There are many ways to escape the daily grind of everyday life. Whether it be soul sucking office hours or mind melting days of college, we all have a reason to want to kick back a relax. What better way to shrug off your current workload than to take on a whole new one? A galaxy sized one at that.
Enter Distant Worlds.
Distant Worlds is a real time strategy game that places you in control of a galactic empire. It is considered a 4X game, a short hand way of letting you know that the game features, 1- eXploration, 2- eXpansion, 3- eXploitation, 4- eXtermination. Chances are if you are interested in Distant Worlds then you may have already tasted this genre through other games like Sins of a Solar Empire or Galactic Civilizations. While this game does certainly fit well alongside those, there are some noticeable gameplay differences that set it aside, (more on that in a bit).
Before I go any further into this review, let me get this out of the way. If you’re the type of gamer that has retinas that burn at the sight of outdated 2D sprite graphics, then steer clear of Distant Worlds. While there is a deep and fully entertaining game here, the old coat of paint may definitely hurt the appeal for some. I'm not ashamed to say I am one of the spoiled breed who demands constant life altering eye candy, but that said, the game's graphics don't mean a thing here.
The main point of Distant Worlds is to give you an awesome sense of scale and command, and in this regard it succeeds. The game boasts scenarios that include 50,000 different objects, like moons, planets, space debris, and asteroids. Add in to the fact that a single game can have up to 1400 star systems, and you have a very large playing field. Actually, it's one of the (if not the) largest space strategy games I have ever come across. Trust me, when you pan out to check the full map view, it's impressive to consider your eventual expansion into the vast gargantuan depth that lies outside your borders. The game could easily suck hours if not weeks out of you for a single play-though.
Distant Worlds lets you customise how large a game map you want to play on and quite a few other options, from number of pirates and special events, to the tech level of your opponents. You can select your race, color, banner, starting point in the universe, and even set your own empire's starting power. It's also neat to note that should you choose a different race then you are entitled to different racial bonuses. Sometimes this is better tech, sometimes better solders. A few cons are thrown in as well to balance things out, (like “slightly stupid”, no kidding). To get a few good surprises, I just had the game build me a random setup to get going.
While games of this nature do tend to have a steep learning curve, Distant Worlds handles this well. Everything you need to learn to play is found in the tutorials and it has a very helpful built in encyclopedia that covers the game in it's entirety. That's coming from a strategy gamer, now your more casual gamer will struggle a bit more, but overall it's quite fluid once you get your bearings. Just be prepared to do some reading first.
Your standard run of the mill mouse controls are implemented where left click will select your units, and the right click can issues orders and open menus. Although I did have to tweak it first before I found myself comfortable with the orders system. One of my favorite features of the controls is the mouse zoom. Scrolling the mouse wheel down will zoom in the location you are holding the cursor over. It may not sound like much, but when you don't have it, it just feels wrong.
Now if you’re not a big fan of moving around with the mouse from place to place, the game gives you menus for everything...and I mean everything. You can instantly select any planet, ship, troop deployment, trade route, fleet, or space monster that you know about. And yes...there are giant space monsters that have the temperament of a starving Great White Shark from hell. I lost a few ships to what seemed to be a space squid the size of a moon early on and took on an Ahab complex towards.....well everything. I tend to get vindictive in my gaming at times and lose sight of the empire I am building, (or running into space dust).
In Distant Worlds, I didn't really have to bother with that though, it seems the populace is not only competent at defense, economics, and combat, but sometimes actually handles it better than I would. In fact, most of the game can be left on automation and it would still be possible to win. I was often surprised to see fleets assisting others and trade routes seemingly change on their own to accommodate new events. While this isn't groundbreaking AI, the smoothness of the actions does make it refreshing.
Though after a while I gave up my monster hunts and wanted to get back to the guts of my empire. Here is where Distant Worlds has one of it's best features.
You can control and customize just about anything in your empire, including ships, stations, economy, ground troops, and so on. You can control research as well, though discoveries are not on a tech tree so to say, you can bolster your science and see what your culture develops. Sometimes they may surprise you.
You can also bring in new ships, races, monsters, tech via the modding community. Now as a norm, I would only stick to the game itself for a review, but I thought it worthy to note that Matrix Games actually has the modding community forums right on their website. Now there are other communities, but it's the biggest one I found. The game menu actually has mod support built in, so it's an open invite to get a few of them. The quality of the mods themselves are definitely worth a gander if Distant Worlds catches your gaming eye.
It's also neat to note that you can openly edit a game you are playing to increase difficulty or maybe just to bring retribution on an enemy. Now this does tend to break the game, but as its entirely optional, there is no need to be bothered by it unless you want to.
Though...it is quite fun to spawn 10 of those space squids I was talking about around an enemy planet.
The last note I wanted to hit on was story..
If you were looking for an in depth tale that could be past down the ages, then you are looking in the wrong place. While there are events that happen from time to time like unleashing an random alien race or finding a long lost bit of tech, the game relies heavily on you to carve out enemies and friends in the galaxy to help spur your game session. Not that that's bad thing in a game like this, but for some gamers a lack of true story can really hurt the experience. Do keep in mind that the game does have expansions out that claim to add new story elements in. So if you enjoy the main game, by all means, grab the expansion packs and check it out.
My Personal Opinion.
The game itself could use a massive facelift and maybe stream line the interface a bit more, but with such a great scale of gameplay and ease of choice the game is a great play. If you’re into the hardcore economics and dirty work of the empire you will find a plethora of stats and menus to get your supreme ruler fix. As for the more casual gamer with less time, the game still serves up an enjoyable experience in a galactic sandbox.
While Distant Worlds may not be one of my favorite games in the genre, it definitely does its job well and should not be ignored by fans of empire sims or tactical combat games.
Final Review Score: 8 out of 10
If you like the game and want more, don't forget the mods I mentioned out there as well as the expansion set put out by Matrix Games, “Return of the Shakturi”.