A grand-strategy 4X that works remarkably well on gamepad, but is light years behind in important updates.

If you asked me what traditionally PC-centric genre would be least likely to work with a gamepad, a complex grand strategy game of Stellaris’ breed would be near the top of the list. But much to my surprise, the team behind the Console Edition of Paradox’s space opera sandbox have managed to do a really admirable job translating the controls. Coming from the PC version, however, I can’t help but notice that they’ve ported a long out-of-date version of Stellaris that’s still full of major gameplay shortcomings that have been solved for a while now on that side of the fence – and man, is it hard to go back.

If you’ve never even looked at Stellaris before, there are plenty of reasons to get excited about Console Edition. It’s one of the most ambitious and innovative space 4X games to come out in the last decade. You’re given fine control over designing your empire’s government and primary species using a variety of flavorful and impactful trait choices, allowing you to be anything from an iron-fisted dictatorship of bloodthirsty turtles to a peaceful technocracy led by some sort of worm creature whose underlying biology I don’t even want to guess at. The portraits you can pick from include enough weird, memorable, and sometimes hilarious aliens to fill the Mos Eisley Cantina a few times over.

Once you get out onto the great-looking star map, the biggest factor that sets Stellaris ahead of similar games is how effectively it creates the illusion of being part of a living, organic galaxy – not just a board game with a space theme. Where series like Master of Orion and Civilization have leaned harder into the idea that you should play a specific way in pursuit of a specific set of goals, Stellaris allows you to simply explore, experiment, and decide on the benchmarks of success you want to hit all on your own. There are a few baked-in victory conditions like owning a certain number of planets, but I can’t say I’ve ever paid much attention to them. Pursuing the goals I’ve imagined for my empire, whether that’s finding and uplifting as many pre-FTL civilizations as possible or declaring a crusade against all non-democratic despots is always more entertaining. And doing so is only made more enjoyable when done to the tune of one of my favorite game scores ever.

The Egalitarian faction won’t like it if you allow slavery, but the Authoritarians will get red in the tendrils.

The depth to which these interstellar societies is modeled is also much deeper than average and adds a great amount of flavor and dimension to each campaign. Your citizens can form political factions based on specific ideologies, for instance, that will either be pleased or upset with how you choose to govern. The Egalitarian faction won’t like it if you allow slavery, but the Authoritarian faction will get red in the tendrils if you abolish such practices, potentially sparking rebellion on a world where they have a lot of sway. Sound familiar at all? The kinds of scenarios that can arise are beyond the scope of traditional 4X and make Stellaris both highly replayable and a great stepping stone into the grand strategy genre.

Paradox games are notorious for having menus upon menus, but they’re all fairly easy to access with the d-pad and some clever use of screen space. A few rough spots do rear their heads every so often, such as how it’s sometimes difficult to order a specific ship to a specific spot using the cursor. And in the late game, the outliner that lets you quickly select all of your planets and fleets can get a little cluttered. The only way to navigate it is using the d-pad, which is fairly slow when there are a lot of entries. I found myself wondering why I couldn’t press the currently unused L1 and R1 buttons to quickly switch between categories.

My biggest disappointment by far, though, is that Console Edition is based on Stellaris 1.7, making it about a year and a half out of date compared to the PC version. And for a game by Paradox, a developer known for evolving its games dramatically, that makes a galaxy of difference. The 2.0 update completely overhauled warfare, and 2.2 redid empire management. Issues like tedious cat-and-mouse fleet chases and the busywork-heavy planetary tile system are cast into even sharper relief knowing what life is like without them. Leading with 1.7 was not putting the best foot forward, and it’s a decision I struggle to understand. It’s really hard to go back to a version that doesn’t include these very important changes that made Stellaris a dramatically better game.

Console Edition is based on Stellaris 1.7, making it about a year and a half out of date.

The other moderately annoying thing I noticed was that the maximum game speed, even on a PS4 Pro, is significantly slower than what my five-year-old Core-i7 CPU can pump out on PC. And given that Stellaris 1.7 was already a game where a lot of time could pass without much happening, that can really lead to some boring stretches of waiting for technologies to research or a new colony to finish. Beyond that, performance is pretty stable. You might notice some dropped frames here and there in larger space battles, but it’s not too bad.

One way Console Edition keeps things at a steady clip, though, is by removing some galaxy setup options from the PC version. On PC, for instance, you can generate a galaxy with up to 1,000 star systems (or even more with mods if your system can handle it). The largest galaxy size on console is 600 star systems, and you’re much more limited in how many AI empires can spawn. That’s still pretty big, but it’s a little disappointing if you’re looking for a truly grand space opera with dozens of competing powers.

The Verdict

Conquering the galaxy and discovering its deepest secrets with a controller in hand is a much better experience than I would have thought possible for this type of game. Thanks to extensive customization and its liberating play-your-own-way attitude, Stellaris: Console Edition is the most fun you can have with a space 4X game on Xbox One or PlayStation 4 right now. That said, if you have a PC that can run Stellaris on decent settings, there’s really no question that you should prefer that over Console Edition. At least until it has time to catch up with the major feature changes that over a year of significant patches have brought, I’ll be keeping my copy in cryosleep.

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