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‘Stellaris:’ still worth it despite five years of DLC

Back in May 2016, the video game company Paradox Interactive first released a game called “Stellaris.” Over the next five years, Paradox would release an onslaught of paid downloadable content (DLC) and free updates that would change the gameplay dramatically while maintaining the core mechanics that make this sci-fi empire-building game so fun.

“Stellaris” is tagged as a sci-fi grand strategy 4X game. A grand strategy game is typically a war game specifically focused at the nation or empire level. This means you control military resources rather than directly controlling a single soldier or tank. A 4X game refers to a game that focuses on empire building and technological advancement, and often provides a non military way of achieving victory. The combination of these two tags within a sci-fi genre makes “Stellaris” a game where the player builds an interstellar sci-fi empire that can achieve victory via military might, technological superiority or even through diplomacy.  

However, what makes “Stellaris” stand out from other 4X and grand strategy games is that the final victory essentially doesn’t matter. There is a victory point system that determines the victor based on your empire’s economy, technology, population and other factors. But winning isn’t the point of playing “Stellaris.” The main draw of the game is the role playing opportunities in the game. 

When you first play the game you will construct an empire from the ground up. You will design your own alien species by choosing their appearance and common traits. Then you will choose their government style, ethics and civics. These three factors determine what type of government your empire is, and the many combinations provide endless roleplaying opportunities. You can play as a military dictatorship made up of mushroom people or a representative democracy populated entirely by space penguins. My empire is a moral democracy, a pacifist democratic government with the agrarian idyll civic. I call my empire “Hobbits in Space.” Ruling from their homeworld of Shire Prime, they seek only to live in peace with the rest of the galaxy.

Rather being simply a war game where you throw your starships at other empires, the gameplay also supports this idea of storytelling and roleplay. “Stellaris” has in-game events, explorations, archeology and other mechanics that add to your empire’s experiences in the galaxy. You can make clone and droid armies, create a ring world or build a Dyson sphere. Basically anything that has been in a piece of sci-fi media is in this game. While the endless roleplaying opportunities in “Stellaris” are its greatest strength, they also reveal its biggest weakness. A lot of the game’s coolest features are locked behind paid DLC, which are extra add ons to the base game that you have to pay for separately. Some of my favorite game mechanics are locked behind one of the 15 pieces of DLC costing between $7.99 and $19.99, in addition to the base game’s $39.99 price tag. Although some mechanics are introduced via free updates, those mechanics are often limited by the DLC you own. For example, a recent update introduced empire origins that add more roleplaying experiences for the beginning of your empire. However, of these 19 different origins only three were available through the free patch while the other 16 were locked behind DLC. 

The most recent DLC title, “Nemesis,” is a perfect example of the problems with this business model. The DLC costs $19.99 and adds several new mechanics to the game, including an espionage system, a new ship appearance theme and the ability to declare yourself the emperor of the galaxy. This last feature was a heavily requested one that clearly was inspired by “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,” as you dissolve the Galactic Senate and declare yourself emperor. While this DLC finally allows me to live out my dream of being Emperor Palpatine and saying “I am the Senate,” I had to pay 20 dollars in order to add this feature to the preexisting galactic community system that I got through a free patch and another 20 dollar DLC. DLC when done right can add new layers to a game, but locking certain features behind DLC is not adding more content; it’s withholding part of a game you have already paid for.

While the gameplay and roleplaying aspects of “Stellaris” make it unique and highly replayable, it’s going to take a lot of game time for all the DLC I bought for the game to be worth it. That being said, I truly love this game. As long as it continues to appeal to my sci-fi sensibilities, I will be spending money on DLC. My best recommendation is to buy the base game, but wait to buy the DLC on sale, and do research into which DLC are best to fit your specific sci-fi fantasies. “Stellaris’s” unique approach to a 4X grand strategy and its potential for creative expression make it more than worth the initial price tag. Its heavy reliance on DLC, however, ultimately degrades this otherwise fantastic video game.

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