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Reviewed: Distant Worlds - Return of the Shakturi

When Code Force’s sci-fi strategy game, Distant Worlds, arrived back in 2010, it blew me away.  Appearing suddenly as if out of a wormhole, Distant Worlds harkened back to the days of deep and expansive 4X gaming and quickly garnered a burgeoning following of would-be galactic emperors seeking to rule some, well, distant worlds (see my review here). No doubt about it:  Distant Worlds was an impressive and innovative entry in the space conquest genre.

Not content to rest on their laurels, CodeForce has since released Rise of the Shakturi, an expansion that brings a bunch of new content and tweaks for their sci-fi magnum opus.  Is it a worthwhile investment for interstellar Caesars?  Let’s find out.

Polish, Polish, Polish

While Rise of the Shakturi boasts a number of new features, one of the most noticeable in this expansion is a revised user interface. Considering that Distant Worlds is one of the more complex strategy games out there – sort of like a sci-fi Hearts of Iron – I was surprised that the base game did as well as it did in attempting to make the experience manageable for the player.  Still, there was room for improvement…which is what we see here. The most notable addition in this regard is the inclusion of Empire Navigation Tool along the left side of the screen.  And let me tell you, it is most welcome. 

The Empire Navigation Tool is comprised of thirteen buttons that act as easy access shortcuts to the players most requested information.  Leading off the list is the colonies button, one that brings up a handy list of all the player’s colonies, along with such pertinent information as population, happiness level, GDP, and what the colony is currently building.  Clicking on the entry for a particular colony will place it in the selection panel for greater scrutiny. 

The next button is the space ports and construction yards display that acts in the same way as the colonies button.  Here you can see the firepower of the structure, as well as what is currently being built and how many projects are waiting in the queue.  The following third button displays mining stations and acts in a similar fashion, this time displaying the cargo of the station.

The fourth and fifth buttons cover construction and exploration ships, respectively.  The construction ship button tells the player what each of his ships are currently building, and the percent complete, while the exploration button details where the ship is currently exploring. 

Next up is the enemy targets button, and, not surprisingly, lists targets suitable for attack, such as pirates, or the bases of enemy empires, et cetera.  If you left click on the entry, the AI will automatically assign the nearest fleet to deal with the target, or you can pre-select a fleet and then click on the target to use that fleet for the attack.  For me, I find the one click function to be a bit too rigid.  I would greater appreciate a right click drop-down menu that will allow me to select a fleet for the target.  It would just make things simpler.

The next two buttons cover the player’s fleets and individual military vessels.  The fleets roster shows the firepower of the fleet, along with loaded troops and fighters/bombers on board (fighter/bombers are new to this expansion as well).  The military ships button shows firepower, fuel status and current assigned task.  As with most of the buttons, clicking on an entry will place it in the selections panel where further action can be taken with the unit.

The next four buttons cover potential colonies, mining locations, resort locations, and research locations.  I really appreciate these four buttons because they neatly summarize the attributes of each prospective locale and make it so much easier to get structures built where they are most needed. 

The last button neatly lists special locations - areas that require closer investigation and are revealed to a player across a campaign.  Basically, this button acts as a notepad for areas of interest.

All in all, the Empire Navigation Tool is a very helpful addition to the game and should help make life much easier for the player.

Another new addition is the action buttons that appear below the selection panel.  These buttons come in handy when it comes to taking some common actions, such as building a planetary structure, such as troop academies or planetary shields (also new to this expansion), or recruiting troops and building a spaceport or vessels.  These action buttons even tell you how many of a particular structure or ship is queued at the planet. Combined with the Empire Navigation Tool, the action buttons helps to make everything flow a bit easier. 

The top of the screen also has been rearranged some with certain buttons that were formerly on the bottom center of the screen, such as those for the ship designer and the research screens, now joining the top ones - a wise decision that helps consolidate things.  There is one new button here that I really like:  the Build Order button that opens a new screen where the player can specifically tell the AI to construct X amount of a certain ship class and model.  This screen even informs the player of the total cost for the purchase order and the resultant maintenance upkeep.  This is a very handy addition to the interface!

Another improvement to Distant Worlds comes via the revamped research screen.  If you remember the original Distant Worlds research screen, you will recall that it was very diffuse; multiple technologies were researched simultaneously and left largely outside of the player’s control.  No more.  Rise of the Shakturi now introduces a much more conventional research tree.  This tree has three main branches: Weapons, Energy and Construction, and High Tech and Industrial.  Each branch can have one research program underway at a time, but the player is free to queue up a bunch of them as he sees fit.  There is even a handy Research Stations tab where the player can see just where he is getting his research points.

I have to confess that even though I liked the previous research screen, this one is quite nice as well.  However, I hope that CodeForce enlivens this screen up a little.  While it is nice that each area of research is distinctively colored, and the player can easily see how each technology leads to the next, I find the tech descriptions to be really lackluster and in some desperate need of some “flavor text”.  Take, for example, the “Target Tracking” tech.  What does it do? Well, it’s a “Combat Targetting [sic] System”.  See the problem?  These items need to have more of a description than that!    And while the techs do have the relevant stats associated with them - all presented rather blandly I would add - I do wish that the research tree would spell out how a new technology is an improvement over older tech, such as providing something like “this reactor will increase your energy output by X%” rather than merely listing the current energy output, as if I have memorized the previous tech’s output value.  Regardless of these minor gripes, the new research screen is definitely worthwhile.

In addition to all this, Rise of the Shakturi also provides a bunch of other improvements as well.  Now, for example, when clicking on an item in the message window, or one of the pop-up alerts, the map will helpfully ping the location of the event on the galactic map.  Also, there are a bunch of new weapons and components, such as missiles and fleet-wide ECM.  Did I mention launch bays for fighters and bombers (with both having new variants to research)?  Yeah…cool.  Even planets have some new things to build, such as defensive Ion Cannons and Troop Cloning Facilities.  The Empire Policy Screen has also been revamped, giving the player more precise control over those aspects of his empire that he delegates to the AI.  And, of course, there is the eponymous “Return of the Shakturi”.  I have to be honest – I much prefer playing my own sandbox game when it comes to Distant Worlds - but if you enjoyed the epic campaign arc found in the original, this new arc will provide fresh challenges for your empire’s survival. 

So what’s not to Like?

Well, nothing really!  This is a solid enhancement to the base game that incorporates a number of much requested features.  However, there are still a number of other issues that I would like to see addressed in a forthcoming expansion (more on that later). 

My biggest gripe still remains with the ship designer screen.  It remains much too loosey-goosey.  As I wrote in my original review, coming up with a good design is very hard for the new player because, with the exception of some listed requirements, the player is left to puzzle it all out alone.  Of course, with experience he will start to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t, but that takes time.  As I thought more on the issue in light of this expansion, I realized that the real problem with the ship designer is that the various ship classes - such as escorts, cruisers, capitals - really don’t mean anything at all.  Ultimately, all that really matters is the max size of the ship that can be built, something dictated by research.  This is a problem for two reasons: 

First, unless the player exceeds the maximum size for his tech level, he is not informed of what the limit is - which can be annoying to say the least.  This number really needs to be prominently displayed somewhere on the ship designer screen. 

The second, more serious problem is that because the player is always free to make a ship as big as he is allowed, the whole idea of a class of ship goes out the window.  For example, I could take an escort, a ship class that I believe is really meant for law enforcement patrols around a home solar system, and pack it full of shields and weapons to limit of my size capacity.  When all is said and done, I would wind up with a ship that, but for the arbitrary class designation, is no different from a capital ship!  That just isn’t right.  I even tried this when I once put a hanger on a “destroyer”.  While I suppose it is conceivable for a destroyer to have its own fighter wing, I think it is a stretch.  I even went further than that and put offensive weaponry on a small freighter.  Is it really a “freighter” at that point?  In both cases, the game didn’t care as long as I didn’t exceed my size restrictions.

Like I said above, the ship classes in Distant Worlds really have no relevance to the actual gameplay, making for unnecessary in-game confusion and causing the player to just leave it all up to the AI.  Instead, what I would like to see is a more rigid class system put in place for both warships and private sector craft.  To begin with, each class should have a size limit put on it so even if I can build a large ship, certain classes are limited to a portion of those size points.  So, for example, an escort could maybe use 25% of the max point allotment, while a capital ship could use 100%.  In fact, in light of the new tech tree, perhaps it would make sense to just require the player to research each class of ship, with each class having a hard set size limit.  Most 4X games use such a system, and perhaps Distant Worlds should, too.

Likewise, the game should not only tell us what a ship needs to have to be a valid design (such as weapons on a warship), but also what is CANNOT have.  So, to use my previous example, I should NOT be allowed to put weapons on a freighter, or a hangar on a destroyer. 

Ultimately, I believe these changes to the design screen will greatly simply the entire design process and make it a more enjoyable part of the game.

My second biggest gripe is that the private sector, which is one of Distant World’s most innovative features, needs more of a voice.  Even though they are crucial to the well being of the player’s empire, he never really interacts with them in any meaningful way.  I, for one, would love to see some demands made by the private sector.  Say, like a demand for me to research a faster hyperdrive.  Or demands to design a freighter with a larger cargo hold (thus enticing the player to try the design screen).  Perhaps they could ask for extra security in a pirate-plagued system?  Or maybe ask me to forcefully seize a resource-rich planet?  Success at meeting these demands could result in great profits and tax revenue, while failure might result in low revenue and...a strike, perhaps? 

Another gripe I have is with the land invasion portion of the game.  Simply – it needs more chrome.  For example, I would like to get detailed combat reports over the course of an invasion.  What is more, now that we are getting generals in the coming expansion, ground combat should be expanded so that players can really immerse themselves in a detailed campaign of planetary conquest, including being able to give promotions to our favorite units, and being able to track the combat history of a unit.

Another problem concerns fuel issues.  I’ve seen plenty of games try to incorporate fuel consumption concerns and, unfortunately, the end result is always the same:  it just winds up adding little to the gameplay, but a lot to the micromanagement.  The same can be said with Distant Worlds as I find myself spending more time making sure that my ships are properly refueled than I do actually sending them off on missions.  Example:  I ordered a fleet to attack a particular system.  Well, with the exception of the larger vessels, the rest of the fleet wound up peeling off to make refueling stops on the way to the destination.  The result: my fleet arrived with only a fraction of its original force.  While I suspect it would be possible to solve this problem with more elaborate mechanics, I just believe that it would be simpler to drop the fuel mechanic entirely as it never was, nor ever will be, a fun gameplay mechanic.

I also would like to see the game provide better feedback on resource issues.  The private sector is all about moving resources from planet to planet, so information is crucial.  For example, if a resource scarcity issue brings production to a standstill in a particular system, I should be informed immediately. 

I also would like to see some other odds and ends.  For example, I should be notified when a station or ship is destroyed by hostile action.  Also, I would like to see some lasting wreckage when something is destroyed.  For example, when I kill one of those space monsters, it would be much more rewarding to see a carcass floating in space for a brief period of time than merely have it instantly disappear as it currently does.

Distant Worlds - Legends

As hinted at above, CodeForce has announced the soon-to-be released second expansion, Legends.  From its description, it sounds like it is going to include a number of cool enhancements, including an in-depth character system (i.e., admirals, scientists, generals, and leaders), along with a much requested (and needed!) borders, spheres of influence, and vector overlay for the strategic map.  There is also going to be a number of performance enhancements and over 600(!) new ship options, amongst other features.  Point is: Distant Worlds is a game that just seems to keep getting better, so even if this expansion didn’t hit all the marks, more is on the way to keep refining and expanding the experience.

Closing Comments: 
Distant Worlds: Return of the Shakturi is a worthwhile expansion to a solid 4X strategy game. Not only does it improve the game’s interface, but it also adds two new races, a new story arc, an assortment of new weaponry, and miscellaneous tweaks and fixes. Really, there is no reason why a dedicated DW fan should pass it up. And with another expansion due this month, the future of Distant Worlds just gets brighter and brighter. With a little more polish on a few outstanding issues, the Distant Worlds franchise could soon find itself becoming one of the all time classics of the space strategy genre.
Genre: Strategy
ESRB Rating: N/A
Developer: CodeForce
Publisher: Matrix Games
More Information: Official Web Site
Pros & Cons
Improved user interface; more traditional research tree; new units and planetary facilities; lots of minor tweaks.
Research tree needs better explanations; parts of the game still need to be more intuitive and better fleshed out.
Game Info
Matrix Games
Release Date: 
December 16, 2010
ESRB Rating: