Stellaris: Federations — new DLC lacks oomph

The new DLC for Stellaris fleshes out the political machinations of the galaxy, revamping diplomacy, beefing up the gameplay of federations and introducing a Galactic Senate that can pass (or mothball) wide-reaching resolutions. Underlying that is a new, free update to the game that adds new features and tweaks.

2.6.0 – Verne Update

Before getting to the paid Federations DLC, it’s worth spending a moment looking at the changes that players without that will see from the Verne update. Along with the host of tweaks and performance fixes you’d expect to see in an update like this there are some larger gameplay additions. Many of these are changes to the base gameplay that are required to allow the Federations content to function for those who have it.

The major new thing is envoys. These are mini-leaders who specifically have the ability to take diplomatic actions. You don’t have to hire these guys, there will just be a set amount depending on several factors. They can be assigned to work with other factions in new Improve Relations or Harm Relations actions. If you do have the Federations DLC then the list of things you can do with them is longer, more on that down below. These envoys are one of the best things from either the Verne update or the Federations DLC. Having the ability to influence your empire’s relations with another empire without having to resort to bribing them with resources or continuously insulting them is long overdue. Envoys add a layer of verisimilitude to the game as another aspect of life among the stars gets closer to what players would imagine.

The diplomacy screen
Unfortunately envoys will do you no good when you start right next door to a race of fanatical purifiers. They are not very chatty.

The other main addition to diplomacy is the new diplomatic stances that players can select from the policies menu. Options from “welcoming” to “belligerent” to “isolationist” are available and affect your initial relations with other empires, providing their own benefits and drawbacks. In reality this is something players will pick at the start of the game (if they remember) and then promptly forget about but it is a nice little tweak that gets players closer to crafting the empire exactly how they want.

Beyond those two changes to diplomacy there is the usual raft of balance changes, performance tweaks, bug fixes and, crucially, AI improvement. Recent iterations of Stellaris have had problems with both balance and AI. It is too early to say whether these problems are fixed, even partially. Only time will tell on that front but the fact that efforts are being made to address them is a good sign.

A space battle in progress
Pew pew! Pew pew pew!

Federations DLC

Stellaris has a long history of DLC (Federations is the game’s eighth large DLC pack and twelfth overall) with the quality and value for money varying considerably from release to release. Some, like Utopia and Distant Stars, are considered almost essential to gameplay while others such as Leviathans and MegaCorp are optional, sometimes at best.

On the face of it, Federations should fit into the first category. The inter-empire relations of Stellaris have been patchy since the game’s release; being strong and well thought out in some areas but frustratingly closed off and underdeveloped in others. A DLC dedicated to overhauling and fleshing out those systems should, in theory, really open up the game to a new way of playing.

First, the good. The new envoys, as mentioned above, feel like a vital piece of diplomatic machinery that has finally been put in place. The more you focus your empire on diplomacy the more of these guys you will have but, even then, they are in high demand and players need to balance their various diplomatic needs. As well as being assigned to other empires to help or harm relations (you may want to do the latter to create excuses for war or to claim systems belonging to other empires), envoys can be assigned to federations that you are part of, or to the galactic community to increase your diplomatic power.

An invitation to join a federation
Who wouldn’t want to join a federation with… a hive mind… of floating eyeballs… in snazzy plant capes…

The downside of those last two options is that both the new federation functionality and the galactic community are somewhat underwhelming. Federations were already in the game and the eponymous DLC is focused on adding depth to them, but, in many respects, it comes up short. Now you can define what the focus of the federation is (commerce, trade, co-operation, war etc.) and therefore what generic bonuses will be granted by it. Federations can also level up now too, with experience being earned based on the cohesion of all of its members. This number can go up or down based on how aligned the ethics of the federation’s various members are and assigned envoys increase this, making them essential to the successful functioning of a federation.

This is because levelling up a federation, as well as unlocking static bonuses, grants access to different modifiers that can be optionally applied. Each of these represents members of a federation centralizing their functions. While this opens up possibilities for combined fleets or for changing the voting systems or leader succession of federations, it also reduces the cohesion of the federation. Make too many changes and negative cohesion will result in a loss of experience rather than a gain.

Stellaris: Federations - The federation levelling screen
I’m pleased to see that minutes of federation meetings are being taken.

All of this sounds great, so why is it underwhelming? In the course of my playtesting I joined four federations across three games and, each time, regardless of the level or centralization of the federation nothing felt cohesive about it. The combined federation fleets were populated only by ships I added and no efforts of the federation actually felt joined up. There was no way to encourage the federation to vote as a whole on galactic matters (see galactic community below) and military conflicts were sketchy at best when it came to if members of federations would help each other. On top of this, many of the passive benefits of higher levels of federation only affect the mechanics of the federation itself, making the whole process feel unsatisfying. Ultimately, federations feel more complicated but no more powerful or interesting than before the DLC.

The galactic community, on the other hand, comes with a real thrill when it is first formed. This is an event that will trigger once one empire has met enough other empires. Each empire can opt in or out of the galactic community. Opting out means you get none of the benefits of resolutions passed by the galactic senate but also suffer none of the sanctions of not towing the line.

The galactic community screen

Once the community forms, every empire is assigned a diplomatic weight. This is based on a combination of fleet power, economy, research and the population of your empire and is constantly updated. Resolutions can be proposed by any empire in the game and all empires can choose whether to support (to add their diplomatic weight) or oppose (or abstain from) each possibility. When the senate is in session the resolution with the most diplomatic weight supporting it will go to the senate floor to be voted on. This process is, again, a function of diplomatic weight. Empires can call in favours they have traded for from other empires that act as a temporary increase to that empire’s diplomatic weight for that resolution. Envoys are also vital here too, assigning them to the galactic community gives a good boost to diplomatic weight.

All of this sounds great and, to give credit where it’s due, the mechanisms of the galactic community are excellent. The diplomatic weight system is well executed and feels like it really reflects the power flow in the game. The problem is that none of the resolutions feel like they’re doing much. Many come with a weighting factor to increase or decrease the amount of diplomatic weight generated by particular elements (science-based resolutions, for example, increase the diplomatic weight generated by research). This is great but there don’t really seem to be many resolutions that do much other than increase or decrease the factors of what contribute to diplomatic weight. Like the federations it all feels very internal-facing; being a power in the galactic community helps you pass resolutions to increase your power that lets you pass resolutions to increase your power and on and on. It feels like there’s no end-point to it; nothing to actually do with all that diplomatic power. By the end of my playthroughs I barely paid any attention to the galactic council or my federation as there seemed to be little point.

Stellaris: Federations - One of the events in the game
Apparently putting giant slugs our scientists barely understood in a zoo was not the best idea.

At a certain point a resolution will probably pass that creates a galactic council. This is a group of three empires that have increased powers but even when that happens there isn’t much to do with those powers. I need to caveat all of this with the general statement that Stellaris is a very weighty and intricate game that can reward players who take a very maths-based approach to gameplay. I get into the maths of it to some extent but not as much as many players do. I’m sure that those who enjoy playing that way will find more benefit to the Federations DLC as I am, no doubt, underselling or not understanding some of the benefits of taking control of the galactic community or of centralizing and levelling up your federation. If you are one of those players (you will know if you are) then your experience of Federations may be different.

The good news is that, if the core political gameplay of Federations is disappointing, there are a couple of other elements that come with the DLC that are not. The first is Origins; a lovely little addition that lets you pick a unique origin for your species when you start the game. Whether you start on a shattered ring world, a planet doomed to explode, a gaia world, as part of a symbiotic relationship with another race or as the little nephew of an overpowering fallen empire each of these origins offers a unique spin on gameplay that will shape your whole playthrough. There is a wide variety of origins to choose from, although it should be said that almost all of them are locked behind DLC gates that mean you’ll need the full suite of Stellaris add-ons to see them all.

Stellaris: Federations: The origins screen
If you have all the DLCs there is a huge choice of origins.

The second nice addition is the Juggernaut class ship. If you thought that the Titan and Colossus classes were as big as Stellaris was going to get then think again. Like a colossus, a Juggernaut is a fleet unto itself, rammed to the gills with weapon and armour slots. If the Juggernaut was just an even bigger ship it would be fun but nothing special, as it is though it acts as a mobile shipyard too though. Ships can repair and upgrade at it and even be constructed there, making it an excellent mobile, forward base for your fleets.

As fun as they are, juggernauts and origins are not enough for me to be able to unreservedly endorse Stellaris: Federations. There is some fun stuff in here but, as it stands, the core political gameplay loop feels like it lacks end-product and impact on the broader game. The good news is that, as always, Paradox will continue to work on the game and it’s possible that in six months everything will look different. If you’re waiting for something that massively rejigs tactical diplomacy then I can only recommend sticking Federations on your wishlist and picking it up in a sale. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for something to add more flavour to your race, empire and federation then you will find a lot of options in Federations that you will enjoy.

You can find Stellaris: Federations on Steam.

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