There may be a rumour lurking about that reviews are getting rather formulaic. Even my editor has to occasionally hit me in the back of the head for relying on my rough “pros v cons” approach to writing, bothered by flow problems as it judders like a malfunctioning car. So to dispel such musings, I plan to do something a little unusual. Something that seems more appropriate for Utopia, which seeks to fix a lot with Stellaris across the board.
Utopia is the first major DLC for grand strategy sci-fi title Stellaris, a game by Paradox I gave a glowing review to back in the day as Bagogames’s resident grand strategy nutjob. “Major” is a good word, “meaty” is another one, to describe the size of Utopia as it sweeps across a lot of areas. So in the hopes that the editor doesn’t ask for a rewrite, I plan to break down each change/addition (as listed fully in the Stellaris Wiki run by Paradox) in separate subheadings before leaping into a collective conclusion with a score. Ready to roll? Let’s roll.
Hive Minds/Advanced Civics
What better place to start with Utopia than at the character generator?
Previously you had to decide what kind of mentality your empire had. A warlike one? Scientific? Maybe even spiritual? What if, in addition, you could play as a species with a collective singular consciousness? Then what if you could further tweak smaller details depending on your empire’s governing ethics, like deciding if you allow meritocracy to run free or if your politics is rather cutthroat?
Like a lot of early moments in grand strategy titles, these have the potential to radically shake-up the rest of the game. As hive-minds don’t have a happiness metre (which affects things like rebellions and productions), their loyalty is assured if perhaps never enthusiastic enough to harvest minerals by the bucketload. There are also smaller details (e.g. hive-mind folk can’t live in non-hive-mind empires and vice-versa) that make the Hive Mind approach distinctive.
Advanced Civics, on the other hand, is a mixed bucket. Each civic acts as a boon to help shift your government into the direction as desired. Although, for better and for ill, “shift” is the key word. Each one adds flavor to your empire but often gives a small enough buff to be nice without demanding new tactics from you. The only exceptions are Syncretic Evolution, Mechanist and Fanatic Purifiers which less guides your early (and likely late) path, and more defines it. Still, the extra choices on hand to tweak your empire is a great addition.
Let us skip a couple of steps to the later game. As Stellaris progresses, your neighbours will be squeezing in on you. Considering there is technology and other ways to increase your core system limit, let alone setting up sectors, this can leave you in the tricky state where your limit is far from reached but there is no land available now.
Fortunately, you can build stations where populations can live on. This freedom is balanced along with how they’ll often be smaller than planets and contain buildings that can not be upgraded. While you’ll still be hoarding planets as much as you can during the early game, these stations still give you some wiggle room to make more populations and “planets” if you’re slow off the draw and end up small. This renders habitat stations maybe a little situational (as actual planets will always out-perform habitat stations), but still has its uses in a pinch.
On the other hand, well, I’m not sure how to feel about Megastructures. These are structures you can erect after unlocking them during the late game that’ll give you a boost to science, mineral or power, or simply let you watch over the entire galaxy like an all-encompassing electric eye. Although their main drawback is these colossally expensive monuments can only be upgraded/built one at a time and each takes an expectedly gigantic amount of time to erect.
That drawback, mixed with how late in the game these get unlocked, make me wonder the actual use of them. We’re talking so late that either your defences are so firm that it is like flinging stones into a rock quarry, or so unstable (as either you’re steam-rolling the galaxy or having your planets’ occupants shown what an exterminatus looks like first hand) that these buildings will very likely not shift the balance. While nice to have, in the same way having a phone charger in your work bag is nice to have, it seems like a needless drain on valuable resources and time.
Native Indoctrination/Purge & Slavery Types
Prior to Utopia, every time I came across a pre-FTL civilisation I always felt let down I couldn’t manipulate them to my will. They seemed more of a future-headache (as once they hit FTL they’ll take some land with them) to harvest society research points from. Fortunately, now you can spend resources to force an ascension to FTL, in the process indoctrinating them to not only similar ethics but also into a vassal state. This ends up turning something of a pain, into valuable assistance and resources.
Once you have this ascended species under your thumb, you may decide to enslave them or purge them. I admit I didn’t delve too deep into slavery prior to Utopia. It just never fit in my plans of how to play Stellaris (i.e. push for the best tech, be friends until I get greedy for land.
That said, now giving slavery/purging a punt, the amount of choice provokes something between awe and schadenfreude-inducing grim laughter. Sure you could put them to forced labour, purging them by working them all to death, or maybe just use them as grunts to fling at your foes. That said, apt for the hivemind empire I ran for a chuckle, my vassal became soylent green to feast upon as a galactic delicacy to the point of wiping them out. With now four different brands of slavery and five forms of causing extinction, those with an evil bent will find the perfect flavour of oppression that pleases them amidst all this choice.
How could I launch myself into the conclusion like how some readers want me launched into the sun without addressing the Ascension Perks. As part of Paradox’s generous free-content policy, they recently added a new currency: Unity. Upon filling to a specific point (via making buildings that generate it), you spend them to unlock and then fill up Tradition skill trees for bonuses before moving onto a new tree. You may consider the process of leaping from one ideological tree to the next as perhaps progressive, also known as “non-traditional”, but “Ideological Trees” likely rolls badly off the tongue.
Semantics aside, every time you complete a tree (as well as one additional time once you research a particular piece of technology) you get a little Ascension Perk to really give your empire a noticeable boost. Which hey, if you just want to be able to give Fallen Empires or endgame crises a “ruddy good seein’ to” in the violent way (not dismissing the other way) then you can get buffed in those departments and more.
Where Ascension Perks become something really special is the paths. You can take the synthetic “reverse-Tinman from Wizard of Oz” approach, biological “a bit of gene-manipulation never hurt anyone, let’s give Umbrella a ring” path or the psionic “the voices keep telling me to crush your skull with my mind” perspective. You can only pick one, but the potency in store is worth it. If I had to criticise these paths, it feels like the psionic end got more flavour love. Putting your mind into a steel shell and messing with your genetic code is a lark with distinct and significant mechanics of themselves, but the void path has more of a narrative progression to it. One best left unspoilt.
Now with the flow and satisfaction with doing something foul of pouring treacle from the jar straight into my mouth (nom nom), we find ourselves with the ever burning questions: What is the score of Utopia and how does it combine together? The score is a shiny 8 out of 10 and it combines very well thank you. I admit I feel a bit guilty writing this review because part of my job is to throttle a game for flaws. I should be brandishing a pasty off-colour accusatory finger, demanding “WHY DID YOU DO THIS YOU BLOODY SCOUNDREL?!”. Except, well, besides being a bit anaemic at parts it is mechanically sound as a pound (which looking at recent events is a pretty bad idiom to describe solidity with).
There is also one more thing I left off the table, and it is a running theme in all this: Narrative choice. One way I often describe the difference between standard strategy and grand strategy is end-goal: The former demands victory of some kind, while the latter is more focused on building a water-cooler tale based on your actions. Which along with a generous free update, Utopia provides a plentiful dose of story options that’ll make this DLC pack appealing to most if not all Stellaris fans. Even if most stories, for now, include the phrase “…and then I turned my slave species into food”.