‘Stellaris: Overlord’ review: an exciting, if unessential expansion for the sci-fi strategy masterpiece

Lords of War

Stellaris, Paradox’s science fiction grand strategy game, is big. Vastly, hugely, and mind-bogglingly so, to paraphrase Douglas Adams. Much like Paradox’s own Crusader Kings 3, the beauty of Stellaris isn’t in its strategic number crunching or grognard map painting, although these are certainly well-tuned and many-statted. Its real power to enchant lies in what lives under the hood: that what looks like haggard accountants fiddling with spreadsheets are actually ten billion monkeys armed with quantum typewriters. Throw in a bunch of bananas, and these primate scribes will fling back a beautiful barrage of sci-fi stories.

Paradox is somewhat infamous for their sheer quantity of downloadable content (DLC), and even if much of it is just the natural result of supporting a single game over many years, it can seem overwhelming – or even egregious – to prospective buyers. Rarely do these expansions fail to deliver meaningful content, but they can – in the case of CK3’s recent Royal Court expansion – be insultingly overpriced. Stellaris, for my money, trends toward good value, but the waters are slightly muddied by the huge free updates that release alongside the paid components. In short, Overlord is excellent, but feels far from essential. Stellaris as a whole, however, has never been in better shape.

I started my first run of Overlord with the Pious Gudge Foundation, a species of egalitarian, aquatic fish boys in the nascent stages of a great psychic awakening. Whether the Shroudwalker Enclave had sensed this latent potential, or whether they just got a kick out of our illustrious purple face-fins was unclear, but the enigmatic coven had made contact back in the deep recesses of our prehistory, and nurtured us from the shadows. We weren’t great psychics yet, but we were able to telekinetically lure smaller, lesser fish in our trawler nets, resulting in a massive food surplus we could trade to put us ahead in the space race.

Stellaris. Credit: Paradox Interactive

Our power consolidated, it was time to try out Overlord’s headliner feature: specialised vassal types. New vassal contracts are free for everyone, letting you micromanage everything from tithes to political freedom, but the DLC brings three specific flavours. After thoroughly embarrassing the bellicose space bugs we shared a border with, we pondered the subjugation buffet. They could serve us as a protective Bulwark, a resource gathering Prospectorium, or a research boosting Scholarium. We were already getting some lovely research bonuses from our big psychic fish brains, so decided to double down and hoover up every last tech advantage within reach.

It’s this focus on vassals that I feel designates Overlord as a more intermediate expansion over some of the alternatives like Federations. Peace and diplomacy is generally much easier in Stellaris than war, especially war that falls so much in your favour that you’re able to subjugate your opponents into vassalage. While its changes are far-reaching, you might not end up taking advantage of all of Overlord’s goodies until at least mid-game. Even once you’ve either gotten a vassal or become vassalised yourself, most of the genuinely meaty bonuses come after reaching a certain level of loyalty between overlord and subject, which can take a while.

Stellaris. Credit: Paradox Interactive

Anyway, around this time our benevolent Shroudwalkers saw fit to bless us with divinations in the form of potentially helpful, or harmful, new story events. They’re just one of Overlord’s new enclaves – NPC factions that add further texture to a universe already fit to burst. I love the Shroudwalkers, because they so dearly want to seem aloof but have also taken the time to fashion themselves elaborate gowns, but the new Salvagers have captured my heart for one simple reason: They will happily clear a system of debris after a heated battle for some bonus goodies. Finally, I am freed from the crushing guilt that comes from being too lazy to send my science ships to every single system that once hosted battle to stringently examine fried reactor cores and empty crisp packets. Plus, these affable bin divers will actually like you more for it.

Joining these are the new mercenaries. Once a fleet you own hits 50 capacity, you can spend a cache of resources to set up a merc enclave. You no longer control the fleet, but you’ll receive regular kickback from their nefarious profiteering, which you can then invest straight back into the fleet to help them grow. AI empires can hire the fleet, but as their benefactor, you can pay the mercs to break their current contract, should you need them in a pinch – a solid way to keep a massive fleet on standby without paying upkeep. Alongside a new ascension perk and galactic council mandates that can decree wars be fought with certain quotas of hired guns, they’re a deceptively significant addition.

Stellaris. Credit: Paradox Interactive

Mobility is the name of the game with the new megastructures. Hyper relays and Orbital rings are available to everyone, with or without the mega engineering ascension perk. Relays massively speed up travel between systems, and Orbital rings are effectively space stations you can build around planets, with unique buildings to further specialise resource output. The Quantum Catapult – a more traditional megastructure – allows you to fling fleets across the universe, with varying degrees of accuracy depending on upgrades. It does sound like an eclectic mix on paper, but there’s a method in the multitude: It felt like I was being given permission to build a bit taller than normal, but still have the option to quickly reinforce a distant vassal should the need arise.

As you probably gathered from all the verbose self-indulgence in the intro, I’m very much a roleplayer with Stellaris. I will happily lose the game horribly if I get a cool story out of it. As such, I’m a sucker for the Origins systems, introduced with 2020’s Federations expansion, that let you pick a meaningful backstory for your empire. Overlord comes with five new ones. A few, like the Teachers of the Shroud I picked for my fishboys, are designed to let you jump straight into some of Overlord’s new features. You can start with a nearby Quantum Catapult, or as the vassal of an AI empire. Progenitor Hive lets you further customise hive mind empires, and Subterranean lets you roleplay as the space dwarves from Deep Rock Galactic.

So, of course, that’s exactly what I did after the fishboys, humming Wind Rose’s Diggy Diggy Hole to myself as I gathered vast quantities of minerals and indoctrinated a nearby planet of primitive humans to become deeply suspicious of outsiders. I’m not sure where we’ll be going next, but I’m tempted to take the new ‘Lord of War’ perk to expand my capacity for mercenary fleets, then chill out in the tunnels while our pockets grow fat with blood money. After that? Who knows! Space, as mentioned, is big. It’s telling that, despite a sizable, dedicated playerbase, only 6 per cent of Steam players have the achievement for finishing a game of Stellaris. This is partly because you need to play Ironman mode to get achievements, but it’s also because starting over is often just as exciting as pushing on. This is a game that absolutely exemplifies the value of the journey over the destination. And now, the journey features a giant fuck-off space catapult.

The Stellaris: Overlord DLC is available today (May 12) on PC.

The Verdict

Paradox has made a pro-player choice in divvying up the paid vs free new content, making Overlord feel like a less essential purchase than it otherwise could. While most of the big structural changes are available to everyone, this DLC still offers some exciting and varied new additions to the richest and most entertaining sci-fi strategy on the galactic market.

Pros

  • Mercenary enclaves can drastically alter the way war is waged across most of the universe
  • New origins offer some classic sci-fi storytelling scenarios
  • Space Dwarves are back on the menu, boys
  • Paradox went and made a load of excellent changes free again

Cons

  • Somewhat scattered array of content you’re unlikely to utilise most of in a single playthrough
  • Casual players can safely hold off on a purchase until familiarising themselves with the new vassal changes
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