To quote one Prokhor Zakharov, “There are two kinds of ludological progress: the methodical experimentation and categorization which gradually extend the boundaries of gameplay, and the revolutionary leap of genius which redefines and transcends those boundaries. Acknowledging our debt to the former, we yearn, nonetheless, for the latter.”
Of course, the good Academician was actually talking about scientific progress, not 4X games. Still, the yearning for the next revolutionary, transcendent leap applies to all areas of human endeavor. Fortunately, we space sim enthusiasts can stop yearning, because Distant Worlds is one of those leaps.
Now, innovative games (those in the “revolutionary leap” category) are not inherently better than iterative games (those that methodically experiment). They’re generally two very different creatures. Those that set out to innovate will often be rough around the edges and lack the polish and shine of their iterative cousins, and that is certainly true of Distant Worlds, even after several expansions. It’s clear that the focus has been on big-picture items and innovations, at the expense of polish and shine – things like a tidy UI and impressive graphics. If those things are important to you, you’ll want to proceed with caution.
Before we get on with the review, I should mention that this game came out a while ago. Developer CodeForce and publisher Matrix Games launched Distant Worlds back in March 2010. The latest expansion, Distant Worlds: Universe, brought the game to Steam in May 2014, but didn’t provide much in the way of new content. The last true expansion, Shadows, dates back to May 2013. So while still a trailblazer, DW:U is now one of several recent games seeking to chart a new course for the space strategy genre.
OK, enough with the qualifiers. We’ve got a lot of space to cover, so let’s dive in!
eXplore: Despite the immense scope of Distant Worlds, eXploration starts off on a small scale. You start out confined to your home system without any faster-than-light technology. Along with fuel and construction materials, you’ll be scouring your starting star system for natural phenomena that give research bonuses, luxury resources to bolster your world’s growth rate, and scenic locations to fuel the engines of your totalitarian state-run resort industry.
Anyway, the most critical role of early eXploration is getting your hands on FTL technology. One of the two ancient ruins in your home system contains an old storehouse of knowledge that lets you start researching Warp Field Precursors. This sets you down the path to becoming a true interstellar empire. Once your first ship hits FTL, go ahead and scroll out.
Can you keep 1400 of anything straight? Because that’s how many systems Distant Worlds will throw at you on its highest setting. Most of these systems have at least several planets, many of which will have at least one satellite. All of these have gameplay value – even that nebulous gas cloud can host a vital fuel depot for your explorers or warships. There are few games that can give you as much sheer physical real estate as Distant Worlds. Fortunately, the AI does a reasonably good job with auto-explore orders, so after you visit the first few neighboring systems with your snail-pace Warp Bubble Generators, you can pretty safely turn it on auto if you want.
But what good are all those planets if there’s nothing interesting there? Rest ye assured, there’s plenty. You’ll uncover fledgling minor colonies, powerful controlled substances, derelict fleets of powerful ancient warships, and much more. Additionally, eXploration gradually reveals the background of the Distant Worlds… well, universe.
eXploration is also critical in developing your economy. Investing in a big fleet of long-range scouts helps you beat the competition to the juiciest mining locations, which keeps your construction on-schedule and your economy in top shape.
However, while there’s a lot of stuff to explore, there’s not a whole lot of variety. There’s little in the vein of Endless Space’s anomalies to keep things feeling fresh, and the range of planets you’ll find is somewhat limited. Or rather, perhaps, uninteresting. While there’s a good number of planet types (marshy swamp, continental, volcanic, ocean, etc.), each colonizable planet really only has two distinguishing traits: size and quality. They’re both exactly what you’d imagine. I really enjoyed looking through the various attributes of potential colony locations in Master of Orion II, and weighing size vs. gravity vs. mineral abundance vs. fertility. Granted, it’s not a big step to abstract all these elements down to simple “quality” and “size” when you’re talking about a game as broad in scope as Distant Worlds, especially given that population and planet management are equally abstracted and simplistic. But it does leave me wanting more.
While pushing back the fog of war is a more-or-less conventional affair, the tech tree takes a turn off the beaten path. Gone are the days of coasting off planets full of enslaved Psilons with all the research buildings. In fact, your populace doesn’t directly do any research, apart from the occasional science leader. Instead, your research is conducted by labs equipped on automated space stations. At any given time, you’ll be making progress down all three research trees: Weapons, Energy & Construction, and High Tech & Industrial. Your research rate is capped by empire’s max output, which is determined by the size and smarts of your population, then subjected to any empire-wide bonuses or penalties. It’s a lot simpler than it sounds. In practice, this means that while bigger empires or brighter citizens will have a research edge, it generally doesn’t snowball as much as in a lot of games.
As for the research trees themselves, there’s nothing truly revolutionary about them, apart from the fact that you’ll be researching one tech from each of the three trees at the same time. Everyone has the same trees, with the exception that some races have one unique tech branch that gives them a decent edge in one department or another. The one other noteworthy element of the trees is simply their size. They’re not mindblowing or revolutionary, but there’s a lot to discover, and it can be fun just perusing the tech tree and planning your research order.
The biggest disappointment with technology is that it’s pretty linear. That means two things here. First, in terms of ship components, technology B is pretty much technology A with bigger numbers. Second, navigating the tech tree is really straightforward. The only decision you make is what order you chose your techs, unlike games that make you choose between mutually exclusive techs, or mix things up with how you move through the research tree.
Distant Worlds gives you plenty to eXplore, and really lets you feel the impact of your decisions. Unfortunately, it does falter in terms of variety, which can make the enormous sandbox feel a little small at times.
eXpand: Like most space 4X games, the default settings start you with just one lonely colony, no ships, and just enough technology to build a functional spaceport. From that little corner of the galaxy, you’re tasked with building an empire that can weather any threat.
This is where the scale of the game universe really starts to set in. Every species has only one type of planet that it can colonize without expensive techs, so you can explore dozens of systems before you find a potential colony location. This lends the galaxy a real sense of space and scope, and, frankly, a dose of refreshing realism in a genre where colony-supporting planets are often the rule rather than the exception. Although that’s not to say that these systems are empty. Uninhabitable planets, gas clouds, black holes, and supernovae can all be leveraged, and laying claim to them expands your territorial influence.
Settling new worlds is vital to your success, of course, but less so than in a lot of other 4X games. It takes some time for a colony to start pulling its weight. This is especially true because population growth in Distant Worlds works like population growth in the real world. It takes a lot longer to go from 40 million to 50 million than it takes to go from 10 billion to 11 billion. This is the reverse of the popular Civilization model of population growth, and it’s a refreshing and welcome departure. Plus, it helps balance out races that might start colonizing later due to a slower early game.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much to managing your population and colonies, other than watching your worlds grow in size and setting their tax rates. (Protip: 0% until they’re at max population, then squeeze, and squeeze, and SQUEEZE!) There’s no Master of Orion II-style shuffling between professions, or Galactic Civilizations-esque facility and industrial management. It pretty much boils down to numbers for population and growth, another number for happiness, and some (very few, actually) planetside buildings whose construction will only occupy a tiny fraction of your planets’ time. There are, however, some nifty and very powerful wonders for those who can grab them.
But there’s a reason for the sparse happenings planetside. This is a game about space, and as such, that’s where the action’s taking place. With the exception of colony ships and construction ships, all military and private vessels are built at the orbital spaceports that serve as the economic and logistical hubs of your empire. Personally, I love this. Making spaceports the front-and-center of stellar industry adds a layer of strategic depth to gameplay, and helps alleviate the tedium of managing billions of citizens across numerous colonies. But even as I laud the design, I do miss managing my citizens and worlds in more meaningful ways.
eXploit: Distant Worlds handles resources in a way I don’t think we’ve ever seen in a game, both in terms of scale and mechanics. Every station and ship component (thrusters, life support, etc.) requires two things to build: money, and a number of one or more of the game’s 19 (yes, 19!) strategic resources. If you lack the necessary resources, they’ll be brought to you slowly by independent traders or hired pirate smugglers, but either will cost you. Because of this, resource eXploitation is critical to keeping your economy chugging along.
But that iridium isn’t going to transport itself! So how on earth do you get all 19 of those resources to where they need to be?
Fortunately, you don’t have to. In fact, you can’t.
Enter the private sector. This, along with automation, is Distant Worlds’ greatest gift to the 4X genre. The private sector is made up of numerous civilian ships operating under the banner of the major empires (plus pirates and independent traders), but completely outside direct control. It’s driven by profit margins, supply, and demand. Imagine having a game of Interstellar Trading Tycoon going on in the background, greasing the wheels and making sure everything is where it needs to be, freeing you up to, you know, rule your interstellar empire.
What that means for you is that if you need some Caselon to fuel your ships, or some rare crystal for your fancy new shield generator, the private sector will make sure you get it. But if you have to look outside your own empire, that money’s going to funnel away from your economic sphere (and into someone else’s coffers). This means that you’ll very seldom find yourself completely stalled out for lack of a particular resource, but poor planning will still hamper your economic growth.
I can’t stress enough how far the private sector goes toward creating a meaningful, entertaining game experience. It supports a huge, complex resource framework, while eliminating the tedium of tracking every last little one. It means that you can always get what you need, but at a cost. It means that you’re rewarded for smart planning and good infrastructure, without letting your mistakes grind the game to a halt. If there’s one thing you should take away from this review, and that I hope other developers take away from Distant Worlds as a whole, it’s the private sector. It’s brilliant. I’d love to see more games adopt this model in the future.
Unfortunately, when it comes to directly eXploiting your citizens, there’s not a whole lot for you to do. But Distant Worlds does have a nice special characters system.
This is the closest thing to population management you’ll find in Distant Worlds. Leaders are generated randomly, although certain events have a chance of spawning one, and different races have higher or lower chances for certain types. There’s a good range of roles (captains, admirals, scientists, governors, intelligence agents, etc.) and attributes. Often you’ll find characters who have both advantages and disadvantages, and figuring out how to get the most out of them can be an engaging process.
But there’s one other unusual population mechanic, and that’s multiracial empires. Because it pulls the lens way, way out on empire management, racial bonuses don’t take place colonist-by-colonist, but rather in your empire as a whole. As you acquire more and more alien citizens, you’ll start receiving their racial bonuses. This can happen either by conquest, or by emigration, which empires have no direct control over. It’s good to see a way of gaining those sweet racial bonuses through making friends instead of just through warfare.
Speaking of playing nice, diplomacy definitely exists in Distant Worlds, but it’s not the game’s strong point. Rather, it’s a mashup of elements – some standard, some bare-bones, and some truly different and exciting – that doesn’t really make for a strong, focused whole. Your standing with any given empire is determined by a set of the usual pluses and minuses. It does spice things up a bit, by adding your empire’s reputation to the mix, or letting you trade your powerful restricted resources to boost relations, but it’s mostly a standard X+Y-Z relations system. You can trade techs, maps, credits, bases, etc. as per the norm, and make requests, gifts, and demands. Nothing revolutionary. Friendly neighbors can exchange mining and refueling rights, and relations range up from Free Trade to Defensive Alliance and Protectorate to full Alliance, or down to sanctions, blockade, and all-out war.
The military alliances work a lot better in Distant Worlds than in most games. The AI isn’t too timid about signing or upholding them, and the big military blocs that emerge can make for some interesting situations and challenges. Unfortunately, working up to an alliance is usually a matter of finding someone who likes your racial grouping and government type, giving them a thing or two, and then waiting until your relation ticks high enough to have your proposal accepted. Not the most involved process. The lack of any sort of UN-style organization is also sorely felt.
Distant Worlds’ diplomacy system has the foundations for something really great. Things like mining rights and restricted resource trade, reputation, border tensions, and strong alliance blocs make for the foundations of a strong, unique package. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really come together into a cohesive, satisfying whole the way a lot of the game’s other systems do.
eXterminate: Distant Worlds delivers grand empires – it’s only natural that it deliver grand conflicts. From the size of your fleets to the details of ship design, there’s a lot going on in the eXtermination phase.
Ship building will be a love-or-hate experience for most players. Those looking for spatial customization like in Star Drive 2 or Star Ruler 2 will be disappointed, as a ship is basically a laundry list of components. Fortunately, if you find ship design tedious and you’re willing to sacrifice some optimization, the AI will design them for you.
Personally, I really like tinkering with ship design. While the interface is an absolute monster – organization of modules is really sub-par – designers have tons of choices and plenty of freedom. To its credit, the interface does a great job of telling you the exact specs of your ships – things like cost, max speed, energy consumption, and defenses. Damage per second for weapons and ships is sorely lacking, however.
The base game has some pretty glaring balance issues, and, to be honest, the AI auto-design doesn’t seem to be aware of them. Fortunately, modders have tackled these problems with earnest. The unmodded game will be fine a lot of people. But min-maxers will soon find the optimal paths through the base game, which can make winning combat trivial. On the bright side, the non-weapon components (defenses, reactors, thrusters, hyperdrive, etc.) are all valid areas of focus, and which you prioritize can really affect how your fleets perform. Another major criticism of ship design is that the winning strategy is to build as many of the largest ship you can and mostly ignore all the smaller designs. This is a common problem in space 4X, and I wish the minds at Matrix and CodeForce would have tackled it.
The final major stumbling point in ship design is that while you have plenty of choices of what sorts of components to research – thrusters, reactors, hyperdrive, beams, maneuvering engines, etc. – each line offers very little variety. Generally you’ll have a few decision points where you can choose between different lines (for example, shields with higher strength vs. higher recharge rate), but for the most part each component is like the one before it, only with bigger numbers. However, one place this doesn’t hold true is with weapons. While each next tier is generally much like the one before it, the weapon types perform differently enough that you’ll want to gear your ships and your scripts toward various tactics depending on their weapon loadouts.
As for what you do with those ships once you’ve designed them, well, the options are more limited. Player control over space combat in Distant Worlds is minimal. Pick a fleet, pick a target, and watch in real time as they blow the space junk out of one another on the strategic map. For the most part, combat is fought and won on the strategic level. It’s not tactics, but rather tech choices, ship designs, and asset deployment that determine the victor. The player does have some control over how their ships engage the enemy (engagement range and when to flee). While there aren’t many options to choose from, the choices you do have make a big difference in how combat plays out.
Still, for its limitations, there’s something viscerally satisfying about how grand ship combat feels. In that timeless 4X way, watching your hundreds of ships wallop on their prey really gives you that sublime sense of “Yes, I built this; it is mine, and it rocks.” Seeing your decisions come together and work out (or not) is rewarding in its own right, although it won’t be enough to satisfy those wanting more depth in tactical combat.
As hands-off as space combat is, ground combat is… well, exactly the same but more. Load your transports (you can choose from infantry, armored units, and special forces), click a planet, and watch as the little lines move across the screen. Or don’t. You’ll have a few techs that increase your troops’ attack or defense strength, and generals that can give a variety of buffs, but just like in space, you’re not doing a whole lot of commanding – it’s all decided on the strategic level.
While it’s far from perfect, I feel like eXtermination in Distant Worlds is yet another breath of fresh air. The mechanics of combat are hit-and-miss, yes. But what I really love is that conflict isn’t a binary system. In so many 4X games, your two choices are total peace or total war, with nothing in-between. Grab Gandhi’s worker? Get ready for 3,000 years of scorched earth with a side of nuclear fallout.
Distant Worlds plays it differently, and smartly. Here, the use of force outside war is common, and the game even pushes you in that direction (although your reputation will suffer for it). As tensions grow, any side is liable to use force to get their way. This can range from bribing a pirate faction to launching an attack, to shooting down an enemy construction ship repairing an ancient derelict, to blockading or even invading an enemy planet. Because the consequences aren’t as severe as immediate and prolonged war, this option is honestly pretty attractive. That helps ramp up tension and hostility in a very organic and satisfying way. Seeing how far you can push another empire before they snap, or judging how far you’re willing to be pushed yourself, is exhilarating and suspenseful. I hope to see more games adopt this approach over the boring, stale, war-or-not-war system.
eXperience: eXperience is probably the most divisive element of Distant Worlds. It will either blow you away, or completely turn you off. This stems from the game’s nature as an innovator rather than an iterator. It’s also a good demonstration of why one isn’t necessarily better than the other.
Because Distant Worlds can spawn such huge galaxies and fill them with thousands upon thousands of moving parts, computer performance can become an issue towards the midgame and beyond. While I only had one crash to desktop in my 100+ hours of playtime, things definitely slowed down when 50-ship fleets started clashing. But given how many moving parts the game’s keeping track of, I’m actually surprised at just how well it performs most of the time. Save and load times can get long, but again much less so than I expected. The biggest hangups tended to be when starting the game after a while away, or when switching scenarios.
Alright, now, let’s get the bad news out of the way. On a technical level, Distant Worlds leaves a lot to be desired. As you’ve probably noticed from the screenshots, the UI is paradise for those who just can’t get enough Windows 2000. A lot of the sound effects are unpleasant, especially the interface sounds. The music has a few nice tracks, but is generally ok-to-weak and isn’t context-sensitive (selecting tracks based on what’s happening in your game). And of course the in-game graphics are pretty dated.
The problems with presentation aren’t just skin-deep, either. For a game that throws a lot of information at you, it often does a poor job of helping you find the information you want. A simple set of filters would do wonders for this game. For example, a filter to display only luxury resources on the expansion planner, rather than making you do searches for all 22 of them individually. The base game’s interface icons are also pretty impenetrable to the unfamiliar. I literally spent a year wondering what the cylinder with three lines through it was supposed to be, before a Let’s Play told me it means refueling (apparently, it’s supposed to be an oil barrel). Fortunately, there are several solid mods that address some of the graphical interface issues, but that doesn’t let the base game off the hook. The difficult interface can make the already brutal learning curve even more frustrating and overwhelming, which is the last thing the game needs.
But there’s good news – and that’s that the rest of the news is good news. If you can push past those flaws, the eXperience really capitalizes on the game’s strengths and elevates it to greatness.
Distant Worlds is widely – and rightly – praised for two things above all. The first is the private sector, which we’ve already covered. The second we’ve only touched on, and that’s automation. The game lets you choose exactly which parts you’d like to manage yourself, which you’d like the AI’s advice on, and which you’d like to run on full auto. This lets you learn the game in smaller chunks, turning what would have been a Herculean undertaking into something understandable and enjoyable. But on top of that, the automation does a decent enough job (usually) that you can focus on what you really love to do.
The downside of automation is that it doesn’t play as well as a skilled human player would. But at the very least, the automation AI is playing by the same book as your rivals. So even if it’s not playing optimally, it’s handling things as well as the competition.
Along with being a welcome innovation, automation is critical to the overall Distant Worlds eXperience. Without it, the game would either be forced to limit its systems’ scope, limit their depth, or alienate all but the most micro-hungry gamers. It’s precisely because of the automation that Distant Worlds can exist in all its nuanced, data-rich glory and still hold its appeal. Strong automation is also why playing on a 1400-star map is not only manageable but downright enjoyable. This sets DW:U apart from those 4X games where you can spawn gargantuan game boards, but would almost never actually want to. (GalCiv 3 and Worlds of Magic come to mind.) Finally, automation really improves replayability, since you can play completely different parts of the game between (or within) playthroughs.
Replayability, as with most elements of Distant Worlds, is a mixed bag. I’ve already lamented the lack of variety on the galaxy map. Random events don’t add a whole lot in my opinion. The pool isn’t that big, and on top of that, most of them are some variation of “Some terrible thing happened. Your economy collapses and you wish you’d turned events off. Have a nice day.”
That aside, it’s mostly sunny on the replayability front. First, you’re given a huge degree of customization in galaxy setup. You can set galaxy size and shape, starting research level and speed, starting colony development, aggression, pirate strength, colonization range, territorial influence, and tons more. Additionally, you can set a lot of these settings (those pertaining to empires specifically, like starting tech) on a per-empire basis. Giving the player the ability to create asymmetric scenarios on its own is a marvelous thing, and all the game-wide options compound the staggering level of customization. If that’s not enough, the game comes with an alternate “Ancient Galaxy” scenario, with its own setting and storyline. Or, you can play in the regular scenario, but as a pirate faction, with a set of rules and challenges completely different from those of a standard empire.
That covers the galaxy, but what about the individual races that inhabit it? At the risk of sounding like a tired metaphor, racial variation is again a mixed bag. There are a number of races to choose from, each with personality characteristics and bonuses. (How these characteristics function in-game is a little opaque, but explained in the Galactopedia.) Unfortunately, the variation is almost exclusively of the “+X% of this, -Y% of that” variety, with additional bonuses and penalties to leader generation thrown in. While one race might grow quickly and tech slowly, or place a greater emphasis on espionage, there’s little to fundamentally alter the way the game plays.
However, the later expansions struck gold when they implemented race-specific victory conditions. In a lot of ways, these do more to give each race a particular feel and flavor than the statistical bonuses. For example, a lot of the Insectoid races reproduce quickly, but the thing that really makes you want to go out and exterminate some neighbors is the fact that many of them are given more victory points the longer they are at at war. This helps create focused and differentiated play style between games, which in turn improves replayability.
Finally, Distant Worlds has great mod support, and a killer mod community. Distant Worlds was built from the ground up to support and encourage modding, and it shows. It’s very simple on a technical level, and relatively easy to jump in. On top of that, Erik and Elliot, DW:U’s two-man development team, have been very active in supporting modders, doing things like taking feature requests from modders and opening up various systems to modding. This has lead to some truly spectacular player-generated content, such as the Extended AI compilation mod, which more than doubles the number of races, gives the UI a major overhaul, and dramatically improves the AI, among other things. (Most of the screenshots in this review were captured using this mod.) There are plenty of mods that improve the UI and graphics, and those that make substantial changes to gameplay. And for those looking for more, there are a number of scenario mods, including classic SF franchises such as Babylon 5 and Star Trek.
If I may crib another phrase, Distant Worlds: Universe is one giant leap for space 4X. That’s not to say it’s perfect, or everyone will enjoy it. (With a metascore of 81 and 80% positive reviews on Steam as of press time, it clearly doesn’t appeal to everyone.) But what it does, it does better than anything else on the market, and it brings some truly profound, desperately needed innovations to the genre.
I hesitate to use the term “depth,” but the simple fact is that this is the deepest space 4X out there. For those who like their scale vast and their scope grand, nothing else compares. Those who prefer simplicity, polish, and presentation will want to look elsewhere. But those who can push past the shortcomings, and put in the seat time to get familiar with the game’s functions and quirks, have a new, exquisite experience waiting for them.
TL;DR: Distant Worlds: Universe couples strong core gameplay with fresh, badly-needed innovations to the 4X genre, buried under an imposing presentation, poor graphics, and painful UI. The private sector mechanics and automation eliminate a lot of the tedium of ruling enormous interstellar empires, but those who are overwhelmed by too much data or don’t like automation may find the game alienating and frustrating.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You’re looking for a game that pushes the boundaries of the 4X genre
- You want a game with a big picture approach that treats you like a space emperor, not a multi-colony workforce manager
- You enjoy games with a lot of in-depth functions to explore and manage (or automate)
- You’re looking for something that can keep you entertained, and fully engaged, for hundreds of hours
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You’re looking for Master of Orion 2.5
- You want something you can pick up and play with a low learning curve
- You’re intimidated by 4X games with a large scope, a high degree of freedom, and lots of information
- You’re looking for in-depth tactical combat
- You prefer 4X games with heavy management of colonies and populations
- Aesthetics and presentation (graphics, UI, music, etc.) are highly important to you
Ben has played for 111 hours on an Apple MacBook Pro with Windows 7, an Intel Core i5-3210HQ @ 2.5GHz, 8GB 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, and an Intel HD Graphics 4000 gpu.