It’s a big galaxy out there. So big, that when it comes to 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) sci-fi gaming, there is now a healthy assortment of titles to choose from, with each offering some unique gameplay twist on the classic 4X approach. Even the fussiest gamer should be able to find the perfect galactic fit these days.
One recent entry into the realm of galactic mayhem is Code Force’s Distant Worlds. Combining the elements of a detailed galactic simulator with a real time environment, Distant Worlds attempts to be both brainy and entertainingly accessible. Speaking from experience, this is quite a tall order to fill as one usually cancels out the other. Has Code Force managed to pull off this difficult design decision? Read on, my galactic sovereign….
Let there be Light
One of the hallmarks of the 4X genre is games that offer lots and lots of replayability delivered through many customization options. Distant World’s continues the trend by giving players a plethora of options to choose from when setting up a new game. There are four galaxy maps to choose from - elliptical, spiral, ring and irregular - with the option of populating them with anywhere from 100 to 1400 stars. Now, keep in mind that Distant Worlds doesn’t create mere pinpoints of light, but entire star systems that are populated with planets, moons, asteroids, and other celestial terrain. It really is quite impressive. Players can also select general planet quality, and the quantity of independent empires, pirates and alien life. Lastly, players can tweak the general age of the galaxy, how aggressive the AI is, and the rate of tech research, a particularly important selection as I found technological progress to be on the slow side on even a ‘normal’ setting.
Of course, the player needs to select a race, and Distant Worlds give lots of options here, even if he can’t design one from scratch as in Galactic Civilizations II. In all, there are over twenty races to choose from, each with a set of unique traits, such as friendly, reckless, industrious or master engineers. In addition to this, the player can select six different government types, each with benefits and detriments, as well as selecting starting tech levels, extent of expansion, corruption rate and even the flag design. The player can also select the number of AI controlled empires in the game, including the possibility for allowing minor independent races to become an empire during the course of the game. Nice. Lastly, the player can pick a set of endgame conditions, from a time limit to economic control, or just leave it all unchecked for a truly endless experience.
Welcome to the Big Leagues
I have to warn you: your first foray into Distant Worlds can be overwhelming. This is a thinking man’s game, one that does not shy away from intricate detail. Add in a real time environment, albeit, one that can be paused or slowed down at will, and it is easy to feel like the game is slipping away from your control.
Fortunately, Code Force seemed well aware of its creation’s steep learning curve and carefully designed the game to be as helpful as possible in a variety of different ways. Perhaps most importantly for the new emperor are the ‘automation’ settings available in the options screen. Again, this being a real time game taking place across a huge map, there can - and will – be a lot going on. To help ease the burden, the player can set certain core functions to be completely automated, such as setting the tax rate or designing new ships. Or the player can make it so that the AI will prompt him to take a particular action rather than do so on its own initiative. I discovered early on that finding the right balance in these settings can make for all the difference in the world when it comes to enjoying the game.
Besides these helpfully automated possibilities, Distant Worlds also sports a clever user interface. It is no exaggeration to say that but for the intelligent way Distant Worlds is divided into bite-sized chunks via its various displays, the game would have been an overwhelming nightmare.
When Distant Worlds starts up, the screen will be centered on your home planet, usually with a bunch of ships and a star port in orbit about it. At the top center is a little display that will slowly scroll all messages that are received, including the completion of vessels, ships or facilities that come under attack, and other news worthy events (a little envelope to the top right of this display keeps a copy of all these messages so they can be revisited later). Click on the message and the screen will center on the event location.
Below the message window are some other clickable screens, including a pause button (you’ll need this), game options (including the important “automation” settings), Empire Comparison screen (to see how your empire compares with others), and Empire Summary (cash flow, citizen happiness, etc.). Perhaps the most used button will be the “Colony Planner”. This is an indispensible screen where the player can see all his colonies listed, as well as any potential candidates. He can even build a colony ship with the click of the mouse and send it on its way to the planet once it is completed. This screen also will display any planets suitable for mining resources, and what those resources might be. Take it from me, you will be spending a lot of time on this very helpful screen.
Now, as I said above, the screen initially begins focused on the player’s homeworld. Ready for a little vertigo? Use the mouse wheel to slowly zoom out…and it suddenly hits you: this is a BIG sandbox! You home planet shrinks until you can see the whole system; the solar system shrinks until you can see the neighboring stars; and the stars shrink until you are looking at a massive galaxy (with vessels, colonies and bases handily marked out and tracked)! It really makes the player’s head swim with the complexity of it all – especially when he realizes that moons are orbiting planets and planets are orbiting their stars!
Again, Distant World’s UI comes to the rescue with a handy mini-map in the bottom right of the screen. Along the left side are some buttons that can be used to scale the view, from centering it on the currently selected item, to showing a system, sector, or galactic view. It makes it much easier to navigate your way around the galaxy.
On the left side of the screen is another display detailing the currently selected object, with all the pertinent information included. The player can use some framing buttons to step through various objects, from planets to idle ships.
For especially important events, such as battles or discoveries, a graphic might slide in from the right side of the screen (again, clickable for more information), while diplomatic communiqués will appear along the top left of the screen.
Go Forth and Conquer
While the scale of Distant Worlds can be…unnerving, the day to day operation of your empire can come as quite a shock to gamers used to having their citizens live and die by their every word. Simply, playing Distant Worlds can be akin to herding space kitties.
Unlike other games that require the player to give precise orders at every level of government, from trade to warfare, Distant Worlds has a very dynamic “private enterprise” system that is both frightening and refreshing. It is frightening because, as soon as the game starts, the player will see his handful of ships scatter to the four solar winds, completing such tasks as building mining bases, ferrying cargo, and even patrolling for pirates without so much as a “by your leave”. Due to many years of training in other space games, I immediately panicked and tried to stop them, or at least micro-manage them to death. However, after a bit, I realized this was both fruitless and pointless; they really seemed to know what they were doing. While you can tweak the automation settings a bit to help control such free ranging behavior, I advise new players to sit on their hands and adopt a laissez faire attitude. The AI is remarkably good at automating this, which is why it is also refreshing. Distant Worlds is the first game to come along in a long while that makes the player feel like he really is overseeing a thriving empire, and not just a collection of pewter figurines that need to be pushed here and there for anything to get done. Again, it can be an initially unnerving experience to see the virtual citizens of your empire completely ignoring you and going about their business, but it soon becomes a welcome sight as the player realizes that he no longer needs to be an omniscient god managing minutia.
There is also another benefit: profit. Having both a “state” and “private” economy serves to generate a lot of revenue. The private sector creates wealth via such means as mining, transporting tourists (ringed planets are always popular destinations), and other activities, while the state generates revenue from taxation and by selling ships and bases to the free market. All in all, Distant Worlds seems to have capitalism down pat, making for an innovative decentralized approach to empire wealth, albeit one that can be confusing at times when it comes to juggling the books.
With the exception of this economic duality, the rest of Distant Worlds proceeds along lines quite familiar to 4X gamers. Colonization is a big priority, of course. Be advised, though, as not all planets that can be colonized are worth the effort, either due to low quality or because of the presence of a hostile indigenous population. Of course, if the player’s colonists are rebuffed, he could always invade with ground troops.
Mining is also important as having the right resources is crucial for the well-being of the player’s colonial efforts. For example, for a colony to do well, it needs access to ten “luxury resources”, such as Otandiun Opals and Nepthys Wine, so these are always in high demand and worth the effort. The player can also check the galactic commodities market and see what other resources are in high demand, too. Like the colony screen, a construction vessel is easily dispatched with the click of a mouse, after which private citizens will take over day to day operations of the mining operation.
Security is always important in a 4X game, and so it is in Distant Worlds. To help the player our, ships will patrol the galactic neighborhood on their own. This is a very important – and unique – facet of Distant Worlds. Being such a free market driven game, it is imperative that the shipping lanes be kept clear of marauding pirates, space monsters, or rival empires out to destroy your colonies. As such, the player will need lots of vessels to cover a lot of territory. Fortunately, these vessels, once constructed, will do a really good job of keeping the peace by escorting vessels in risky areas(!), to rushing to the aid of ships and bases that are under attack.
Speaking about ships, Distant Worlds features a rather detailed vessel designer where ships and bases can be constructed from individual components. Fortunately, the designer screen provides some guidance when it comes to assembling them by listing a set of requirements that each class must have (a warship, for example, must have shields and weapons, in addition to the standard compliment of crew habitation modules, reactors and engines). Again, because of the private economy, these designs, especially for freighters and mining bases, will be purchased by private citizens and show up under AI control in the game, making for cool “Hey! I designed that ship!” experiences.
Of course, no 4X game would be complete without diplomacy, and Distant Worlds is no exception. As the player discover other empires, both major and minor, he can interact with them in the usual fashion of giving gifts, agreeing to treaties, swapping maps and technology, and even declaring a trade blockade or outright war. While the diplomatic options aren’t as robust as what Galactic Civilizations II offers, they do get the job done.
Distant Worlds also has an interesting tech tree. Unlike other games, the player cannot specify what area is researched – some 32 areas in all, from weaponry to commerce centers. Rather, all areas are researched simultaneously. While it is possible to undertake an expensive “crash” research program that focuses on a specific area, it is better to just to build research labs at star ports, or specialized research bases near black holes and other cosmic anomalies to drive research in a generalized area, such as “weaponry”.
Then, of course, there is espionage and combat. I particularly like how espionage is handled in this game. In Distant Worlds, you can recruit agents who arrive with a base quality value of 100 (why 100, I don’t know). The better the value, the better the agent’s chance of completing his mission, with each successful mission improving his overall quality. Agents can perform a variety of missions, from counter intelligence to inciting a rebellion on a rival empire’s colony. In a clever – and realistic – twist, the player can specify how long the agent has to complete the mission, from a few months to a year. The longer the time given, the better the chance of success. All in all, I found the espionage system to be nicely implemented.
Combat is nicely handled as well. The depth of ship design makes for some interesting battles as vessels will intelligently maneuver based on speed and range/type of weapons, as well as a number of parameters set by the player, such as “flee when shields are down to 20%”, in addition to taking damage on a component by component basis. By and large, tactical AI does a competent managing these fights that can be quite amusing in their own right (I saw an interesting battle where an enemy cruiser was bashing away at an escort, but then had to flee once reinforcements arrive), but player oversight is a good idea nonetheless for larger battles. Lastly, even though the game takes places in real time, it is a leisurely real time that avoids the frenetic click-fests found in other RTS titles.
Ships can also be assigned to fleets, which make organizing them much easier for larger operations. Using the Ships and Bases panel, the player can easily drop escorts, frigates, destroyers, cruisers, capitals, resupply vessels and troop transports into a fleet with minimal effort. Assign a target, or automate the fleet for AI-driven mayhem, and sit back and watch the carnage as warships target enemy vessels or bases, and troop transports drop their deadly cargo and take on any opposing ground forces on the planet’s surface, albeit abstractly. Or, if that sounds like too much trouble, just nuke the planet from orbit. – it’s the only way to be sure.
And there is more to the game: space scattered ruins holding important information about the galaxy, derelict bases and vessels waiting to be discovered and reactivated, or scrapped for parts, a Galactopedia that sorts all sorts of information for easy access, and even “alternative” methods of gameplay (such as commanding a single vessel while the AI manages everything else!) and a game editor. Distant Worlds has just too much depth for one review!
Sound and Visuals
While Distant Worlds is a sprite-based game, it is nonetheless pleasing to the eye. Planets have a nice heft to them and ship models are pleasantly detailed, from flashing running lights, to clearly visible battle damage.
The music is nice, if a bit repetitive after a short while, and the sound effects are suitable if unremarkable.
So what’s not to like?
You mean besides making me write a lengthy review? Not really that much. Distant Worlds suffers from a common flaw of deep 4X strategy games: there is just too much to material in the game for the devs to have squarely hit every nail on the head. So I have a few things I would like to see polished a bit more.
First, while the game does help the new player with its efficient UI and two tutorials, the player still feels like the game stuffs him in a spacesuit, gives him a pat on the back and kicks him out the airlock to fend for himself. For example, while the beginner and advanced tutorial do a pretty good job of explaining the different screens and their primary functions, it doesn’t actually explain how to best use those screens. For example, while the tutorial introduces the player to the ship design screen, we are never told how to judge when we have a good design. I mean, should I include one reactor or two? Three beam weapons or six? Three engines or four? How fast is fast enough for a warship? How much energy is sufficient? What the heck does “8.28 fuel units per 1000 energy units” mean?!? It’s fundamental information like this that the player is left to puzzle out on his own.
The same could be said for colonization. Before too long, the player will have a long list of candidate worlds. Considering Distant Worlds doesn’t make colonization as arduous or expensive as in other games, it is quite easy to find yourself planting flags all over the galaxy. Of course, as you’re doing this, little warnings are going off in your head telling you that you will probably regret this before too long. Again, how many worlds are too many? And how many mining bases for that matter?
Which sort of ties into the game’s economics. Granted, I am not the greatest when it comes to space math, but I don’t really understand how state income and expenses are being combined with the private sector’s income and expenses to give me my final cash flow figure that is displayed at the top right of the screen. Getting a grasp on how crucial economic factors interplay is not an easy thing to do in this game and it needs better explanation.
Fleet management can be a bit quirky, too. For example, every fleet has a designated “fleet leader”, but what exactly that means is not at all clear to me. Also, I have found ordering fleets around to be a hit or miss affair. While individual ships largely respond to context-sensitive clicking, I am finding doing the same with a fleet to be not quite as responsive, forcing me to use hot keys or just scratch my head in frustration. Also, I would like to see vectors plotted on the galactic map, telling me the destination of the currently selected fleet, and perhaps even an ETA.
I also would like a bit more information on how ground combat is resolved. As it is now, troopships drop units on an enemy occupied planet and fight it out until one side or the other is eliminated, but exactly how that combat is being resolved, beside some bonuses, is a mystery to me. This is one area I would greatly appreciate more information as I have no idea how many units will suffice to conquer a world…or defend one of my own, for that matter.
It would be nice if I could design a custom race, too. The game’s included races are interesting enough, but nothing beats being able to pick and choose your own racial traits. It would also add even more replayability to the game. There is an in-game editor that allows the player to fiddle a bit, but I would like to see something more robust.
I would also like to see more significant random events. There are some in the game, such as finding ruins and abandoned vessels, but I would like to see some that are potentially game-changing as in Galactic Civilizations II or Sword of the Stars, such as having a star go supernova or having a galactic plague spread from planet to planet (this could actually be pretty cool to implement considering all the freighters that could serve as potential vectors). I also would like to get news about the achievements of other empires from time to time.
Lastly, Distant Worlds is a single player only game. While that is fine with me, I know a lot of the multiplayer crowd may be miffed by this fact.
All in all, these are slight criticisms for such a complex game. In fact, most of these could be addressed with expanded entries in the Galactopedia.