates with each having their own skills. Yeah, the customization just doesn't stop.
When it comes to combat, you are initially very limited in the ships you can build. Over time, though, you will research better parts, newer and better ship types and your options will grow. In fact, you can customize the ships you build with the Ship Builder screen, adding power supplies, different armor and different weapons. You'll eventually have fleets of ships and will be likely go to war with them at some point in real-time. How advanced your ships are compared to your foe's will quickly show. Remember that the action does carry on in real-time, so numbers usually matter if you're ships are of comparable strength, but if your enemy has dreadnoughts and you don't, well... you'd better stay peaceful!
Another thing that impressed me was how inhabiting worlds takes place. The range of worlds you can live on depends on your initial build, of course, so at first you're limited to what planets you can colonize, but soon you'll learn how to terraform planets and your selection will go up. Each planet has a bunch of spaces your people will occupy (as your population goes up), which lets you access resources but you can also build specialized buildings in the spaces as well (the number of things you can do in the game...). You'll be able to upgrade buildings over time, as well as learn how to free up spaces on your planet from various hazards.
There's just a whole lot of small micromanaging activities throughout the game. Planetary governing settings (immigration policies, edicts, etc), specific leader abilities, customizing your spaceports on each planet... If that doesn't drive you away, chances are you're going to love seeing what all you can mess with and change/customize as you play as new options constantly open up.
Being set in space, Stellaris (as you would expect) does have some fantastic views. You will literally see hundreds of planets and many of them are just a sight to behold. You may start the game zoomed in and watch your ships in their glory, but play long enough and you'll likely find yourself zooming out. This gives you the galaxy view where you'll see other species once you encounter them and can keep track of each civilization's reach. There's a sweet spot view as well where you can see the various star systems. This is probably the best view as you can keep track of resources and travel pathways.
What's weird is that as pretty as the zoomed-in star systems are, once I played long enough, I never really zoomed in again. It's just easier to follow your civilization’s dealings with the star system view. I only ended up zooming in to view space battles and that's it. Go figure. This just leaves you with procedurally generated star maps, which are solid but not that much to look at hour after hour. Function over beauty, I suppose.
The audio throughout the game is thankfully solid as well. Despite set in space (not to mention the fact that a majority of your time is micromanaging and exploring), there’s a lot of atmospheric music here. Easy listening is a good way to describe the soundtrack as a whole, and it employs an entire orchestra to that effect, even including vocals at times (you know, for that extra epic sound, check out "Faster than Light” Feat. Mia Stegmar). There's little actual voice acting, though, for what that's worth.
As for replayability, honestly, I feel a bit weird doing it with this genre. You can pour hundreds of hours into Stellaris (I literally just checked my Steam profile and I've got 250 hours on Civilization V) if you get addicted. Years can fly by pretty fast, after all! It's just ten more years until you learn that new technology, and your fleet of new space ships are about to be ready! At some point you just need to stop yourself!
The biggest source of replayability comes from all the different species customization options, of course. The fact that you can make your own species is brilliant and adds so much to the game, above and beyond many other 4X titles. The winning conditions are pretty standard, though (why fix what isn't broken?). I will say that there are really no "short game" options here. Even with smallest star systems, the easiest difficulty and lowest number of AI-controlled challengers, you are still looking at several hours of gameplay (I tried to zerg rush the enemies and got creamed by the second civilization I challenged... Maybe I should have only had one enemy civilization).
I will say that the Console Edition of Stellaris is bound to come out to some consternation. Merely because it’s based on a PC game released in 2016, you’re bound to have some complaints from computer players. The control scheme is an obvious one, but the lack of mods on consoles is another one. Still, I had a blast with the game and can easily see fans of the genre racking up hundreds of hours into it on their consoles, regardless. If 4X games are your thing and you’re looking for one to play on your console, Stellaris should be right up your alley!
It's good to meet you! I'm better known online as "Bkstunt_31" and have been writing Reviews and video game Strategy Guides/Walkthroughs for WAY too many years! Feel free to stop my my Facebook page and say hello! Have fun and keep playing!