Stellaris: Apocalypse review
Finally, I’ve got my fleet to a point where I feel I can overwhelm my Interstellar Mandate nemesis. I’ve acquired the technology for Battleships ahead of my rivals, and technological superiority is slowly turning my way. My planets have a roaring economy, and I’ve bought off the Marauders, the nomadic Khans of space, to join my side of the conflict. I break off our non-aggression treaty and prepare for war.
Then I realize our truce is to last ten more years, an agonizingly long time even on the fastest speed setting. The third empire in our eternal struggle sits motionless, refusing to take part in either side of the conflict. The mistake will result in my opponent grabbing the last few planets that are out of my reach and claiming victory.
What was to be a grand final conflict ends with a whimper, admittedly due to a silly mistake on my part. I can’t help but feel annoyed that I am left with such an unsatisfactory conclusion after slogging through the supposedly improved mid-game. Stellaris: Apocalypse promises war on an epic scale of planet destroying proportions, and spacefaring Khans set about to rampage through your territory, but the reality is still a quagmire of nothingness and boredom.
I genuinely think Cheeryh, the Stellaris 2.0 patch that was released alongside Apocalypse, is a massive improvement to the game. It shakes up almost every facet of Stellaris: attempting to make exploration and expansion a more linear progression, changing how starbases and ships are constructed, and giving the player more agency in their decision making. Unfortunately, the execution of some features leaves a lot to be desired.
Through multiple playthroughs I have still yet to encounter a scenario where I’m punished for spreading my empire far and wide too quickly. With an initial non-existent navy, I build up a strong core economy and then expand to as much as a quarter of the entire map. I swallow up resources and often only construct outposts, not bothering to defend my claims. Time and again, no opponents reacted in a meaningful way. I played multiple campaigns just to ensure it wasn’t a strange one-off scenario. Singular pirates or alien creatures may stop progression to a particular node, but because they don’t roam around, they are just a minor nuisance for me to travel around.
The supposed solution, Marauders, may chime in and threaten to pillage my bordering outposts, but a paltry sum of credits or minerals keeps them complacent. The system is very reminiscent of Endless Space 2’s new Pirate System, only Apocalypse has even more potential yet still fails to impress. Their fleets are massive and foreboding, but as long as they sit in their little corner of space, they don’t matter. I never hit a point in the mid or late game where the bribe they were asking for felt like a meaningful dig into my economy, nor did they ever come together under a singular Khan and begin territorial conquest. Paying Marauders to attack rivals resulted in very little noticeable damage to my opponent. Essentially, much like Endless Space 2’s pirates, as long as you don’t spawn right next to them during your initial exploration, they quickly fall off in importance. For a flag-ship feature of the expansion, that’s an issue. I’m sure Paradox Development Studio can come up with some tweaks that could be incorporated to remedy the problem, like a falloff in appeasement value or the ability to covertly buy an attack on an ally, but at present the Marauders don’t fill the mechanical role they’re aiming for.
This leads to the same chronic issue Stellaris has always had, nothing interesting happens in the mid-game. There’s no difficult crisis to manage, there’s no inter-faction intrigue that Utopia’s expansion promised, and there’s no large-scale war or threat of conflict that Apocalypse wants you to experience. You just research, expand, and wait for something interesting to happen... except it doesn’t. Maybe a pirate haven spawns every now and then, but at most they’ll attack one or two systems. Bear in mind, this is after 10 to 15 hours of gameplay on the fastest setting available for each individual campaign. Unless you intentionally raise the difficulty level and give your AI opponents a buff, or are always the aggressor yourself, they’re just going to hang out and ignore you. (Granted, Fallen Empires are designed to do this by nature, but this keeps happening with normal opponent types as well, even slavers!) Perhaps some of these issues aren’t as present in multiplayer games where individuals are likely more aggressive, but solo players should be wary of thinking Cheeryh and Apocalypse are the solution to Stellaris’ woes.
Paradox has such a strong pedigree of random events and encounters being sprinkled into Europa Universalis 4 and Crusader Kings 2 that I’m still shocked at how stagnant and formulaic Stellaris is by comparison. There are plenty of examples of interesting civil wars, political assassinations, or sudden economic ruin that lead to engaging scenarios that the player must react to. Stellaris still lacks all of these. There’s no balance of carrot and stick. While Crusader Kings 2 may have my character pining to become King of Ireland, the President of my democracy in Stellaris is content with just building four research outposts before kicking the bucket or being elected out of office. This is undoubtedly a wasted opportunity. If I’m introduced to a political faction that wants to proclaim my species’ superiority far and wide, why isn’t there a quest or “Situation Log” prompting my President to go to war for glory and riches? Where is the political upheaval or threat of a coup?
For a game that is marketing itself about the grand space opera of conquest and exploration, it’s just plain boring past a certain point in the early game. Stellaris has always managed to nail the eXplore, eXpand, and eXploit aspects of a 4X game, but we’re still a long way off from seeing eXterminate play a role in the middle of campaigns. Giant Colossi capable of exploding planets sound great, and from a design idea surely fill that necessary gap. However, if you never reach them until hours and hours of middling boredom and complacency, then that’s a failure by design.
Paradox Development Studio has the right idea, and clearly the studio is aware of the game’s drawbacks. Patch 2.0 Cheeryh and Apocalypse, on paper, sound like excellent remedies to the criticism’s that have been justifiably launched at Stellaris. It is effectively an entirely new game given the amount of overhaul and design change. There’s still time for additional expansions and fresh ideas, and I’m sure 2.0 will be patched with some tweaks soon. Unfortunately, right now, Apocalypse still isn’t enough to keep things enticing for long stretches of time in the mid-game.