Monday, April 05, 2010

Distant Worlds Review

Distant Worlds, developed by Code Force and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Gigantic living galaxies to explore with up to 50,000 planets, smart automation or advisor guidance of tasks, self-regulating economy simply requires protection, robust starting options with twenty different races, fairly easy access to tons of information, all-inclusive ship and base design, per-component combat damage, intelligence operations for sneaky types, customization with game editor
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, general instructions and limitations for automated military ships would be nice, nuanced learning curve
What say you? Grand strategy and classic 4X mechanics combine in a vibrant world made easier with optional automation: 8/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Another game set in space gives me yet another opportunity to make a joke about Uranus. Oh, what a gift from the gods the name of that planet is, far more hilarious than, say, Neptune or OGLE-TR-211. So let’s get the formalities out of the way first: Distant Worlds, 4X game, in space, huge galaxies, macro-scale, send a probe to Uranus looking for black holes. And, we’re finished. On to the review!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Distant Worlds features decent graphics for a title in the 4X genre. The game is entirely in 2-D, which makes it easy to import custom bitmaps for a more personal (or copyright-infringing) feel, but it also produces rougher zooming and less dynamic effects. The overall look obviously pales in comparison to more flashy titles like Sins of a Solar Empire, but it is similar to more graphically conservative games like Armada 2526 and Space Empires. The ships do rotate and show some progressive damage, but the weapons are simple effects at best. The art for the aliens looks good: while static and not animated, it does create some interesting species to interact with. Planets and asteroids look like, well, planets and asteroids, revolving around their respective stars in an elegant ballet of elegance. The background fits the space setting, and can be easily modified if desired. Despite the 2-D graphics, Distant Worlds does need a high-end machine to smoothly simulate large galaxies: it’s certainly playable on modest systems like mine, but zoomed out the game displays at only one frame per second. The sound design is functional: appropriate effects when important in-game events occur, and music that is appropriate for the theme. Graphics certainly aren’t the primary focus of independent games like Distant Worlds, but they are functional and that’s all that ultimately matters.

ET AL.
Distant Worlds starts out like any other 4X strategy game: a small empire must expand throughout the stars, colonizing planets and waging war in an epic struggle for survival. Except it doesn’t: you can start out as a feeble newcomer, but Distant Worlds gives you comprehensive options for your nation including age, meaning you can start out as a mature empire with colonization already completed and conflicts soon on the horizon. This is great for players who prefer a more military-focused game and like to rush through the colonization part of a game, since you can skip it altogether. Additional options include the galaxy shape, size (from 100 to 1,400 stars), frequency of independent aliens, AI aggression, research speed, and amount of creeps and pirates. Distant Worlds gives you twenty races to choose from, each with different reproduction rates, intelligence, aggressiveness, cautiousness, friendliness, and trustworthiness. Most races have a more appropriate form of government to choose from the twelve available; these affect approval ratings, population growth, war weariness, research speed, corruption, maintenance costs, troop recruitment, and trade income. Your empire and those of your soon-to-be enemies can be given a specific starting location, home system quality, and tech level to make for more varied encounters. In fact, Distant Worlds includes several “quick start” options for fast or epic games where you can be the lead empire dealing with numerous hostile underlings. You can even edit your galaxy while playing from within the game, a neat feature that I’m surprised other single player space games haven’t allowed. Speaking of, yes, Distant Worlds is only for single players, but honestly the AI is decent enough and the universe is alive, which makes it feel like a multiplayer title, just without the connection issues. While Distant Worlds is one of those games that works without victory conditions, you can specify a percentage of total colonies, population, or economy that can result in triumph. You can continue to play forever, though, even after the victory conditions have been fulfilled. Learning the game can be difficult and involve several play-throughs before nailing the basics, since mechanics in Distant Worlds are quite different from other 4X strategy titles (automation and fuel, namely); the tutorial does a decent job explaining the basics, while the Galactopedia gives beneficial context-sensitive help at any time by pressing F1.

The main feature of Distant Worlds (other than the massive scale) is the use of automation to assist in running your empire. This does not mean that everything is done for you, however, as you can disable any of the options as you wish. You cannot, however, disable transporting goods in the economy (as this is done by private vessels), but honestly this process is so tedious I can’t imagine anyone wanting to worry about it. Most options can be set to fully automate, human controlled, or a happy medium where advisors give suggestions on what to do next. What are those options, you ask? Good thing you said something, as I spent some time typing up a list: colony tax rates, ship design, agent recruitment, troop recruitment, fleet formation, colonization, ship construction, intelligence agent missions, attacks against enemies, sending diplomatic gifts, treaties, and declaring war and trade sanctions. The great part of the automation is that Distant Worlds can appeal to different gamers with different tastes. Want to concentrate on mining and exploration? Great, automate the military and diplomacy. Prefer to design custom ships? Have at it. And so on. In addition, you can even give input in an automated area for tweaks along the way, like designing a custom ship or signing trade pacts; just because it’s automated doesn’t mean it’s locked from your input. Automation is a fantastic feature that allows you to make Distant Worlds your own, and allows you to run a massive empire without getting completely overwhelmed.

I found the interface to take some time to comprehend, as I had the habit of finding information through the most inefficient means possible as I was learning the game. The two key features are the expansion planner and the selection panel. First, the expansion planner lists all of your resource needs and any planets that can be colonized, the resources they would produce, their size, proximity to capital, and native population (if any). You can also see a list of planets that can be mined for resources, either ones your empire demands or would make for good galactic trade. It’s a very, very handy application that makes expanding throughout the 1,000 star galaxies (with 5-10 planets in each solar system) manageable. The selection panel, which display information about the currently highlighted object, has tabs that can be used to cycle through your planets, star bases, constructors, exploration vessels, fleets, or idle ships. There is also a gigantic list of all ships and bases, which can be filtered to show specific types and any information column (type, firepower, location, fleet) can be used for sorting. Also notable is the mini-map with pre-set zoom levels (planet, solar system, sector, entire galaxy) for getting around. Some of the information is sequestered in odd locations, like placing your resource needs on the expansion planner, but once you learn where everything is and the fastest way to access it, navigating through Distant Worlds becomes easy.

Step one: explore (step two: rinse, step three: repeat). Because of the huge hugeness of the galaxies in Distant Worlds, you must explore early and often by sending out exploration ships. You can set them to fully automate, or do what I do and tell them to search everything in a specific sector (I don’t fully trust the AI to do it as efficiently as I could) and assign a new sector when finished. You are allowed to move anywhere in space at any time, in contrast to more restrictive games like Armada 2526 or Sins of a Solar Empire. The galaxy is populated with tons of planets (continental, gas, volcanic, ice, desert, swampy) and other objects (nebula clouds); your race can only colonize a couple of types, which eliminates a lot (but not too many) potential sites for development. Those that are unsuitable for colonization can still be mined for their juicy resources, though. Colonies grow by having low tax rates and a high development level, improved by providing luxury goods. The universe of Distant Worlds feels alive, much more along the lines of a space adventure game with NPCs going about their business without your input. Most (if not all), 4X games are a barren wasteland of military vessels, but Distant Worlds is much more convincing with tons of traders and miners shuttling around your distant worlds. And I must also mention the fact that planets and asteroids actually revolve around their stars (yay!), and there are space creatures and pirates out in the dark reaches of the universe that must be dealt with. Exploration also comes with events, half of which are good (a new ship, money, or technology) and half of which are bad (lots of monsters). The living nature of the galaxy and extensive size makes exploration in Distant Worlds seem less tedious than in other 4X titles.

Unlike most 4X games, both the economy and research are completely automated with no direct input. What you can do, however, is support them through auxiliary actions: colonizing and mining specific planets and keeping trade routes safe from pirates and space monsters. With many other things to worry about in the universe, this is actually a very nice approach, and adds to the immersive nature of the game by featuring lots of little private freighters flying about you don’t need to worry about. Sources of income include taxing the private citizens, sales taxes from trade, citizens purchasing ships from you (automated, of course), and trade agreements. Finding a balance in taxation levels is key, as too low will reduce your funding while too high will cause colonies to revolt; taxation (like most other things) can be handled by the AI for you. Distant Worlds features a ton of resources that are required for ships, space ports, and individuals; choosing the right targets for colonization and mining and making sure goods are protected while being transported is how you keep your economy humming along. As for technology, research projects are completed at random, but you can guide the results by placing labs that emphasize four different fields of research (energy, high tech, industrial, and weapons) around your planets. The seventeen different areas of research provide gradual improvements in components available in ship design, making your empire a more formidable opponent.

Before you haphazardly invade every opposing empire in the game, you might want to conduct some diplomacy first. Relations with other nations are affected by ongoing trade, government type, gifts, hostile actions, and static alien ratings (like friendliness). You can enter trade agreements to acquire precious resources, mutual defense treaties, or impose trade sanctions. You can also trade technologies, money, or colonies; the game gives a numerical value of each item once it’s added for easier negotiating. The interface, however, doesn’t explain why another empire rejects a trade agreement, leaving you to infer the cause from the relationship score. The diplomatic options in Distant Worlds are not terribly original and somewhat limited in their scope overall. If you want to decay relations, several intelligence operations are available for your agents to carry out. You can sabotage construction, incite colonial rebellions, or steal maps and research. Agents given a longer amount of time to complete their mission will have a higher success rate, and the interface specifically states the chance of victory.

Distant Worlds includes space ships. Weird, right? They cost both an initial investment for construction and a monthly maintenance, so keeping an eye on your budget is important. There are many types of ships in the game, from military vessels (capital, frigate, destroyer, cruiser, escort) classified by size to space ports (defense, ship construction, research) to explorers and transports. An extensive aspect of Distant Worlds is ship design: rather than having set hulls where a limited number of parts are plugged in, the game just has a few minimum requirements (engines, life support) and lets you fully customize your vessels otherwise. The game helpfully provides hints (add shields, dummy!) and warnings to assist in making functional designs, and can filter out obsolete components for a shorter list of items. You can also specify a ship’s behavior against stronger and weaker opponents, during invasions, and when to retreat. You want components? You got them: area weapons, armor, beam weapons, cargo storage, colonization modules, combat targeting, command center, commerce center, construction yard, ECM, damage control, docking bays, energy collectors, engines, fuel storage, habitation modules, hyperdrive, life support, long range scanners, manufacturers, medical scanners, passenger storage, proximity arrays, reactors, recreation centers, research labs, resource extractors, resource profile sensors, shields, stealth, torpedoes, and vectoring engines can all be added. Yes, that list made my review significantly longer. In short, if you like to design ships, Distant Worlds has robust features. And if you don’t, just let the AI do it: they do a good job, although the results are less efficient and more scripted than if you designed them manually. You can, of course, add in the occasional design and let the AI worry about designing and upgrading the less exciting ships for a happy medium.

Ships can be ordered to move, patrol, attack, blockade, escort, build, colonize, explore, escape, retrofit, retire, repair, refuel, or stop. Because of the size of your galaxy and the number of ships that must be constructed, most of your vessels should (but don’t have to) be automated, and I assign a number of ships to manually-controlled fleets, which can be easily accessed using the selection panel tabs. Usually, I have my more powerful military ships assigned to a couple of fleets and use those to engage the enemy and pick off pesky pirates and space creatures; the automation does a good job assigning patrol and escort missions to keep your economy humming along. Invading enemy colonies is as simple as bringing along a troop transport filled with eager marines and right-clicking on the target. Space combat is just as simple: just point and shoot. Ships can be damaged on a per-component basis, which is a cool amount of detail. Ships do not earn experience or level-up during combat, however; while the ship properties should remain the same (more fights doesn’t arbitrarily strengthen your armor), I could see making ships “smarter” by having more experienced captains at the helm. Ships could be more situationally aware, as there are many instances of nearby enemies that are ignored by ships who aren’t given a specific “attack” or “patrol” order.

One of the key concepts of Distant Worlds when it comes to ships is fuel. Since you are free to quickly travel anywhere in the galaxy along any path, there must be some strategic limitation, and that limitation is fuel. Ships must recharge at a friendly base or a deployed resupply ship (done by giving the “deploy” command on a gas giant containing the fuel your ships’ engines require) or they can’t fire weapons or move very fast. Automated ships will do this on their own, but manually controlled fleets must be specifically instructed to refuel every so often. Initially, you fee like you are giving up control by automating half of your military. But then you realize that’s what the game wants you to do, so the smaller ships can escort miners and merchants without you having to worry about it. The best course of action it seems is to keep one or two fleets under manual control for pirate hunting, monster killing, and eventually planetary invasion. I would like to know what automated ships are doing: they AI seems to do a good split between issuing escort and patrol missions, but an optional list of preferred patrol locations would be a nice addition. Newly constructed ships always start automated; I would like to see an option to automatically assign them to a fleet (like a rally point) or place them under manual control from the start. Distant Worlds could also use no-fly zones for automated military ships: too often they have entered territory owned by other nations and caused wars to start without my intervention.

Because Distant Worlds lacks multiplayer of any kind, it better have strong AI, and it does. Your competition will provoke you with small, isolated attacks on your mines, trade routes, and outlying colonies. Alien races will also attack vulnerable systems with little to no defenses. Additionally, the always-automated freighters and merchants and optionally-automated ships behave intelligently, with the small caveats I mentioned earlier. While AI is never a substitute for unpredictable humans, it does a good enough job here. The pace of the game always gives you something to do: there is no waiting around for stuff to happen, with pirates, creatures, attacks, mining, new ship designs, colonization, diplomacy, and trade routes to worry about. Most 4X games feature a lot of “end turn” at the beginning of the game, but Distant Worlds offers constant action, and you can even skip the initial colonization in the game settings and start with a developed imperial power if you choose. In short (too late!), Distant Worlds lets you play how you want, highlighting the parts of 4X games you like and leaving the tedium to automation.

IN CLOSING
What saves Distant Worlds from being completely unmanageable is the optional automation the game features. This allows you to focus on the parts of the game that interests you the most, whether it be the military, ship design, diplomacy, colonization, exploration, economy, or intelligence. Of course, this may left you feeling like your empire is being run without your input, but you can always intervene in any aspect of the game that is being directed by the AI and disable it if you want more direct control. Honestly, running an empire spanning hundreds of star systems and thousands of planets would be too daunting and frustrating otherwise. It seems better to automate most things and intervene when necessary (move troops, build a new ship design, conduct diplomacy). That said, when another race asks you to leave their system, there should be an option to prohibit automated military ships from entering it before war erupts. Distant Worlds features very nice game customization options that are beyond the one-colony norm for the genre: you can start out with a fully colonized system and concentrate on military and economic conflict, rather than wasting your time exploring if you wish. You can also customize the behavior, proximity, and strength of all the alien races, or leave it up to chance. Distant Worlds even lets you edit the galaxy during the game. The interface gives easy access to all of your assets, from the useful expansion planner that makes colonization a breeze to the selection panel where you can cycle through specific ship types easily. The universe of Distant Worlds is alive with activity, with NPC merchants and miners going about their business automatically, leaving you to worry about the big picture: a very nice change of pace from the usually micro-intensive offerings of the 4X genre. You own fleets and bases can be custom designed, choosing from an extensive array of components including weapons, construction yards, fuel storage, life support, research labs, and stealth. Or you can leave the design up to the AI, who tends to produce more scripted but usable offerings and upgrades them as better components become available. The AI puts up a decent fight, invading with force at vulnerable locations when appropriate. People might be miffed that economy and research are both automated, but you can still influence the direction of each by protecting trade routes from pirates and constructing research labs to guide technological advances. It takes some time to learn the game, but this is simply because it is different (in a good way) from other 4X titles. Distant Worlds features uninspired diplomatic options and lacks multiplayer, but these are insignificant complaints in what otherwise is a hallmark 4X strategy title.