Review – Stellaris Utopia and Banks

Turning my citizens into robots was a long-term project. Just to enhance my population with cybernetics, I had to acquire mountains of Stellaris’ new resource, unity, to invest it in traditions, plus I needed to research advanced robotics technology. Then, to put the cybernetics into effect I had to research a special engineering project so gargantuan it consumed half the lifespan of one scientist. It took decades after that to acquire the necessary technologies, traditions and finally to manufacture robot bodies for every cyborg before I could go digital and upload most of my empire to their new, immortal, perfect bodies. Paradox have come up with a brilliant answer to Stellaris’ flawed mid and late game: take the best thing about the game, namely the way in which you create a species and define it through play, and spread the process out across the whole game. Stellaris’ new free update, Banks, and the accompanying paid expansion Utopia do a superb job of catapulting Stellaris into the top tier of space strategy games.

Banks and Utopia are a roleplayer’s dream. When Stellaris was released, there was one effective strategy for success (and ultimately victory); namely, expand quickly and declare wars opportunistically. Even if, fictionally, the race and empire you created at the start of the game were better suited to diplomacy or sticking to their homeworld, it was better to grow and bend the fiction rather than lose to a rival who outgrew you. Stellaris’ excellent species and empire creation options – which allowed you to select the appearance and traits of your primary race, and the type of government, policies, flag and colours of your empire – were wasted in-game, since there was a clear optimum way to win.

Banks and Utopia together do a good job of addressing this glaring problem. Both the patch and expansion make ‘building tall’ (i.e. having fewer, better developed planets) more powerful. The former introduces unity, a new resource empires spend on new bonuses called traditions. Much like Europa Universalis IV’s idea groups, traditions represent different ways to play the game and acquiring all the traditions in a particular tree gives you a bonus. So if you’re playing an empire run by spiritualistic, xenophile mushrooms it’s worth investing in the diplomacy tradition tree, which helps you get along better with other empires, and if you’re playing as genocidal flowers you’ll want the domination or supremacy tree. Smaller, more homogenous empires need less unity to get new traditions. Sprawling interstellar empires require more unity per tradition, and since those large empires also usually have unhappy factions, the cost is further increased.

Unlike EUIV’s idea groups, each of which has a unique bonus for every other idea group you have, tradition trees have no synergy and you’ll see half of them in one game. Ten trees is a merely adequate selection, particularly since they don’t combine in interesting ways. However, since unity and tradition are now enshrined as a core part of the game, it’s at least possible Paradox will add more specialized trees. It’s disappointing, too, that with the exception of the diplomacy tree, which allows you to form federations, and the prosperity tree which allows you to create private colony ships, every tradition just applies a straightforward buff to your civilization. Vassal accumulation in the domination tree reduces diplomatic annexation cost by 33%, galactic ambition in the expansion tree reduces the upkeep for frontier outposts by 50%.

Traditions are successful as a way to make smaller empires better, and importantly they allow players to define the kind of empire they’re playing on the fly rather than entirely in the empire creation screen. After all, it never made much sense than an empire would adopt pacifism before they became a galactic empire and stoically stick to that ethic fifty years later when ruthless imperialists declared war on them and enslaved or purged them. By investing in the domination tradition tree the player has a way to signal that their empire is changing, and there’s appropriate gameplay changes as a result.

The second part of the traditions mechanic is only available with the Utopia DLC. Every time you complete a set of traditions, one ascension perk slot is unlocked. Ascension perks are make significant and permanent changes to your empire. While a few are standalone, such as interstellar domination which increases border range by 25%, in general they break down into three paths for your empire’s evolution.

You can, like me, get a perk which turns your citizens into cyborgs. The process is long and involved, and the changes are seismic. When your citizens become cyborgs, they’re stronger, smarter and better soldiers, plus every species in your empire gets a new prefix to indicate they’ve been upgraded: my race of crab-like scientists the Lyrites became the Meta-Lyrites. When you complete this process and unlock two other ascension perks you can select the synthetic evolution perk, which allows you to transform every cyborg into a robot. Your cyborg citizens’ portrait changes to a robot, they get the extremely powerful synthetic trait, and you can rename the new, robot species. Robots don’t need food, they’re immoral, they can inhabit any planet, and your population stops growing naturally – instead you can build new members of the species wherever you want.

However, the synthetic path is just one of three mutually exclusive ways your empire can evolve via ascension perks. You can also invest in unlocking your empire’s psionic potential, allowing you to psychically link your people and build – among other things – psionic armies. Finally, you can invest in genetic engineering, allowing you to specialise the species in your empire. If you need bugs who are at home in an artic wasteland and love to mine minerals, you can alter an existing species to reflect their role. Going down this path even unlocks traits not otherwise available, so you can for instance give a species you’re using as livestock the delicious trait for increased food output.

Ascension perks are extremely successful as a means to sculpt your empire after the game begins. Since the three main branches are mutually exclusive, and since you’re only likely to unlock four or five perks in a single game, there’s plenty of scope to develop builds and play again as different species to try different paths and combinations. It speaks to their success that just looking through the list excites me and deciding which perk should go in which slot is always tough.

Tradition trees and ascension perks are not the only way the patch and expansion have made smaller empires better. Utopia also adds megastructures, galactic-scale engineering projects at least a few of which (ring worlds, dyson spheres) will be familiar to sci-fi fans. They’re all extremely expensive projects which take years to construct. Habitat stations and ringworlds are superior artificial planets, the dyson sphere and science nexus vastly increase your energy and science output, respectively, and the sentry array provides vision of the whole galaxy.

In general, it’s good to have something to spend excess resources on in the late game: in the past, it was a challenge just to stay below the mineral and energy cap after 100 years of growth and development. However, at least two of the megastructures (the dyson sphere and habitat station) have limited value. The dyson sphere can, of course, only be built very late in the game by which point you should be producing so much energy it’s redundant, and the habitat station is simply inferior to the ringworld. These two notwithstanding, though, the megastructures are a positive addition to the game, and importantly they allow Stellaris’ excellent writing team to explore more sci-fi concepts.

Aside from these headline features, Banks and Utopia make subtler changes to Stellaris which are more likely to avert frustration than generate excitement. The most substantial of these is the faction and unrest overhaul, a welcome change the game fails to explain to the player. In the past, factions were a symptom of a badly run empire: the player’s objective was to have as little to do with them as possible. As of the Banks update, however, factions represent something closer to political groupings, with specific agendas they want the empire to pursue.

In the Lyritian Directorate, the largest faction was (predictably) a pro-science faction, which wanted unlimited AI usage, research agreements with other empires, and robot workers in my empire. Since I fulfilled most of these requirements right away, the faction was happy and rewarded me with influence. Most of my people belonged to the faction since they had the materialist ethos, and consequentially the empire as a whole was stronger.

In Banks, every citizen in your empire has an ethos, and depending on their circumstances they may or may not line up with the government’s own ethics. Citizens on planets with lots of alien slaves are likely to become xenophobes, citizens on planets with lots of non-slave aliens are likely to become xenophiles, and fighting lots of wars will make militarism more attractive. The system is extremely elegant, eminently sensible and engaging. The recent DLC and update clearly strive to improve the internal life of the player’s empire: factions are the beautifully designed centrepiece of that effort.

However, great design is of little value if players can’t understand or appreciate it. The only reason I can say with confidence that citizens near non-slave aliens are likely to become xenophiles is that I regularly read Stellaris’ developer diaries, where the writer used as an example of the faction system. In game, I have absolutely no idea what factors make ethics attractive. The game tells you which ethics are attractive to which pops, but it fails to explain why. Even the Stellaris wiki doesn’t know: the section on ‘pop ethos’ is copied directly from the same developer diary. The failure to explain what attracts pops to each ethic is a massive flaw in an apparently excellent system. It’s absolutely wrong for Paradox to expect players to read press releases to understand how their game works. Paradox, who are usually the gold standard for transparency in their game design, have failed to make a key component of the game clear, and it severely hampers my enjoyment of the system.

These are, of course, not all the changes in the Banks patch of Utopia DLC. Virtually every aspect of the game has been touched by the changes in one or the other, and the whole game is much better as a result. Pacifist and ‘tall’ empires are now viable and, more importantly, exciting. The writing is still superb, and as ever I’m thrilled that the best writing in a sci-fi game in years has come from the usually crude strategy genre. Paradox’s muddled explanation of factions is irritating, of course, but it’s a testament to the company’s high standards that it’s surprising, too. Banks is a wonderful update, Utopia is an excellent DLC. All new players of Stellaris should buy it with the base game.