Musical Monday: “Memoro de la Stono ~ Distant Worlds” (Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy XI), composed by Nobuo Uematsu

Happy Queen’s Birthday to my fellow Aussies! This week’s song is actually a two-in-one medley created for the Distant Worlds orchestral concert, with both parts taken from a game I haven’t played, MMORPG Final Fantasy XI. I personally prefer the first half, a sweeping choral piece (“Memoro de la Stono”), as I find the lyrics in the second half (“Distant Worlds”) a little cheesy. However, the song remains excellent and well worth listening to. Enjoy!


Continue reading “Musical Monday: “Memoro de la Stono ~ Distant Worlds” (Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy XI), composed by Nobuo Uematsu”

Distant Worlds: The Verdict

This is part 3 of a series on Distant Worlds.


1. First impressions: the galaxy is a big place

2. How the opening moves play out – a mini-Let’s Play

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.

Opening moves in Distant Worlds: a mini-Let’s Play

This is part 2 of a series on Distant Worlds.


1. First impressions: the galaxy is a big place

2. How the opening moves play out – a mini-Let’s Play

3. The verdict


Note: I am playing a review copy comprising the base game plus both expansions, supplied by the publisher, Matrix Games.


The very first screen I see, when I set up my second game of Distant Worlds – my first was a practice game – looks like this:



It’s a lot of options, isn’t it? I choose the standard number of stars but accidentally make the map “large” instead of “medium”, a mistake I don’t realise until later.


Next up are race selection and empire tweaking. I choose the humans, and name my empire the “Republic of Lune”. Here, we encounter one of my niggles with the game: while it allows great flexibility when setting up the galaxy, unfortunately you can’t customise your race within the game*. As such, this is closer to Alpha Centauri than it is to Master of Orion (with its potential for hilariously unbalanced builds) or even Space Empires. Last I choose victory conditions – these are pretty much the default, except that I’ve disabled the Return of the Shakturi (first expansion pack) victory conditions.


Time to begin the game. Here’s my starting position:



Around my homeworld, I have a small fleet and several mining bases in nearby systems. This is the “early exploration” phase of 4X games, the time when players discover the lay of the land, look for city/colony sites and future chokepoints, and uncover goody huts. Distant Worlds has particularly useful goody huts (of which we’ll soon see more), and as such, I start building extra explorers and construction ships so I can quickly find and exploit them. Otherwise, I leave my empire to manage itself. I don’t know the tech tree very well, and my invisible AI viceroys can build mines and order scouts just fine on their own.


Soon, my scouts find what I’d hoped for, the independent world of Sol I:



To put this into context, colony population in Distant Worlds seems to grow very, very slowly compared to other 4X games, so your homeworld will still account for the lion’s share of your economy well into the game – no infinite city sleaze here! Thus, independent worlds, which already start with a moderate population and are undefended by spaceships, are a valuable prize early on. If their residents are friendly, you can simply claim them by sending in a colony ship; otherwise, you can send in the marines. You can’t wait too long, however, because by default** they will turn into new players if left alone.


Thus, I quickly order the construction of a colony ship, to be subsequently dispatched to Sol I.


Fully armed, not yet operational


Eventually the colony ship is ready, and Sol I joins my empire peacefully. I start building a starbase above the planet, and send out my navy against some nearby pirate bases, but otherwise the game proceeds uneventfully.


Then my scouts stumble upon a second type of goody hut:



This is Distant Worlds’ shout-out to the “big, dumb objects” beloved of science fiction authors, and I know just how valuable these particular BDOs are. In my first game, I had a hard time fighting past the space monsters guarding the derelict fleet, and it took forever to rebuild the capital ships I found, but once I did… wow. They swept all before them.


As such, I start beefing up my main strike force, the “Expeditionary Fleet”, in preparation to recover the derelicts.


A fly in the ointment


Eventually, one of my scout ships runs into two more independent planets in the Boskar system, a long way from my homeworld.


This is what the game has to say about the Boskara:



Clearly, these are not people I want as my neighbours. The potential threat on my southern border, so close to my homeworld, is unacceptable. With colony ships unlikely to succeed, it’s time to build some invasion transports and nip the potential threat from Boskara in the bud.


However, by the time I’ve built the first transport, loaded it with troops, and sent it to Boskara, it’s too late. Boskara I, still an independent world, falls easily to my ground troops. But Boskara II has now morphed into a single-planet empire: the Boskara Authority, complete with its own small space fleet. This is what the map now looks like (the Boskara are the purple blotch):



The threat remains. So does the logic of an early strike: better to smother the Boskara Authority while it’s still a single-planet empire than to allow it to grow into a mortal foe. I rename my main force the Southern Expeditionary Fleet and send it to defend my new outpost in Boskara (though it won’t have the firepower to win a war by itself). With the Southern Expeditionary Fleet unavailable, this means I’ll also have to start building a new force, the Northern Expeditionary Fleet, to recover the derelict ships.


The road to war


Preparations for war go well. My tech base reaches the point where I can start building cruisers, and I promptly order up a batch – at first, most go to the Northern Expeditionary Fleet, but I also build a couple at Boskar to form the backbone of the Southern Expeditionary Fleet. The Boskara, evidently daunted by my military might, even pay me some tribute; this ends up ploughed right back into my fleet.


Soon, the Northern Expeditionary Fleet is ready for battle. In my first game, sending token forces to derelict fields did not work well. This time, things go differently: the Northern Expeditionary Fleet carves through the space monsters like a hot knife through butter, and my construction ships can safely begin work.


As I build up my forces in the Boskar system, the AI viceroy is seemingly able to read my mind:



I don’t pay close enough attention to see what effect that has, but judging by the Boskara AI player periodically yelling at me to stop my attacks, it must be doing some damage. I also accept the game’s suggestions to send out my intelligence operatives to sabotage Boskara facilities.


All this is a prelude to the real blow. My transports are headed back to Boskar, after picking up troops at my homeworld; the Southern Expeditionary Fleet is growing in strength; and my AI-controlled 1st Fleet has also showed up in Boskar. But my opportunity is ebbing away; I can see the Boskara fanning out to the south.


It’s time to go to war.


No plan survives contact with the enemy


Of course, my “short, victorious war” is anything but. The moment I declare war, one of the coolest, most unexpected events I remember seeing in a 4X game rears up and bites me. Remember that ethnic-Boskara world that I conquered earlier? The moment I declare war on their neighbours, my Boskara subjects rebel, kick me off their planet, and join the Boskara Authority.


That dishes my dreams of conquest. The Southern Expeditionary Fleet blasts the Boskara space fleet to scrap, pulverises their space ports, blockades their worlds. But now I don’t have a forward base, my troop transports have a habit of running out of fuel, and what ground troops I can get to the Boskara system prove to be insufficient. With bigger fish to fry elsewhere in the galaxy, I settle for a face-saving compromise: the Boskara accept a treaty of subjugation, and my ships pull back from their system.


In the end, my fears about the potential threat from Boskara turn out to be groundless: sandwiched between myself and another empire on their southern border, the Boskara never expand far. When the dust settles, the whole war turns out not just to have been completely unnecessary, but also counterproductive.


With a whimper, not a bang


The early moves, culminating in the Boskara conflict, end up being the most exciting part of my second game of Distant Worlds. After that, my expansion is peaceful. The other computer players I encounter are mostly friendly, and those who aren’t are still smart enough not to declare war – remember, I recovered a lot of derelict capital ships? I generally don’t like starting naked wars of aggression in 4X games, and anyway, by the mid-game, the galaxy is just too sprawling for me to look forward to long-distance wars.


Unfortunately, Distant Worlds doesn’t seem particularly well suited to long periods of peace. Compared to Civilization or Master of Orion 2, which I had a lot of fun playing as “giant tycoon games” (as one forum poster memorably put it), DW doesn’t offer much in the way of colony development – it’s closer to Dominions 3 or maybe Europa Universalis 3, a few expansions ago.


In the end, with my empire tied for equal #1 place in the race for the victory conditions, I quit. Here’s how the game ended. The dark-blue empire in the NW corner is me, the purple dot at 9 o’clock is Boskara, and the small medium-blue empire interwoven with mine is an AI protectorate.



Observations from Game #2


(1) The “Normal” number of stars does not mix with the “large” galaxy size – everything is too spread out. This is further exacerbated if you spawn at the edge of the map.


(2) On large-sized maps and up, and also on smaller maps if you set overly ambitious victory conditions or if point (1) is in play, I suspect DW is one of those titles, like Europa Universalis or most of the Total War franchise, where you play through to the midgame and then walk away once you meet your own personal objectives. Since I would like to see a victory screen, my third game will probably be on another small map.


(3) That said, the early game in DW is a lot of fun, probably even better than in Civilization. The potent goody huts, the scarcity of worlds that can be colonised with early tech, and the importance of claiming independent worlds before someone else does/before they turn into new empires all contribute to an exciting exploration phase.


(4) With the default settings, the AI in DW is very peaceful compared to every other 4X game I’ve played. It’s almost impossible to play Civilization without at least one computer player picking a fight. In DW, on the other hand, I always find myself in the unexpected position of being the aggressor. Next game, I’m dialling up the AI’s aggression (remember, this is one of the options at startup).



* I believe you can mod in custom factions.


** I left this option checked at the start of the game.

Distant Worlds first impressions: The galaxy is a big place

This is part 1 of a series on Distant Worlds.


1. First impressions: the galaxy is a big place

2. How the opening moves play out – a mini-Let’s Play

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.