Friday, June 21, 2013

Review: Distant Worlds: Shadows

Before I review this game, I think I have to tell you the story of how I came to know about it and how I ended up buying it in the first place.

About a month and a half ago, a Let's Play channel I watch did a video on Distant Worlds: Legends, the previous iteration of the game in question, and I almost missed watching it because it didn't show up on my subscription feed. When I saw the preview image for the video, I almost didn't click it. But I did watch it.

It looked like an interesting game at the time, but I probably wouldn't like it. I didn't like the last Civilization game I played or really stuck with Galactic Civilizations II, so it might not be the game for me.

A couple days pass.




Well, maybe I'll look into it more. What'll it hurt.

Here's what I found:

If you know me, you know that I don't really buy games that aren't on Steam. That was strike one.

The price at the time I started looking at the Distant Worlds series was $87 for the base game and the two expansions at the time. That was strike two.

When I tried to find reviews for the series at Metacritic, I was met by a lot of silence after the first game, which had 4 non-English reviews and little press coverage for the other expansions. So I was in essence being asked to make a commitment to an expensive game with no real mainstream coverage or reviews. That was a huge strike three for me.

No, no I wouldn't buy that.




You know, I want to watch that video again to convince myself I don't want it.

And days kept going by, and I kept thinking about this game, and trying to talk myself out of buying it. I tried playing other games, like Shogun 2 Total War but to paraphrase the movie Babe, I knew that little ideas that tickled and nagged and refused to go away should never be ignored, for in them lie the seeds of destiny.

But I still couldn't pull the trigger, mainly because of strike one. I am so committed to Steam as a platform that it is very difficult for me to buy things that aren't on there. Put it this way, that aforementioned Let's Play channel is doing a series of videos about the free game Dwarf Fortress which makes it look like it would be entertaining and at the moment I am hemming and hawing about trying it.

Yet the dripping continued, and I tried to ignore it, but I couldn't. I was drawn to the Matrix Games forums which were talking about the game and the upcoming expansion and threads about how the price was hurting the game, and I started using the price as an excuse.

May 23rd rolls around and the Shadows expansion is released and Matrix/Codeforce decide to temporarily lower the price for the whole set down to $70 and with that new price, my resolve snapped and the dam burst, flooding the valley below. Even then though, I tried to get up on the roof and just wait it out, but the need to buy the game finally won out three days following its release.

So on May 26th, I installed the game, tried it for a few minutes and thought to myself, "I regret this decision immediately." But having paid so much, I decided to try it one last time right before I went to bed that night...

...and so begins the actual review.


Distant Worlds is a single player real-time grand strategy 4X space game where you play as the head of a galactic empire, which at first glance, sounds like quite a few other games I admit. It was the grand strategy aspect which initially got my attention, since I am a huge fan of the historical games that Paradox develops, and I was never really a fan of turn-based strategy, and since this game uses that same kind of pausable continuous time scheme, it seemed like a good fit for me.

In the base game, you can pick between 20 different playable alien species (including the standard Humans), and set off to build an empire in a galaxy between 400 to 1400 stars depending on your starting settings, which can leave you with up to 50,000 planets and asteroids to explore and exploit (each of which orbits their star . I love the fact that you can be focused on a planet and using the mouse wheel, you can slowly pull back and see the full star system, and then the bit of deep space around it and smoothly widen the view to see a huge chunk of the galaxy you are fighting for, and then do that in reverse.

The game can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be, since you can automate nearly everything or take control of as many of the aspects of the game as you want, or set an in between state where it suggests courses of action and you get to make decisions that way. You can do this to a microscopic level... like literally set your level of involvement in these processes on an item by item basis, so it makes it very easy to customize the way you want to play.

If you want to let the computer take control of the entire empire while you take control of one single exploration ship, you can do that. If you want to let the computer control everything but the military, you can do that. As a beginner, the computer can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you as you learn how the game works, and I appreciate that. While there is a huge learning curve to figuring everything out, having it setup to do this allows a player to get going almost immediately and slowly open up more of the game experience as they get comfortable. When you compare that to a Paradox game or many of the other 4X games out there where to have any kind of success, you basically have to know most of the mechanics ahead of time, this is very refreshing.

I remember in my first game, as I was learning, I wanted to be able to colonize some planets that were not my native type, so I went to that screen, the game asked me if I wanted to turn off the automation, I said no, and then I picked the things I wanted researched and they got cued up to be next, and the computer automated research again after those choices. There were situations where I was at war with another empire and the computer had some fleets under its control close to the border and I was able to just grab them and use them immediately the way I need to while letting the computer handle defending another part of my front while I invaded an enemy planet.

I am currently in my second full game and I am taking up more of the responsibilities and figuring out how to do things on my own so I can make better decisions and handle more situations on my own. I think this game I will finally start getting my hands dirty with ship design.

 I also liked the fact that there is none of that weird "star lane" stuff that a lot of games like this usually use to constrain travel. If you see a star, you can go directly there (though you have to make sure your ships have enough fuel or it will turn into a very long trip). That old system seems like an unrealistic remnant that was borne from the turn-based age, and I am glad to see games that don't embrace it.

The other alien civilizations have a wonderful amount of individual personality and I found myself getting genuinely angry with some of their actions against me, while also feeling a sense of legitimate loyalty to my allied races because of their sterling behavior. While I don't have any stories that rival Crusader Kings II in terms of backstabbing and duplicity, I was still satisfied with my experiences with the various denizens of the galaxy.

Victory is also something which is slightly refreshing, since not only do you not have to completely wipe out every other civilization to win, the mathematics of victory take into account things like population and economic power, as well as each playable race has its own set of individual goals to try to achieve which also grants them part of their victory total, and they are things which are for the most part well within bounds for the game, like owning a certain percentage of a particular planet type in the galaxy or having at least a certain number of treaties, so it adds a lot of flavor to the experience. 

The game lends itself to very long campaigns, but if you are not into that, you can also set an end time for the experience so that victory is determined for the leader after a set amount of time has elapsed, and there is a quite a bit of freedom to choose a lot of different options at the beginning to determine how your game is going to play out, from the shape of the galaxy and how many stars are in it to how big the space all those stars occupy, to how aggressive, well-developed and populated the galaxy is, which means that the game has a high replay value. 

The Shadows expansion is the newest addition, and it opens up two new major aspects to the game. One is the ability to play as a pre-warp civilization, which is how I've been playing the game lately and the second is being able to play as the head of a pirate band, which is something which I am not really good at but I can certainly understand the appeal of, because it is a very different way of playing it.Your goal is to stymie real civilizations, extort them for money to build up your own power base, act as mercenaries for their disputes and in the end become quasi-official as a civilization yourself. It is an ambitious goal, but one I am sure is fun pursuing.

It also adds new technologies to the mix, but seeing how these are my first experiences with the game, I don't know how powerful they ultimately are compared with the techs from the previous versions.

It is also a very easy game to mod, as not only is installing them easy (since you just load the mod you want to play from a folder in the game directory meant to house them as you are setting up a game), they are also relatively easy to make since the files that the game uses are text and graphics files, both of which are easy to modify or replace. As I stated in my last post, I've been modding this game myself and I've already released two for the game, a flag mod and most recently, a systems name mod that increases the number of names available for the random naming of star systems. The fact that it is so easy to mod has meant that there is a lot of existing stuff that changes the game into many other universes, from Star Wars and various ages of Star Trek to other space games like the X series, Mass Effect and Freespace 2, and I like how much more these kinds of thing add to the game. 

Because of the complexity, replayability and easy modding, this game is easy to recommend to fans of grand strategy and 4X games. And this brings me back to the anecdotal story I told at the beginning.

I think back to the first game I bought digitally back in December 2010, Football Manager 2011, where the whole process for me was completed over the course of about an hour and a half. I went from "Ooh, a game about being a soccer manager... that might be interesting. Let's read a review," to "Oh I can get that right now for about 20 dollars. Sold!" through a process where at every point I was being pumped up to buy it.

But Distant Worlds was a hard sell for me. It was a game that had little exposure and a high price which made it almost purely luck that I happened to stumble upon it in the first place, let alone buy it. I had to overcome so many objections before I finally broke down and bought it that in a way I can understand why others may have some reticence about doing the same. I've read complaints from people who have tried to get their friends into the game, and the most common lament is that the price is too high, and I totally get that.

At the same time, that makes me a little sad, since I know that if more people knew about the game, they would check it out and probably enjoy it. But the lack of exposure and yes, the price are both hurting this game.I want more people to play it, mod it, tell stories about it because it is a great experience, but I have doubts that it will move beyond the niche market it currently occupies. No one is really talking about the game on social media or in the forums of any of the major game sites, even when other games like it are being discussed, and the community continues to stay small, and that's a shame.

In closing, even without the Shadows expansion, with the package that is currently $50US made up of the base game and the two earlier expansions, if you like this kind of game, would probably be a lot of fun, but I've enjoyed playing in the Pre-Warp scenarios, so I recommend getting the full shebang for $70 (which is the sales price until July 5th). It is only available at Matrix Games.

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