In 2016, Paradox released Stellaris, its first space-based 4X grand strategy game. It allowed players to take on the role of an upstart interstellar empire, establish colonies, manage their government, forge alliances, and crush their enemies. The game’s galaxy was vast and robust, but, as Polygon’s own Charlie Hall pointed out in his initial review, it was also fairly generic, a weakness that the modding community has sought to rectify by applying the aesthetics and history of their own favorite space operas overtop of it, such as Star Wars, Mass Effect, and of course, Star Trek. Not to be outdone, Paradox and developer Nimble Giant have been creating an officially licensed Star Trek 4X game, Star Trek: Infinite. Paradox offered me the opportunity to preview the game over Labor Day weekend, and those four days melted away.
Stellaris players will immediately recognize much of Star Trek: Infinite’s interface and basic gameplay, down to the keyboard shortcuts. You begin by selecting your faction and expanding your immediate circle of influence across a two-dimensional galactic map, surveying and colonizing local star systems, developing new technologies and relationships with your neighbors. Depending on your faction, your goal may be to build partnerships, annihilate obstacles, or something in between.
As the decades pass and your empire grows, your responsibilities become more complex and varied, from keeping your sprawling population employed to defending your borders against hostile invasion. Conflict is inevitable and defeat is an expected part of the process, as power dynamics shift over the course of centuries. The constant juggling of tasks and the ability to shrug off the odd failure make for a compelling combination that I suspect will keep players glued to their seats for hours on end.
The things that make Star Trek: Infinite hard to put down are mainly inherited from Stellaris; however, producer Mats Holm flatly rejects the notion that Star Trek: Infinite is a mere branded module.
“We split off from the Stellaris main branch quite a while ago,” says Holm. “The Stellaris team is completely focused on making every possible sci-fi theme that you can imagine, put into one game. On Star Trek: Infinite, we want to make the ultimate Star Trek fantasy. We want it to be very bespoke.”
While Stellaris certainly provides the foundational mechanical elements, Infinite’s gameplay experience is shaped by its Star Trek setting. Rather than offering a dozen different playable empires with subtly different play styles, Infinite narrows your options to four major powers with conflicting philosophies. The United Federation of Planets is driven by scientific advancement and intergalactic cooperation. The Klingon Empire is a warrior culture that relishes in battle and conquest. The Romulan Empire prefers a more subtle approach to statecraft, utilizing spies and propaganda to keep their enemies off balance. The Cardassian Union is a cunning military dictatorship whose economy relies on slave labor and vassal states.
Conveniently, these four bodies also happen to be neighbors in the Star Trek canon, and each of them has been both ally and enemy to every other over the course of the franchise’s long fictional history. In a change from Stellaris, each empire’s gameplay is guided by a unique mission tree that rewards you for keeping your faction on brand and on task, or for making certain radical departures from the canon. Certain events are set in stone, such as the Borg invasion or the destruction of the Romulan sun, but the rest depends on your skill as well as your whims, and should your imagination fail you, the mission tree is there to point you to your next goal. Each faction has canonical and counter-canonical branches on the mission tree (will you play the Federation at its most benevolent, or give in to its more paranoid, martial tendencies?), but in either case, you’re encouraged to lean into your character.
Infinite’s creative leads chose the game’s major factions and temporal setting very deliberately, beginning gameplay in 2340, about 20 years before the beginning of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is an era during which all four player empires are evenly matched, generally stable, and will see a lot of conflict in ensuing decades. Infinite’s first unavoidable event is the Khitomer Massacre, a Romulan sneak attack against the Klingons whose political ramifications reverberate throughout The Next Generation. The merciless Cardassian occupation of Bajor, a peaceful world that also shares a border with the Federation, is well underway. Rumors grow of strange cubical starships full of cybernetic zombies, looming just outside of known space. If you were going to design an original universe for a space conquest game, you might very well come up with a status quo like this one, and it just happens to be the beginning of the most prolific and popular era of an iconic franchise.
“Choosing the time period was a pretty big discussion,” says game director Ezequiel Maldonado. “We felt The Next Generation was the best fit, because that series is very focused on what’s happening on the Enterprise and not too much of what’s happening in the universe, but you get just a glimpse of what’s happening on a diplomatic scale. For us, it was a perfect starting point for a grand strategy game.”
“Once you choose the TNG era, you sort of have to include the Klingons, Romulans, and Cardassians,” adds programming director Andres Ricardo Chamarra. “Apart from late seasons of Deep Space Nine, the metapolitical stuff happens around the series, but it doesn’t happen in the series, so the player has to use their imagination.”
Setting the game in this familiar galaxy isn’t without its drawbacks. Unlike in Stellaris, where the geography of the galaxy is randomized at the start of each game, the relative positions of the powers in Star Trek: Infinite are fixed to something approximating the canonical star map. Anomalies and obstacles are scattered across the map to create some variety, but for the most part, replays of Infinite take an hour or two to become dramatically different from one another.
The diversity of the galaxy itself is also hampered by the limitations of its source material. All of the major and minor powers you encounter are, as in the TV show, humanoids with slightly different bumpy foreheads. The consistent geography might help you to remember what part of space belongs to which empire, but if you don’t know a Ktarian from a Talarian, that’s not much help. For Star Trek fans, however, pre-investment can sweeten the experience, as many of the societies you meet or planets you settle will have a deeper meaning than their practical value in the game. There is no specific advantage to giving Benjamin Sisko command of one of your fleets, but you’ll probably keep a more watchful eye on him than on NPCs with randomly generated names.
As in Stellaris, warfare is easily the most underwhelming element of Star Trek: Infinite. While seasoned strategy gamers may find more interesting ways to maneuver their forces, for the most part, winning a battle in Infinite merely depends on amassing a larger force than your opponent, and military might is merely another resource for the player to manage. That being said, combat has never been the most important element of Star Trek on screen, and given the habit of Star Trek games to disproportionately focus on violence (particularly during Activision’s time with the license in the 2000s), lackluster action is certainly forgivable. In Infinite, just as in most Star Trek, the future is built at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield.
For longtime players of Stellaris who have kept up with its expansions and mods, whether or not Star Trek: Infinite is worth a separate purchase will likely depend on the price point. (Paradox certainly hopes to court this audience, going so far as to invite the creators of the popular Star Trek: New Civilisations mod to playtest Infinite and give notes.) But, for strategy fans who are not already bought in — particularly Trekkies — Star Trek: Infinite is already promising. Even in its pre-release state, Infinite is an abyss into which you can easily lose yourself for days at a time, and given the studio’s track record of expansions and extended game life cycles, it’s likely to get a lot deeper.
Star Trek: Infinite will be released on Oct. 12 on Mac and Windows PC.