This is part 3 of a series on Distant Worlds.
3. The verdict
Note: I am playing a review copy comprising the base game plus both expansions, supplied by the publisher, Matrix Games.
4X strategy games, especially 4X space strategy games, do not think small. They challenge the player to build world- or galaxy-spanning empires, to juggle exploration, economic management, research, diplomacy, and military leadership. Yet even by these standards, Code Force’s Distant Worlds is a behemoth. Big (galaxies span hundreds of stars), complex, and breaking new ground within the genre, it could so easily have been a case of an ambitious indie developer biting off more than it could chew. From what I’ve read, it did indeed have its fair share of rough edges at launch… but as of the second expansion pack, Legends, it’s remarkable how well it works.
At a design level, DW’s distinctive features are:
- Everything takes place in pausable real-time (which can be slowed down or sped up);
- No separate tactical battles. As with a Sins of a Solar Empire or AI War, you can zoom in to watch ships fighting it out, at the same time that the rest of the galaxy goes about its business. However, there’s relatively little fine control available here – warfare in DW emphasises logistics and manoeuvre at the galactic level;
- Relatively little emphasis on planetary management. There are only a bare handful of facilities to build, and they don’t unlock until a ways through the tech tree. As such, there are only a few levers to pull to influence the economy: laying down necessary infrastructure (starbases, especially with commerce centres, and refuelling posts), securing luxuries and resources (via mines and colonies), signing trade pacts with the neighbours, and building the odd wonder.
- Rewarding goody huts. Finding a derelict cruiser early on is a nice treat. Finding a derelict armada, and making the necessary investment to recover it (the kind of decision that’s the crux of strategy games!), can tilt the balance of power.
The net effect is that the game emphasises exploration (which it does very well), warfare (at the level of the grand admiral, not the captain), and preparing for the above. As such, it’s often likened to Europa Universalis III in space… though a better analogy might be Victoria 2 or Hearts of Iron 3, because Distant Worlds’ other distinguishing feature is the ability to automate almost every aspect of your empire.
The AI automation is a joy to work with. It can be toggled off area by area, allowing you to concentrate on what you find the most rewarding part of the game. It smoothes out what would otherwise have been a fearsome learning curve – for instance, in my first game, I let the AI handle research and civilian construction while I learned how to play admiral. It takes care of tedious busywork, such as raising troops, fighting off pirate raiders, escorting civilian ships, or garrisoning outposts. As of Legends, it can even be given an intermediate level of autonomy: you can assign fleets an area of responsibility, either to defend or subdue, which allows you to dictate the “big picture” to the AI and let it handle the details. The AI, in short, is the assistant I wish every strategy game offered.
My main criticism of the game is an occasionally subpar interface. For example, I would love an easy way to route newly built ships to a given fleet, instead of having to select them one by one. I can only imagine how much of a hassle this would be on large maps, or when adding lots of smaller ships to a fleet! I’d also like to be able to see the total troop strength on a planet, not just the number of units. Still, this isn’t a deal-breaker for me.
Diplomacy is relatively simple, but works well. Here the various alien races’ personalities shine through: playing as the humans, I soon found out that the Space T-Rexes are much friendlier than their fearsome appearance suggests, whereas starting next to insectoids guaranteed an early war. Computer players will sue for peace if they’re losing a war or if someone jumps them on another front. They’ll even butter you up with tribute when they want something, if they fear your power, or, more benevolently, if they’re on especially good terms with you.
And that’s emblematic of all the cool things to discover in DW. If this game had a motto, it would be, “the dev team thinks of everything”. Time and again, Distant Worlds has enthralled me with little touches that sound trivial on paper, but that helped bring its universe to life. The light-bulb moment when I realised why my AI neighbours were showering me with gifts. The nasty shock of seeing colonies revolt when I declared war on their ethnic kin – something that should happen in games, but never does. The awe of first starting the game and seeing how big the galaxy was. The thrill of discovering a derelict space fleet, waiting for me to defeat its guardians and send in the construction ships – and the moment when, upon seeing another empire’s construction ships butt in, I wondered if it would be worth a war to keep the derelicts to myself. Perhaps the most impressive part: there’s so much of the game I still haven’t seen! I haven’t tried many of the setup options (including an entire gameplay mode), and I’ve only played the humans, leaving 20 alien races, each with certain unique victory conditions, to go.
All in all, Distant Worlds lives up to its promise. Vast, unique, and packed with the sense of wonder that lies at the heart of science fiction, I’d recommend it to any grand strategy fan – and to any strategy developer in search of good ideas. Thumbs way up.
I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.
The basis of my review
Length of time spent with the game: Roughly 30-40 hours.
What I have played: I’ve won two games on small maps, and walked away from many more on a variety of map sizes. Generally, I like my maps small enough to finish over an afternoon, and small enough for each individual colony or fleet to really count.
What I haven’t played: The “Return of the Shakturi” mode, any species other than the humans.