We’ve been talking about Space 4X games a lot over on our sister website. It seems fitting that, as Stellaris re-invents itself to give a more terrestrial interpretation of space, they make themselves more like today’s review candidate. Polaris Sector is a real-time strategy space 4X strategy game from Slitherine that was released last year. We weren’t around to review it then, but today it receives its first expansion – Lumens – so we’re going to take this opportunity to do an “all-in-one” look at the game as it is now.
Polaris Sector is a deceptively simple game, albeit one that is capable of incredible depth that will test your abilities to micro-manage and optimise to the max. A fairly standard sci-fi set-up – every one of the game’s nine (ten with Lumens) factions starts with a single colonised world within a single system. Systems are simply nodes with a variable list of planets ranging from small moons to large gas giants. There aren’t that many system level mechanics, and you can look to Endless Space as a comparison here.
Systems are linked together by hyperlanes, with hyperlane travel being the primary FTL method. One race starts with an alternative FTL method that can be unlocked by everyone eventually, but for the most part you’ll be using those fixed travel points. There are half a dozen or so different resources in the game that you will need to seek out and mine to support your growing empire. Empire-level zone of control is determined by which hyperlane routes you can block off with settled planets. A settled planet will generate production depending on how many production buildings it has, and consume food relative to its population size which you will need to keep an eye on.
Polaris Sector imposes a very homogeneous racial spectrum. All races want to colonise Earth-likes or Oceanic planets. All races can, at varying speeds, unlock the ability to settle more harsh/barren worlds (and one race starts off with that ability). It’s a bit bland, especially if you’re used to Stellaris’ a-symmetry, but won’t be immersion breaking if you don’t let it. What is kind of a bummer is that most games of Polaris devolve into a great ‘land-rush’ in the good old-west style. You essentially need to scout and settle as much as possible until you bump into the boundaries of the other races, at the exclusion of all other tasks to begin with. Once the borders have settled, you can start looking inward and ‘back-filling’ any prime settling spots you missed.
When you look at it from another angle, however, all of these strategic level mechanics are only there to facilitate one thing. When I reviewed Battlestar Galactica Deadlock earlier in the year, I mentioned how you could sometimes tell where a developer had focused their money and resources. It’s true here, as well – the best thing about Polaris Sector has to be its tactical battle engine. Whenever you encounter an enemy fleet, you load into a separate 2D battlespace. Your ships come to life with their sprites, and everything takes on a much different dimension. All those stats that you see in the ship designer – weapon ranges, scanner distances, hull & speed… they are all brought into spectacular relevance. You need to make sure you keep your ships together, carefully screening the weaker ones with ships or fighters. Tactics are encouraged, but be prepared for good ol’ slug fests as well.
The “science game” is also pretty cool. Your empire generates an amount of science points depending on how many research facilities you have and other factors. These are then distributed evenly first between Applied & Fundamental sciences, and then between all of the available Applied areas that you have going on. Putting more of the total into Fundamental sciences will cause new fields of study to unlock quicker, while more Applied Science will cause new technologies to unlock (within the fields you have access to) quicker. You can also prioritise which areas you do and don’t want to invest resources in, making for a very varied and involved technological progression. Different races have a different order that they unlock techs in, making each faction unique in terms of what they can excel at.
Let’s talk about the Lumens expansion itself for a minute. The main addition is the Lumen race themselves. As a people made of light, they’re not so concerned with corporeal matters like food. Lumen planets don’t need to support a population with food at all, which makes farms redundant. What they do need is production – Lumen planets need to make sure they have plenty of production to not only feed the populace, but also be able to build things. Population Control Measures is your friend, and the Lumens can become industrial power-houses on Earthlike worlds a lot quicker than other races, but they suffer in areas like research, which requires a lot more careful management. They’re an interesting race to play as, all things considered.
The rest of the expansion deals with changes that range from Quality of Life to new content. There’s plenty of new technology, although a lot of this comes down to the more unique racial tech trees that are now on offer. Races still research the same thing, more or less (there are some race-unique techs), but sometimes it’ll be called something else, or it will lead to slightly different practical applications. Along with new tech come new toys of course – tactical combat weapons for the most part. There are also new diplomacy options and racial properties that add more diversity to the game systems. You can build fleet templates, automate various functions like re-stocking fighter complements and so on…
If we’re being truly objective here, there are things Polaris Sector does very well and things that it doesn’t. This is a deep, tactically engaging sci-fi wargame, coupled with an inventive and in-depth research system, that’s wrapped within a pretty lack-lustre grand-strategy game. You could just have the tactical battles, the ship designer, and then the tech tree and I’d argue you’d still have just a good a game as you do now — perhaps even better. This being said, Lumens does add some much needed quality of life and diversity improvements, so you’re definitely better off picking the two up together.
It would have been great to see what this game could be in a sequel, with perhaps a bit more money behind it. Even with this new expansion, I suspect we’re not going to see more than a few more quality of life improvements in the game’s future. Polaris Sector may not go down in the history books as the most inventive sci-fi 4X ship in history, but it leads the charge in a few key areas that the rest of the genre would do well to take note of. There are worse things to spend your money on, that’s for sure. Like Loot Boxes.
This review covers a game that has been developed and published by members of the Slitherine Group with which we share affiliation with. For more information, please see the About Us and Reviews Policy pages.