Grand strategy has finally arrived on consoles. But should it have?
The grand strategy game genre has officially arrived on consoles. Paradox Interactive, together with Tantalus Media, has released their space-themed 4X title Stellaris for Playstation 4 and Xbox One. Stellaris was released back in 2016 and received mostly positive reviews from media outlets all around the world, usually praising its grand scale and customization possibilities regarding government, ideologies and internal political paths.
But after playing through Stellaris on Playstation 4, it becomes clear why 4X grand strategy game developers feared console ports and it comes down to a very simple, yet unavoidable issue: there’s no way to replace the mouse and keyboard set-up with a controller. And in a game swarmed with menus, management tools and orders to give, not being able to navigate the screen with a pointer quickly becomes an insurmountable problem.
For anyone not familiar with Stellaris, this classic 4X title (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) puts us in command of a space-faring civilization with a whole galaxy at our disposal. Each map consists of a great number of solar systems, each of them holding a random amount of planets and moons with different resources, anomalies to research and habitable planets to colonize. Paradox Interactive actually published a video called “Stellaris: Console Edition – Feature Trailer – Available February 26th” during the previous days before release. You can watch it down here.
Primary resources are divided into minerals and energy credits, while secondary ones represent influence, various research-related indicators (physics, engineering and society), as well as the more valuable – and scarce – strategic resources. We start off with a home planet and vision restricted to its solar system, and we’re tasked with expanding by sending out science ships to survey nearby systems looking for resources to extract and habitable planets to expand our civilization’s reach.
To do this we’ll send construction ships to build mining stations to increase our resource production and outposts to be able to do this on systems farther away from our home-world. Science ships will occasionally find anomalies while they’re surveying new planets, providing us with opportunities to find out about long-gone civilizations, ancient sites and rare technology as well as strategic resources. Being able to research these without risking our scientist’s life depends on their experience and overall level.
Each colonized planet has a certain amount of tiles with different resources available, but we can always build a farm, power plant or mining station to produce what we need. Each tile needs a grown “pop” (inhabitants) to work on it and be able to extract resources.
Certain anomalies will trigger story-driven quests and represent goals to pursue. Further surveying will reveal other civilizations, allowing us to enter in diplomatic conversations, shaped exclusively by our government, political and social beliefs. Trading, establishing non-aggression treaties, closing borders and declaring war are part of the options we’ll get when managing our contacts.
Stellaris has its strong and weak points, and anyone who has played it or read a review through these last three years will know about them. One of the main issues rests in diplomacy. Its lack of versatility makes war the only way forward in most scenarios, and if you get trapped by another civilization’s borders, the inability to build anything outside your own will instantly become an endless grind towards surpassing your enemy’s military power.
The micromanagement aspect in Stellaris is huge. Each planet has its own leader and factions to look out for. Each faction rewards you for pursuing a certain tradition (each of which stem into a long list of possible paths), each single pop has its own happiness meter, each of the countless buildings we erect on each planet has to be upgraded individually. The same goes with military fleets, something that becomes quite meaningless once you realize that combat is automated and the fact that we’ve carefully divided our ships into small or large fleets, recruited a certain leader for each of them and thoughtfully placed them in strategic places will matter very little once combat is initiated.
But here’s where the problem lies. Grand strategy games clearly need to have this many options, numbers and menus to look out for. The thing is that just a controller to navigate through them is not enough. For example, if we just gave an order to a construction ship of building a mining station on a given planet, going to any of the several tabs at the right, left, top or bottom of our screen will require us to press the “back” button several times until we’ve de-selected the ship’s menu, de-selected the ship, de-selected the sub-menu where our civilian ships are listed, de-selected the general ship’s menu and then press the D-pad to navigate each border of the screen. It quickly becomes too much of a hassle. With a mouse and keyboard you’d just need to hover over to the desired button and press it.
And keep in mind that we’re constantly doing this. Going from ship to ship, navigating through colonized planets, checking our contacts, choosing a new research path, giving a new order to a science ship, building, mining, managing planets, putting new fleets together or even selecting a new rally point will prove to be a clunky chore that quickly ruins the fine balance between pace and rhythm.
Stellaris is a good 4X strategy game, but its port suffers from the basic differences between console and PC gaming. It would be unfair to blame Tantalus Media, as it’s hard to think how these mechanics could have been improved with the tools at hand. For patient and true lovers of the genre, being able to play Stellaris on their PS4 or Xbox One might be enough to please them, but for newcomers to the franchise or the genre, the clunky and cumbersome controls will prove to be a big turn-off.
[Reviewed on PlayStation 4]
Our boy from Buenos Aires, Juan has been a gamer for as long as he can remember (and possibly even longer than that). He loves a good story, and believes every indie game has a compelling one to tell.