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Stellaris: Apocalypse DLC Review

Stellaris is the game sci-fi nerds like me dream about. A grand scale strategy game set among the stellar abyss. Stellaris is a game known for packing in every trope and relevant element of science fiction. From the technology to the race design, even down to the stylistic choices in the models and textures, everything about Stellaris oozes with sci-fi goodness. And players are used to how that all works together at this point in the game’s life cycle.

So when Paradox announced the Apocalypse DLC, and with it their intent to massively change Stellaris with the 2.0 update, fans were excited. Not just because we would now be able to live out our Death Star meets Alderaan fantasies, but also that this incoming set of changes would drastically alter the way we’ve played the game for so long.

So how does the new Apocalypse DLC stack up?

Design

I get the distinct feeling that Stellaris Apocalypse is the game Paradox wanted to make ages ago, but they weren’t sure how to accomplish their grand plans for galactic destruction without a bit of groundwork first. Everything in Stellaris 1.9.x feels a bit alien now after having spent time with Apocalypse. All of the assumptions and ideas I’d built up in my 100+ hours of Stellaris have been thrown out the window.

Not everything is different, but there are enough noticeable changes to the point that 2.0 Stellaris feels like a much more streamlined, but also granular, experience. Paradox obviously expected this mentality because the start-up screen when you first boot Apocalypse warns you to come prepared for the changes.

Splash Screen

One of the core design mechanics for Apocalypse, at least as I see it, is that Paradox wanted to address a long-term problem with combat and movement in Stellaris. Given that combat doesn’t use traditional terrain and its associated modifiers like in other Paradox grand strategy games, they needed a way to create some of that experience in Stellaris.

A lot of the major changes in the game center around attempts to make combat feel more immersive. The introduction of the split between building civilian and military ships was something that took some getting used to. But with the new fleet mechanics, it feels a bit more realistic. Then again, roleplaying a galactic empire has always been one of the strong draws for Stellaris, at least for me.

In terms of gameplay though, Apocalypse and 2.0 frontload a lot of new mechanics. Fleet and combat balance take center stage as the primary focus. With a lot of new systems, players will have to adjust or die trying.

One of my bigger gripes with the Paradox approaches to the DLC for their games also applies here, and it lies in how they handle free vs. paid content. The disparity between the free update and the DLC is even more pronounced than it was in previous DLC, what with 2.0 representing such a massive overhaul of Stellaris’ foundations, and it’s even taken the Ascendency Perks from Utopia and made them free too. Paradox’s logic is that core systems, stuff that will inevitably be expanded on and tweaked, need to be free or the studio would have to support multiple, very different versions of the game. I see why this would be useful, but I also see how it could make some players feel like the DLC becomes a necessary part of the Stellaris experience.

Overall, it’s a sound approach to make combat feel more visceral and give it more depth, but the feeling of the DLC being secondary to the 2.0 update is seemingly inescapable. Even with new ship types and weapons, it doesn’t feel like this update really delivers anything groundbreaking.

Execution

There are far too many nuanced changes to the core experience to cover them all here. So I’ll try to focus on the major aspects of the DLC and how they impact core gameplay.

As I said previously, the bigger changes all cater to an idea about shifting combat towards a more tactically sound approach. The introduction of mechanics like the Marauders and the new Planet-Killer techs are a nice touch, but they feel a bit secondary overall. You don’t necessarily have to race for the new ship class or anything like that, but they do help in the late game a fair bit.

Hyperlanes also make expansion more methodical, more like a puzzle. You’re not just trying to gobble up the largest, most habitable planets or the systems with the most resources, you’ve got to pick defensible locations and use natural chokepoints to your advantage. It feels like the attempt to change combat to make it more strategic has really come through with this DLC.

Instead of focusing on pumping out superior numbers with the latest technology like in previous iterations, Apocalypse forces you to analyze and understand the tactical situation you’re in and respond accordingly. Luckily, there are plenty of new mechanics that you can make use of the analyze and respond to the threats to your galactic empire.

The new claim mechanic means that players and AI have to spend influence targeting specific star systems before they go to war, so that does mean you can generally predict where the enemy is going to strike. Paradox is certainly using lessons learned from other games to influence the design of Stellaris, and I like that a lot.

The new Civics and Ascension Perks are cool, but most of them are simply a mechanism for the Colossi or the Superweapons, so there’s not much depth to them.

New Perks

The granularity allowed by the new fleet mechanics is a god-send for players like me who already employed the strategy of having multiple fleets rather than a massive death ball. In pre-2.0 I would still combine these fleets into a gargantuan ball of destruction if needed, but with the Leadership system being rebalanced around the new limitations in 2.0, that feels a lot less necessary.

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Babysitting all these extra fleets is made a little less daunting by the one-stop-shop fleet manager. From there, you can assign admirals, review orders, reinforce fleets, build new ships… I don’t even want to remember my life without it. The ability to specialize fleets by assigning specific designs to them is great too.

Fleet Manager

Not everything in Apocalypse is sunshine and rainbows though. The main focus of the DLC is the addition of new Planet-Killer designs and technologies.

Marauder fleets feel a bit underutilized to me. Marauders are nomadic pirates who split their time between raiding colonies and fighting for the highest bidder. They’re meant to be a persistent threat that can turn into an end-game crisis if they band together, but they’re more likely to become a nuisance to a more experienced player than anything else. As long as you stay on top of them, they’re unlikely to develop much military power overall. They just felt like more a needless complication.

There’s also some issues with how you can use the new superweapons. The game seeks to strike a balance with military options, and it ends up limiting how you can use these new planet-killers. This means you can’t run roughshod over the competition, but it also means the AI can’t utterly decimate you either. Whether this is a deal-breaker comes down to personal preference, but it is a letdown overall.

The removal of wormholes and warp travel as default choices, forcing every race into hyperlanes at the start has a pronounced effect on balance. The early game is all about establishing dominance in terms of mobility and creating a clear line of defense around your core planets. This means being incredibly selective with your planet colonization and overall military efforts in a way that feels brand new.

Overall, it’s an above average experience for a variety of reasons. If you’re looking for a new and challenging update, this is for you. If you’re looking to live out annihilation fantasies, this is for you. Apocalypse is very efficient at making the player adjust to their new surroundings, and for that I have to give it some credit as well.

All that said, the feeling of novelty fades pretty quick. If you’re not incredibly hyped for Apocalypse to the point of not being able to survive without it, I’d say wait for a discount.

Functionality

The game suffers from the same minor performance issues on high-speed that it always has. That is to say that in the late-game you should expect some lag on higher speeds due to the number of background calculations being performed. Stellaris is still rock solid in terms of stability though. The only crashes I ever encountered where when I first loaded the game due to out-of-date mods that I hadn’t disabled.

I would strongly advise that both new and old players don’t start loading every mod under the sun into 2.0 saves just yet. Sure, modders are very active in updating and balancing their mods. But people haven’t had time to properly balance their mods to the updated landscape, so the experience would be wildly different than intended if you start loading a bunch of game-changing mods.

I went in with all of my gameplay altering mods disabled, sure this meant that many of my custom races no longer worked, but that’s fine by me.

I would however recommend that all players, especially those who play on lower resolutions, go out and install the Tiny Leader and Tiny Outliner mods. These two UI modifications minify UI elements in the leader management screen and the Outliner sidebar. They make it much easier to find and manage information in these panels. Check out Folk’s mods for all of the Tiny mods and pick the ones you like best. I would also look into the Thinner Borders mod if the new border effect is a bit too much for you like it was for me.

Overall, performance is a solid, and only minor issues late-game detract from the experience.

Value

Apocalypse isn’t an essential DLC by any means, but it sure is a lot of fun. I could do without the Marauders, but the heap of new features from both the DLC and the 2.0 update are more than worth the sticker price for me. However, if you’re a new Stellaris player, stick with the base game for now until you’re used to the 2.0 systems. Then if you want a more challenging experience, you should pick up Apocalypse.

I’d say that the price would feel a bit high if it wasn’t for the 2.0 update. Which is why I feel a little annoyed with the way the update makes the actual paid features feel secondary. New Civics and Ascension Perks tie directly into the other new features, but aren’t all that game-changing.

Stellaris 2.0 is a free update and it’s out now. Stellaris: Apocalypse is also out now on Steam and the Humble Store for £15.49/$19.99/€19.99.

Enjoyment

I did enjoy my time with the game overall. But that’s mostly down to the 2.0 changes. The DLC just felt a bit minor compared to the package as a whole. Sure, learning my way around this new stellar landscape felt good. And eventually being able to shatter enemy fleets and planets with the new Colossus ships and Planet-Cracker weapons felt even better. But on it’s own the DLC just feels a bit lackluster.

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