• Gamer's Gazette Review- Distant Worlds: Universe

    Single Issue XXVIII (Written by Dante Von Hespburg)

    Distant Worlds: Universe

    "In which we embark upon a galaxy-spanning tour in this 4x space-empire simulation, bringing fire, misery and corporate enterprise to an unwilling universe. They'll be grateful one day..."

    Whoever could say no to destroying swathes of planets in the name of private-sector corporate expansion in an attempt to create resource scarcity in the market? Well that is one potential in Distant Worlds: Universe. A game developed by Code Force and published by Matrix games back in 2010. To this potential, I screamed a resounding 'YES!' and jumped straight in, though when my (hugely flashy and overly expensive) planet-killer reached these guys:

    I may have shed a single tear of regret….so adorable!... They all burned though. All falls before capitalism in the end.

    Distant Worlds: Universe is a detailed and comprehensive real-time 4x strategy game, that on the surface seems like many of its other counterparts in the Space 4x market, BUT it has a unique twist over its competitors- that being the ability to forge your own story on any level, at any scale. Allow me to entice you through the medium of a snappy explanation… ahem. You can run your empire as the god-like autocrat you always imagined yourself to be, micromanaging every single aspect of your empire in meticulous detail, or you can get right down to the grubbiest, lowliest ship captain's level and direct control the adventure of this intrepid explorer as you trade, bounty hunt, explore (there are basic RPG story elements and traits to gain) or privateer across the galaxy, blissful to the political horrors happening around you, only to be swept up in their current eventually.

    Alternatively you can be in charge of a group of ships as their Admiral, or indeed aspire to be your empire's ‘High Admiral’ in charge of all military ops (Leave the politics, lies and laws to those slimy politicians), or perhaps take control of the 'poor bloody infantry' leading your empires expedition forces from frozen world to furnace all to die horribly...in the name of glory. If that fails to appeal, maybe being a Chancellor dealing with balancing the books appeals to you (If you want to be the most hated person in the universe that is), or perhaps being a secretive spy master engaged in the cut and thrust of nocturnal diplomacy- directing saboteours to destroy your rivals lovely holiday resort (hah take that tourist income!), assassinating their key officials and turning enemy agents into you 'bessie' mates, maybe though you liked watching the Big Bang Theory a wee bit too much and feel the pull of a chief imperial scientist calling, directing research and effectively turning the game into an automated sandbox where you see how your empire uses your creations in practice. All of these things and more are possible through Distant World’s complex and comprehensive automation system. The AI is incredibly good (It has to be, as Distant Worlds is only a single player experience alas) and literally every aspect of your empire can be given over to the AI to run, while you can carve out a ‘human niche’ as large or as small you want.

    The AI automation is done through the ‘policies’ screen, a nice little addition that helps to not break your immersion (if you're into that RP life), it's also very exhaustive in options...trust me...

    The second ‘unique’ aspect of this game compared to its fellows is the active portrayal of ‘state’ and ‘private’ sectors and enterprise. Your empire exists on two levels; one that can be (potentially if you choose it) formally controlled by you to the aforementioned varying degrees and includes the military, defense, and state-led colonisation and mining efforts, and also the private sphere which is part of your empire but acts as an AI sub-faction, expanding, settling, mining, trading and indeed ordering ships from your state shipyards (paying you of course for the pleasure). This leads to an interesting ‘sub-game’ where protecting and ‘helping’ these private interests in your empire can lead to large dividends, while likewise ignoring them can have a detrimental effect- particularly if pirates or hostile empires start plying your trade lanes. Thus wars become not just the usual ‘massive space battles followed by planetary tug of war’ but also have a commerce raiding aspect which can effectively bring an empire to its knees.

    This is further compounded by the myriad of resources, both staple and luxury that a growing empire needs to sustain all aspects of its function- Not only does your military and by extension private sector require mundane stuff like steel or uranium, but also all your ships require fuel, and the type of drive you're equipping your ship designs with determines the type of resources and fuel amounts you need- All of which needs to be mined through either private or public enterprises and protected at all costs, as a lack of fuel will see your mighty high-tech armada drifting aimlessly in space at a snail's pace back to port through the void, while your solar systems burn (This totally didn’t happen to me *cough*).

    Economics can get a wee bit complex, but typically the more the merrier applies.

    Thus asymmetrical space warfare is rather well represented. Add to this logistical limits which can only be overcome through specific supply ships (the loss of which can potentially again strand an entire fleet) and rough swashbuckling pirate factions with whom dodgy deals of the overt and covert variety such as raiding rival planets or smuggling in supplies to a besieged wcan be struck. Careful though as they'll likely extort from you the minute they sense weakness. This all goes to create a very dynamic-feeling game that somehow seems very ‘real’ to play...well as real as a sci-fi space setting can be.

    The diplomacy system itself is rather ‘simple’ compared to most games, but with its own complex nuances that more than make up for this. There are typical ‘Mutual defense pact’, ‘peace’ or ‘war’ relationship statuses (Which are simpler than most Facebook updates...)- but if you don’t get on with a faction, but are not at war with them, your military can and will (if under the ai especially- aggressive wee thing that it is) raid and skirmish with them, potentially creating a ‘trigger point’ where they finally decide 'enough is enough, genocide is the only answer'- this style of undeclared fighting can even see border worlds plundered and so the player is always on edge in the realm of diplomatic relations. The system is further refined through specific agreements such as ‘free trade’ or ‘mining rights’ which allow for their own myriad of advantages and disadvantages. The potential for covert operations and pirate contracts rounds this all off very nicely leading to an intensive and consuming ‘Great Game’ of diplomacy- at least that’s what i found with a good 40 percent of my time spent staring at the diplomatic screen. A caveat to this is there are certain 'in-grained' racial diplomatic preferences seemingly that cannot be changed. This means that generally you can be rather certain after playing a few games which other races would be best to ally with, and who will be your main problems.

    They finally like me!

    The warfare element is graphically basic, with the weapons all visually represented, but again in a rather lackluster and (naturally) two dimensional way, but the combat mechanics are incredibly complex which perhaps mitigate the visual let down. An array of ship roles exist from Escorts, to Frigates, to Cruisers and Carriers and more- all with their own particular role which is further defined by your research and just how you design them. Ships can act individually, as part of a strike force or as part of a fleet and according to role and the player or ai's further input will behave in a myriad of ways- Frigates will raid and out-ride while also escorting larger ships and patrolling your space lanes, Cruisers can act more independently, alone or in packs delving deeper into enemy space and raiding planets. Ships can be boarded, disabled and left adrift as well as of course being outright destroyed in glorious 2d adding extra elements (and the possibility of recovering the wreck of that really expensive Battleship...that may or may not drive you to bankruptcy in trying to safely get to and repair the darn thing). This helps break the formula that many other 4x games fall into- in Distant Worlds: Universes ‘blobbing up’ your forces together and outnumbering the enemy locally has no real positives, but a sleuth of negatives, so sure you can do it, but be prepared for the AI to swipe your empire away from you while your staring at the shiny hulls of your Grand Armada being whittled down through attrition as their ambushed, their refueling bases destroyed and that massive armada in the middle of nowhere drifts now helpless, while your worlds burn.

    Where Distant Worlds really shines is in the detail of its ship designer. Let your creative juices flow as there are hundreds of images to choose from for each design, all of which can have its size changed. Alongside this are the many different torpedoes, missiles, lasers, grav-weapons, bombs, engines, crew compartments, commerce modules, rail-guns, lance beams, shields *Breathe*, armour, crew quarters etc; the amount of ‘stuff’ is quite dizzying, even designing a basic ship can be a tad intimidating for newcomers due to the need for non-normal extras like life-support or storage, and getting the balance between speed, fuel, survivability and armament is difficult. In this respect it strongly reminds me of 'Rule the Waves' (Shameless plug for a future review perhaps?)

    The Tech tree is extensive, with all the toys you could imagine from social techs to civilian comforts, to weapons of mass destruction, fighter types, methods of travel- it's all there lock, stock and barrel...and naturally i bee-lined for the planet killer- my people may be illiterate, living in huts, trading tiny rocks- but who needs civilization when you can make whole planets go ‘boom’.

    Furthermore all of these things need specific resources, with different jump engines needing different crystals or gasses- thus your military is shaped by the geography of your empire as much as it is by your research. You may have a fast hyper-drive able to cycle up in a mere eight seconds… but if you only have one viable mining colony for the crystals required to run it, that’s a big risk, perhaps it's better to stick to your older ‘chuggers’ for the majority of your fleet.

    I think I've got the hang of this design malarkey… they don’t need expensive life support right? The cheap stuff is just as good...

    For all its scope (seriously, up to 1400 star systems with a vast variety of planet types, asteroids et al) and its unique crafting of a truly ‘living’ galaxy, Distant Worlds: Universe does have its failings. The most obvious for many i’m sure would be that price-tag- for a game that’s seven years old it's still retailing on steam at £44.98. Now in fairness that is because Distant Worlds: Universe includes its two large expansions alongside the base game, which add a fair-bit of new content. But it is a big ask perhaps when newer games which are just beginning their development cycle such as Stellaris are only £34.99. A counter to that of course would be arguing that Distant Worlds does not follow the modern DLC model of many newer 4x games, and thus overall will be/is cheaper. But this dear reader is a personal judgement that you must make alone (For i steer well clear of the pro/anti DLC debate, i like all my limbs attached thank you)

    The lack of racial customization, or meaningful racial differences may also be a ‘no-go’ for some. While physically the races are clearly differentiated- ships looking different, portraits and indeed text-speech varying these are not the sweeping changes that are perhaps present in other real-time 4x games. You are completely unable to change anything about one of the set 20 races. Now each of these have detailed and comprehensive lore behind them explored both in the games main quest-lines, but also in the handy in-game encyclopedia, but it means your rather railroaded in terms of game-play and RP to what your race is ‘good’ at, as well as their background stories, potential for allies and enemies and also possible ‘meta’ avenues. Furthermore while there are in-game characters such as scientists, agents, admirals, officers, leaders etc and these over time develop their own traits, they are not as meaningful as they could be. The traits are a nice addition, but have very little game-play relevance, and moreover just feel a bit ‘bland’. A few hours in, i couldn't remember the names of all my officials, nor did i particularly care when they gained new 'traits'.

    Inept admirals and unnecessary casualties...another day in the life of the mighty Terran Empire. Luckily such traits do not bear the relevance that they potentially could do.

    These though are the only two points of contention that i have personally. It all still makes Distant Worlds: Universe a very solid and complex game that you could whittle away your hours on (I know I've lost whole days to it...that’s also my excuse for the erm ‘generous’ time it took to finish this review!). The ‘living world’ nature of the universe- watching citizens and private enterprise expand their operations and travel, its slow burning story arcs that suddenly tumble into a huge intergalactic struggle for the fate of the universe, are factors that really do make this game stand out. If you're a lover of pouring over perhaps overly-complex systems and trying to ‘state-manage’ rather than micro-manage then this is the game you probably never knew you needed.

    Now excuse me, I've got to get back to roasting those cute lil furry chaps.
    Comments 5 Comments
    1. Mhaedros's Avatar
      Mhaedros -
      A coherent and well written review of a fascinating game! Well done on a very enjoyable read
    1. Alwyn's Avatar
      Alwyn -
      I enjoyed reading this, it comes across as balanced and helpful. It looks like, while this game has shortcomings, it has a lot to offer - flashy, expensive planet-killers, cute furry aliens, RPG elements (I like the idea of being able to focus on any level from emperor to starship captain and the ability to design your own ships (I like the sound of that).
    1. ponasozis's Avatar
      ponasozis -
      Should also mention that the game is highly moddable and that changing something you don t like is very easy

      there is also comprehensive mods available in dw modding forums that add tons of races,improve ui,add better looking ship graphics,add tons of new technologies,events,weapons,traits,portraits and many many more things one of the mods even adds a custom UI for most of the races based on the race looks
      on top of that there are also other scfi universe mods such as star trek,star wars and warhammer 40k and more

      honestly, i can t play vanila DW any longer i need to use at least dw expanded universe mod with UI improvements GEM and das Chrome addons
    1. Dante Von Hespburg's Avatar
      Dante Von Hespburg -
      Cheers guys And Ponasozis, i'm interested- the modding aspect is something i haven't yet got into yet- but i can see the huge potential the game would have for it- i'll check out some of the ones you've put forward (love warhammer 40k for instance). I'm also intrigued to the expanded universe mod, guessing its a 'must have'? of once you've used it, you'll never look back kinda deal
    1. Gigantus's Avatar
      Gigantus -
      One more game I have to try, great review!