This is part 1 of a series on Distant Worlds.
1. First impressions: the galaxy is a big place
3. The verdict
Note: I am playing a review copy comprising the base game plus both expansions, supplied by the publisher, Matrix Games.
The first time Distant Worlds, the 4X space game from Code Force, impressed me, I was a few clicks into the tutorial.
The tutorial began in the usual way: camera focused on my homeworld, instructions on how to move the map. Following the on-screen prompts, I scrolled around, hit “continue”, zoomed out. And then I saw the galaxy. Do you remember the godlike feeling of first zooming out in Sins of a Solar Empire or one of the Supreme Commander games? Distant Worlds brought that back for me.
To put this in perspective, consider that Master of Orion II, still the gold standard for the genre after 15 years, had 36 star systems in its normal galaxy and 72 in its huge galaxy. Well, in Distant Worlds, the normal galaxy has 700 systems, each with its own features (planets, black holes, etc). The largest galaxy has 1400, and even the tiniest dwarf galaxy has 100.
That sheer scope extends well beyond map size. There are 41 different resources, 20 different races, up to 14 AI players at the start of a game, multiple planet types, espionage, ship design, and a tech tree. There are separate private economies and government budgets. There’s even tourism*. It would be unplayable were it not for the game’s signature feature, and the second way in which it impressed me: automation.
Pretty much every aspect of your empire can be handled by the AI. Freighters and passenger liners will shuttle about your empire, construction ships will build mines and resorts, research will proceed automatically, governors will auto-assign themselves to colonies. Even the military can be automated. In Distant Worlds, warships will auto-escort colony ships and other civilian vessels; patrol colonies; and fend off raiders. They’ll even automatically form up into task forces, and if you choose, the game will periodically ask if you want them to sortie against nearby targets (which could be anything from a pirate base to an enemy fleet).
This doesn’t mean you can simply become a spectator and let the game play itself. You can take manual control of most aspects of your empire (with the exception of NPC civilian ships), and for obvious reasons, this seems to work better for anything that’s a strategic priority: diplomacy, major fleet operations, and such. However, the automation largely frees you from the mundane work that is the bane of strategy games. Remember the “joy” of nursemaiding settlers in Civilization, playing whack-a-mole with rebels in older versions of Europa Universalis, or making up for passive unit AI in an RTS? In Distant Worlds, your virtual underlings can handle those for you.
So far, the game has been at its weakest when it didn’t free me from mundane work. Not surprisingly for a complex indie strategy game, the interface is not great. For example, fleets are the basic building block of military operations in the game – but there’s no way to set their targets, merge them, or disband them from the fleet overview screen, and no way to have newly built ships auto-join an existing fleet. You have to click-select the fleet to set its objectives, and you have to order ships in or out of the fleet by hand. As such, this is one aspect of the game that could still use some work.
When it comes to system requirements, don’t be fooled by the “indie” label. Even on a small galaxy, after 6-8 hours of play, the game became rather laggy – particularly noticeable when zooming in and out, or when scrolling the map. Tweaking a couple of settings today seemed to make my old saved game run faster, but this could have been illusory as I didn’t run it for very long.
Still, the technical issues are survivable. After having a lot of fun with my first practice game (I quit when I achieved my personal goals – it turns out cranking up the threshold for the victory conditions was not a good idea in a game this large), I’m looking forward to playing again. The galaxy is not just vast, it’s also full of cool things, so stay tuned for the next update…
* Oddly enough, resorts in the Distant Worlds-verse are under government control.