Stellaris: Synthetic Dawn Review

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Synthetic Dawn is a DLC “Story Pack” for the 2016 grand strategy game Stellaris from Paradox Studios. It released on the 21st of September 2017 and has a focus on Machine Empires within the game.

The story packs base price is $9.99 which is the same as the previously released Leviathans story pack. However, if you’re dealing in British Pound Sterling it’s 50p cheaper than its predecessor weighing in at £6.99 as opposed to £7.49. So just a small aside that if you’re in the UK, you’re getting a better deal.

Machine empires are now playable for the first time in Stellaris, when designing your race, you’ll have several new options to choose from including 8 new Machine themed portraits for your race with colour variations in each one. There’s also the general robot portrait from the base game that is now usable too.

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Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of the cosmetic customization for this DLC. There’s no new ship types or planet types. Machines live on the base game organic worlds like every other race and use base game organic ships. This was a large drawback for me personally, as someone who likes to get engrossed in the emergent narrative of the game, it’s more than disappointing that the Machines haven’t created a Matrix style world, with the sun blocked out or harnessed at a single focal point. Even the artwork for Synthetic Dawn on the store page, teases us with images of colourful Mechanical Worlds that are not present in the game. The idea of ships with windows doesn’t really make sense with machines, as a machine would just build a sentient ship that would pilot itself, rather than harbour sentient beings.

It’s important to note however, that this is a Story Pack, not a Species pack like the Plantoids Species pack, so while less artwork in general when it comes to the race designer is expected, it’s still disappointing none the less.

Further to that Machine worlds and unique machine ships are in the base game already, under the form of AI rebellions. Here, the AI can live on Machine worlds and you yourself can live on them too, if you own the $20 Utopia Expansion and upgrade your ascension perk tree to allow it.

I don’t want to dwell on it any longer, but a Machine Race focused DLC, that doesn’t allow you to live on Machine worlds - worlds and artwork that’s already in the base game mind you - without owning another more expensive DLC is bad design in my opinion.

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When selecting the government type for your Machine Race, you need to pick Gestalt Consciousness – Machines act as a collective hive mind, from there you’ll be able to choose Machine Intelligence, which comes with a select amount of benefits and drawbacks. For one, machines are immortal, never dying of old age, they can only suffer random breakdowns or death in battle. As they’re a hive mind, you don’t have to worry about governing ethics creating new political factions within your empire nor do you need to worry about food. However, they don’t grow naturally, you need to build them, and as a result they’re more expensive to maintain and require you to micromanage your planets more efficiently to get the most out of them.

You could just leave it at that, and choose some pretty standard civics and go about your playthrough, but as I mentioned there are three distinct styles of play you’ll want to try out.

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First, we have Determined Exterminators. As you’d expect, this is a Skynet style revolt, where you won’t engage in diplomacy with organics and will do anything possible to find and kill all living things. It sounds more interesting than it is however. Ultimately, not having any interaction with pops and only having one diplomacy option with everyone gets a bit tiresome, but it’s always fun to play the bad guy at times. Interestingly, when you take over a planet with organics on it. You’ll begin to process them as you purge their species. This will turn them into energy, if you can keep the unrest down that is. Once they’re wiped out you’ll receive unity for each pop purged, so they really thrive on the extinction of others, which creates a sort of snowball effect. The more you kill, the faster you grow… so that you can kill more.

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The next one is the driven assimilator. You’ll start the game with 4 organic cyborgs. It’s the assimilators job to find new organics to acquire, and then to transform them into cyborgs. Cyborgs aren’t fully machine, they can eventually die, but they don’t have happiness or food requirements, meaning you can get the diversification of unique species, but the benefits of machines on top.

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Unfortunately I found this way of playing to be a bit counterproductive. Gaining a new species can take a long time to turn into Cyborgs at a rate of four pops per year, so you’ll have to deal with the extreme unrest problems. Then once you get cyborgs, you can’t remove them without being seen as someone who purges or grow them as they can’t be built. You can’t change any policies for them, so are just kind of stuck with them. It seems you’re always far better off building your own robots as you can control their modifications and what they’re good at. This might be a little more expensive, but it’s probably evens out when you consider the armies needed to quell unrest.

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The last distinct style of play is the Rouge Servitor. Easily the most interesting in my opinion, it’s the Machines prime directive to safeguard organic species, preserve them and keep them in a blissful state of happiness. You’ll start the campaign with four pops on your home world, these pops never work or do anything really, they exist in sanctuaries by default. You can’t replace their building, and you can’t even build it, they just automatically have sanctuaries wherever you place them. Sanctuaries will provide unity and can be upgraded via technology and traditions later on.

The higher the ratio of organics pops to robotic pops in your empire will give you a boost in monthly influence and also a percentage buff to resource output for your robots. This is capped at 40%, so the best you can get is +2 influence and 40% resource output.

It’s a fun and unique way to play, trying to maintain a high organic population has it’s drawbacks, Robots can live on any planets, whereas your pet species will have a habitability rating. I ended up using the Utopia Expansion to build habitats to house my organic friends and give them the ultimate paradise while the machines worked on the planets to harvest resources. As well as this, you do need to think about food in order to grow your organic pops, and you’ll have to spend influence to settle them on new planets as they can’t use colony ships.

I completed a campaign with these guys, and I think I’ll be playing another as a sort of collector so that I can house one of every species in habitats. It’s a pretty cool feeling to have a fallen empire race kept as one of your prizes.

Overall I think the new playstyles offer something for every type of player and are fun to choose from, however I think each one only has one style of play that you can’t really deviate from. While this provides a nice tailored experience, it removes some of the emergent sandbox nature from playing a race and making decisions about who you want to be yourself later on. Your policies for the most part with each type of play are largely locked out, as they’ve been determined from the get go. I wonder if perhaps it’d have been more interesting to just add these types of play to the policies screen and let players decide how they want play, taking elements from each playstyle possibly.

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You could’ve had political parties that advocated the protection of organics and others that viewed them as a threat, with your policies dictating which way you lean and a potential civil war erupting. It might go against the grain of a machine intelligence, but if the machines were truly sentient beings with their own thoughts and dare I say feelings, it’s plausible this way. However, in synthetic dawn machines are hive minds only meaning they have one prime directive and never deviate from it.

Synthetic Dawn adds a new type of Fallen Empire to the game, a Fallen Machine Empire. Sadly, out of my three playthroughs, I never encountered a Fallen Machine Empire but from reading online and briefly looking at them in game with cheats, they appear to be a Fallen Empire that acts quite differently. Their mission was to protect organic life on ring worlds that they constructed however it all seems to have gone wrong, now they act erratically and you never quite know if they will help or hinder you. Their opinion is blocked and they don’t ever look to awaken, instead only awakening when a certain crisis occurs.

Another feature that I sort of missed was a Machine Rebellion. According to the feature list, A Machine Rebellion creates an event chain where synths that have not been given citizen rights may start to network and eventually rebel, forming a new Machine Empire that attempts to overthrow their organic masters. So it would seem that this only happens if you play as an organic species. I played as a machine intelligence that doesn’t need to grant citizenship so it can’t happen. I did see an empire close to me rip apart in civil war because machines rose up, and as I was playing robotic I tried to fund them with minerals to survive, but they eventually perished.

I played around 50hrs for this review, so I think it’s a valid point that if you’re thinking of buying it, some of this stuff just might not happen for you.

Synthetic Dawn also adds ten new advisor voices, these are based on government types but you change between any of them whenever you want. It’s personal preference, but some are really good and just inject a bit more life into the game after a year of hearing the same voice.

There’s also three new music tracks added to the game, one of which is a rework for the main title theme. They’re all fantastic in my opinion, Stellaris music is absolutely epic and fits the game perfectly. I never grow tired of it. Robotic God’s dark and slow building synth is one of the soundtracks greatest in my opinion.

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That’s essentially it for the Synthetic Dawn Story Pack. This is a review of the content in this pack only, so stuff like the new end game crisis; the contingency, that focuses on machines, doesn’t count as it’s free to everyone. As well as that Robot Template Modding is now in the base game too.

For what Synthetic Dawn is offering I feel like in some ways its an incomplete pack. The writing of the events is really interesting but they’re just events that are in the base game anyway. The new interaction with the fallen empire is something that never occurred to me so I can’t speak to the value of that, but the Contingency Interaction, while pretty awesome to see, there was only one additional dialogue option for owners of Synthetic Dawn and it doesn’t lead to anything substantial. I think the linear focus of each playstyle means you won’t really get multiple playthroughs out of the pack, and the limited amount of portraits and artwork in general means you don’t have much reason to try it again.

Modders have already been getting to work creating the Machine Worlds a lot of us expected to see and they look great. They’ve also unlocked the machine ships in the base game for people to use. It begs the question if they could scramble it together in a couple days then why couldn’t paradox get some freelance artists to pull together a bit of artwork for machine worlds too. It clearly seems to have been their vision for the pack.

Something that is worth mentioning is that I feel Paradox did a great job supporting the game with an enormous free update that added a lot to the game alongside this DLC. Unfortunately, this review deals with the content of the DLC only so I can’t really judge it based on what’s been added to the game for free.

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