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Reviewed: Distant Worlds - Legends

I don’t envy those brave coders who venture into the realm of 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) gaming.  Is there a more demanding genre in the industry?  4X games are inherently complex beasts that need to realistically model innumerable factors - including economics, diplomacy, and combat – all the while avoiding the deadly pitfall of unmanageable complexity.  Things become even more complex when a game leaves the confines of, say, earth history as with Sid Meier’s Civilization, and attempts to apply the 4X model to the infinite realm that is outer space.  I guess that is why devs who are willing to tackle 4X sci-fi games are so far and few these days. 

Fortunately, the fellas over at CodeForce are part of that hardy lot of developers willing to brave the slings and arrows of the genre.  Their Distant Worlds is proving to be one of the most unique real-time 4X games of recent years; a game that is as immersive as it is challenging.  And like all good 4X games, it is filled with all the nitty-gritty detail that defines the genre.  However, when it comes to 4X gaming, it is a rare title indeed that manages to accomplish everything it sets out to do in its first edition, which is why CodeForce has been hard at work steadily releasing expansions for Distant Worlds.  Their most recent expansion, Legends, is also the most ambitious and offers lots of new gameplay mechanics to an already packed package.  Let’s take a look at what it adds to this compelling sci-fi experience.

Lots of Character

One of the things that have so annoyed me with other sci-fi 4X games is that the universe rarely feels alive.  That is, we have all these warships and planets, but the player never gets a feel for the people whom supposedly populate this setting.  Sadly, at times it can feel like a universe of one.  So when CodeForce announced that one of the highlights of Legends was going to be the introduction of a character system, I was stoked. 

I can now say that CodeForce has fully delivered on their promise as the characters included in Legends are exactly the type of personalities one would expect to populate any bit of space opera.  There are seven types of characters:  diplomats, admirals, generals, scientists, spies, colonial governors and your empire’s leader.  The player is always guaranteed a leader, but the other characters appear randomly or based upon in-game events.  For example, if the player’s fleet is involved in a battle, an admiral might be generated.  Or if the player invades a planet with troops, in the wake of the fighting a general might appear. 

Regardless of how the characters materialize, they all turn out to have an interesting selection of traits and skills.  However, what makes them so intriguing is that, like real people, the player is never sure what his characters are capable of until he puts them to work.  For example, I once had a gifted energy research scientist emerge at one of my labs.  Initially, I was thrilled.  Unfortunately, with the passage of time, I eventually learned about a new trait he had developed:  that of being a double agent who had a propensity to sell his research to competing empires (i.e., increasing the likelihood of others stealing my research in that field).  It was as funny as it was tragic. 

All the characters in the game evolve in such a fashion, with skills and traits stacking for interesting combinations.  And because the characters are ever changing, the player needs to keep an eye on them and be prepared to send them where they can do the best good.  Case in point:  I once had a colonial governor who was something of a screw-up; just about all his skills detracted from the well-being of my empire.  What to do?  Well, I could just fire him, but I’m not the firing type.  I could have sent him on some sort of suicide mission - say, post him to a planet that I know is going to be invaded at any moment (you characters are quite mortal in this game) - but that's just cruel.  Thinking a bit, I hit on a solution.  It just so happened that I had recently colonized a rather unpleasant ice moon with only a minimal level of development.  Worse, this colony had recently suffered an outbreak of plague (more on this later) that set the colony back even more.  Hmm…could you ask for a better place to exile a screw-up?  He certainly couldn’t make things worse!  So I transferred him to this unfortunate planet – the game, by the way, applies a realistic travel time for such transfers! – and I figured that was that.  Well, not quite.  It turned out that the weather or something must have agreed with my hapless governor as he developed a talent for encouraging population growth!  The screw-up was suddenly useful and perfectly placed!

Another interesting feature of the character system is that characters aren’t just recruited from the player’s race.  For example, when I was notified that a new admiral appeared in one of my fleets, I was surprised to discover that he wasn’t from my Naxxilian race, but from the Ikkuro race.  I guess he was recruited from the sizable population of Ikkuro that lived on one of my outer worlds.  Neat.

I really cannot express how impressed I am with Distant World’s new character system.  It is a clever and deep as anything I ever wanted in this type of game.  And how often do I get to say that?

Greater Strategery

Distant Worlds: Legends doesn’t just bring a heaping dose of character to the game, either.  In addition to that, players will also get a bunch of new strategic features.

First on the list is the new sphere of influence overlay on the strategic map, perhaps one of the most requested features since the arrival of Distant Worlds.  Previously, it could prove something of a challenge to determine just where the player’s empire ended and a neighbor’s began.  No longer.  Now, the player can toggle on a sphere of influence overlay that neatly and clearly delineates an empire’s borders on the strategic map.  In an intuitive fashion, well-developed home worlds claim the largest area of influence, while new colonies have a small footprint that scales with development.  These spheres of influences are useful beyond helping the player to merely delineate borders too, as they now come with a sovereignty system that prevents other empires from poaching worlds and resources within another’s area of influence.  For example, the player need now ask permission if he would like to be able to mine resources in another empire’s backyard.  Needless to say, when spheres of influence clash, warships usually follow.

Which brings us to another change in Legends: the concept of fleet postures.  Now the player is able to set discreet postures for each of his fleets to better control their activities.  The player can set a posture (attack or defend) and a patrol distance for the fleet (home base, system, nearby system, sector, anywhere).  Fleet postures also have their own overlay, too, making it easy to see a particular fleet’s area of responsibility.  In short, the player no longer needs to deal with his fleets going off on a pirate hunt while a prized colony is left undefended.

Another much needed addition to the strategy map is a travel vector overlay.  Distant Worlds is a game with lots of ships and fleets going this way and that all the time, something that can make for a jumble of confusing activity.  With Legends, the player can now toggle travel vectors for both state and private sector vessels.  While later in the game having both vectors turned on can turn the strategy map into something that must look like the radar display at JFK International (it does look cool), it is still a most welcome addition and greatly helps to clarify the strategic picture.

There are some other helpful overlays too, such as showing potential colonies, scenic locations for resorts, research locations, and long range scanner outposts, all of which are helpful in visualizing the big picture.

The last new strategic wrinkle is Legends’ new immigration policies.  In the past, the player was powerless to influence which races settled on his colonies.  This is no longer the case as the player can now implement a broad racial policy for his “family” (races related to the player’s race), and those outside his racial family, including such options as full acceptance, rejection, resettlement, enslavement, or even extermination policies.    Add this ability to the new character system, and I suppose it would be possible to create quite the ironfisted tyrant if the player wished!

And if that wasn’t Enough….

Got all that?  Well, there’s more.  Now Distant World’s includes all sorts of random, race-related events that, like everything else in this expansion, serve to add even more immersion to the game.  Random events include some good things, like a empire-wide sporting competition than boosts productivity, to some very bad events, such as plagues, natural disasters and economic depressions.  All of these events are reported by the new Galactic Newsnet, something that helps to keep the player aware of the ever changing galaxy.

Other stuff:  Legends also introduces some new “wonders” that can be built only once in the galaxy, setting up some interesting technological competitions among the empires.  These include such projects like the “Traders Bizarre”, a colossal marketplace that significantly boosts colony development and production, or the “Casidor Weapons Facility” that provides a weapon research and planetary development bonus.

Lastly, there are also some new techs to unlock, such as cutting lasers, rail guns, and some new planetary facilities, as well as some new set-up options for galaxy size and density.  There are even some new graphics for in-game ships and bases.

So what’s Not to Like?

Some odds and ends and one old complaint.

As mentioned above, Distant Worlds has a new sphere of influence system that limits where you can mine and where your military ships can refuel.  As a result of this, the player now has the ability to grant mining and refueling rights.  Great.  Unfortunately, what he does not have is the ability to request such rights from another empire.  This is annoying as the ability to mine and refuel in another empire’s sphere of influence has now taken on greater significance, so the inability to request this access is limiting in the extreme.  I was hoping that if I granted the privilege to another empire, they would automatically reciprocate, but no dice.  This needs to be changed by either giving us the ability to request such rights, or by making refueling and mining rights a pact that applies to both parties equally.

Another needed change concerns the new immigration policy.  Right now, the policies are much too broad because they apply to entire racial families.  I would much rather be able to specify which individual races are allowed to settle on my worlds and specifically which need to be relocated, enslaved or exterminated.  I mean, just because I dislike the Earth Humans doesn’t mean I want to expel every humanoid race in the galaxy from settling on a world. 

A minor addition I would like to see made to the strategic map is the addition of an ETA on the new vectors.  It is nice to see where a ship is going, but it would also be nice to know when it is going to get there at its current speed.

I also have a twofold problem with the addition of carriers to the tech tree.  To begin with, carriers are currently unlocked by researching tactical fighters.  I think this might be a case of putting the cart before the horse.  If anything, carriers should first need to be researched to unlock fighters.  Just seems to make more sense that way.

Secondly – and I hate to keep beating this dead horse, but it needs to be said again – the whole ship design process needs to be revamped.  The inclusion of a discreet carrier class is a most welcome addition, but I really – really! – want to see all vessel classes needing to be researched in a similar fashion.  Right now, the various classes of warships, freighters and starbases have no real distinction as the player is free to put anything he wants on each to the limit of his current capacity.  Not only does this make the various classes meaningless, but it also puts the AI at a severe design disadvantage as a human will always come up with far more clever  - and ever worse, exploitive – designs than the AI will never be capable of matching with such an open-ended design process.

But there is another drawback to the current system as well: it makes the design process intensely tedious.    I tend to break out in a cold sweat whenever I make a tech breakthrough because I know it means that I need to head back to the design screen and add the same component in about a dozen different designs!  Not fun.  While it could be made a less grueling process by allowing the player to make batch changes, I think it would just make more sense to have specific components for specific vessel classes.  Not only would this serve to add a lot more meat to the weaponry tech tree branch, but it also would help to make vessel design much more structured, interesting and, above all, less painful.   I cannot stress enough that the ship designer is the one area of Distant Worlds that still needs a lot of love and I hope it gets it real soon.

Closing Comments: 
Distant Worlds: Legends is a superlative expansion to an already fantastic sci-fi gaming experience. The amount of new content it brings to the table shames many “expansions” from much larger studios. Incredibly, CodeForce hasn’t even taken a break with its release, but is already hard at work on a patch to address some of the quirks that are inevitable in such an ambitious package. Quality, quantity and dedication to their fanbase – what more could any gamer want? Quite simply, Distant Worlds: Legends is already legendary.
 
Genre: Strategy
ESRB Rating: N/A
Developer: CodeForce
Publisher: Matrix Games
More Information: Official Web Site
 
Verdict:
9.0
Pros & Cons
Pros: 
A new character system; race-based random events; a new sphere of influence system; lots of tweaks and fixes.
Cons: 
Ship designer still needs lots of work; ETAs would make a nice addition to travel vectors; mining and refueling requests need to be given to the player.
Game Info
Publisher: 
Matrix Games
Developer: 
CodeForce
Release Date: 
November 23, 2011
ESRB Rating: 
N/A