Released in early May of this year, Paradox Interactive had one objective for Stellaris, one that they quickly met and more. They wanted to Make Space Great Again. Famous for their wonderfully detailed series of Real Time Strategy games like Europa Universalis 4 and Crusader Kings 2, Stellaris represents their first break with the traditional alternative-history style gameplay and format. You take control of a custom-built species having just entered the space age, sending out colonization ships and explorers to chart the vast and wonderful unknown galaxy. Inevitably this leads to contact with species. Maybe they're friendly, but more often they're really not and then the tone of the game shifts considerably. How do you protect what you've built, and just as importantly, how do you go out and ruin that other guys day?
Leviathans was released October 20th of this year on Steam, but I was lucky enough to get some friends together for a session on the night of the 21st (Stellaris has a multiplayer option, and besides isn't everything more fun with friends?) right alongside a content update including a host of other upgrades to the game, absolutely free in true Paradox fashion.
First off I'd like to begin by saying that this is going to focus solely on the Leviathans DLC and the free content update rather than the actual gameplay, if you'd like a much more general review of the game then, by all means, please check out what my coworker has to say about it here, I promise you won't be disappointed. But keep in mind that since the game has been updated numerous times since its release things might be a little different, and we'll get to just how different in a little bit down below. None of the changes dramatically effected the most important aspects, like resource gathering or technology research, although there have been some changes to colonization mechanics.
Now apart from gameplay changes in terms of diplomacy and colonization from Heinlein and new events are given to us in Leviathans, there is more being offered here. A potential nine new species portraits available. Portraits don't really do anything in Stellaris except representing your species and the other species visually. But it's always nice to see that we're getting, even more, options and diversity of sentient life in the galaxy, it really helps flesh out the galaxy. Most of these portraits have been focused on giving us a really alien feel to it instead of the Star Trek route where all the aliens are humanoids. We've got giant crab people, Venus fly trap people, space penguins, and of all sorts of alien life. One of the common complaints, however, was the lack of humanoids, though, and that has been rectified with the inclusion of 4 new humanoid portraits, including my personal favorite, which I've gone ahead and made a species out of already, the decidedly not space-elves portrait as seen below. This admittedly small change is increasingly welcome, however, for adding more diversity to your galaxy.
Now Leviathans is a content expansion, so there is very little changes to actual gameplay made. Leviathans adds just a little bit more to the storyline, which is left vague and more up to player interpretation. There are several large space creatures/entities present in the galaxy, scattered about waiting for you to stumble upon. But what has everyone most excited is the War in Heaven feature. In Stellaris, there exist AI-controlled nations known as Fallen Empires. Impossibly ancient and powerful, the Fallen Empires pre-DLC really just sat there until the end game when you could steamroll them with your uber-powerful fleets. Not anymore. Fallen Empires now have the possibility of reversing their isolationist and noninterference policies, becoming very active in the galaxy once again. That's bad news for you, but even worse is when two of them wake up at the same time.
The result of this is disastrous. These two Fallen Empires will go to war, dragging in the other species that they have turned into vassals in their quest for expansion and engulfing the entire galaxy in a war that can only end with the total annihilation of the other faction(s). You can join with one of the Fallen Empires, hoping to gain some reward out of your potential victory or join a league of non-aligned planets, just hoping to stay out of the way. Or you could say no to all of that, and strike out on your own with the entire galaxy going to the winner.
However, the aforementioned free update (going by the name Heinline) does make quite a few changes to how the game is played and this is where the major changes occur, for everyone. For example, let's say the species you have made is a plant, that's cool it happens all the time, now let us say that this species lives on a continental world like Earth. In order to colonize planets that are arctic worlds, you would have needed to unlock special technology. You'd need to do this for every type of planet you come across that isn't a continental. However, you do need something called Habitability. If your species lives on a continental world and evolved on that type, you're not going to be really adapted to live in that arctic world so you'll need to research technology that will help increase the habitability of planets, usually in increments of 5 or 10.
None of us managed to find one single Enclave in our game. (assuming the other three were all on the honor system like I asked.) Enclaves are supposed to be one of the big additions to the game, little space stations floating in the void of space that offer you unique rewards and items. Some of them even offering resource exchange, turning Energy Credits into Minerals and vice versa. This last one was especially exciting, as it was something that the game desperately needed and still needs if the Enclaves are as rare as suspected.
I did manage to find one of the handfuls of Leviathans, fortunately, so I can comment a little on that. Unfortunately, it was the Dimensional Horror. It cost me a science ship and my best scientist, but I can confirm that the Dimensional Horror is, in fact, horrifying. A grand coalition of the four of us was assembled to slay the beast. Our merge fleets were no match, however, and we decided to give it a lot of space and just stay away for a little while. I wasn't able to get a good screenshot of it because the ships kept getting destroyed so fast I couldn't zoom in before I lost visuals on the system itself, but here's a good enough one of what you can expect if you're unfortunate enough to find it yourself. I've heard that it is recommended for you to have a fleet strength of 75-100k before you decide to pick a fight with it.
But I think my favorite changes were the little ones. The little tweaks to the system. For example, instead of having to pay one lump sum of 400 Energy Credits and 50 Influence to get rid of that pesky secessionist faction on your beloved planet you can just go to the factions tab, and click on the delightfully named 'Suppress' button, which takes small monthly increments. If a fleet is in danger and emergency warping out of the way then your ships could take damage during the jump and go missing for a period of time. The Outliner has been cleared up and no longer shows sectors and factions, instead, you find all of that in the 'more' drop down menu right next to the research option. The changes to the species portraits for Fallen Empires was a good change, highlighting their new role in the game.
Heinlien and Leviathans present a series of somewhat big changes. Ship customization, colonization, new victory types, diplomatic changes, there's a lot that's different. But it's still Stellaris. And that's what makes this newest batch of content a success, It injects fresh life into the game without presenting an outrageous series of changes. Everything feels natural and obvious only after you see it, and that's how you know Paradox has done a fantastic job. Of course, some things never really change with Paradox games…
Now Stellaris did get a minor change to its graphics. Nothing that I would have noticed immediately without having it pointed out, but it is worth mentioning. Paradox did change the bloom shader and the city lights on the dark side of your colonized planet. Now the stars actually glow and the planets give off a vibe more reminiscent of the photos of our own planet taken at night.
Stellaris is a good game, and I highly suggest buying the Leviathans DLC for $9.99 (or your local equivalent). However, I don't feel like I can give it a 10. I feel like the features offered by Leviathan's has been overshadowed somewhat by the update, which provided quite a bit of thing to everyone, free of charge.That, and the price is the exact same as the Plantoid DLC, which only included portraits and I'm not sure how I feel considering that one adds genuine content and the other is just aesthetic. I think that releasing the two of them simultaneously might have been a mistake because some of what are now being offered is just lost under the volume of changes. Nevertheless, I am very happy with the purchase and I think it offers a solid experience that only adds to the fun of the main game. But none of these experiences truly affect the game until the mid-end game, an area that surely needs some work. But unfortunately, because all of your saves are now corrupted and prone to crashing, you'll have to restart and work your way up to that point again.
|+ A lot of free content||– Free content distracts from the paid content, which was heavily advertised.|
|+ Greater customization||– Paid content feels overpriced in comparison to free content|
|+ Minor graphics and soundtrack improvements||– Need for resource exchange not fully addressed|
|+ Small changes to mechanics present solid changes to overall gameplay|