Many of you may have noticed (ok, maybe only some of you, or ok maybe just Brian :)), that although Distant Worlds has been released in March 2010 I didn’t write a review yet. I have to confess that the main reason for not having done it earlier was because (and the hardcore fans are gonna kill me for this) I simply don’t enjoy playing it. And so the review got postponed again and again until today.
You see one of my main drives in this site is to be able to talk about one of my passions: Space Strategy Games (or Sci-Fi Strategy Games if you prefer) and to get the opportunity to talk with people in the industry and get the chance to review games, play games and keep people informed about all this. And although Distant Worlds is an important 4x game, that clearly deserves a comprehensive review, I get so bored playing it that I could never find the motivation to do it. But for respect and interested of the community here it is now.
Distant Worlds Review
Distant Worlds is a highly complex game. For you to understand better how complex it is I can tell you that it feels to me more like a 4x simulator than a 4x strategy game. When playing DW you get the sense of being in control of a government, not an empire, in the terms we are all used to. This means that you don’t have all the power. And this is a serious problem.
There is a clear distinction between public and private sector in DW and you control the public sector only. It’s something like being in control of NASA, making all the exploration, spaceship design and spaceship building and then the Private folk, eventually, follow on your footsteps. Although this does not seem to be a bad idea at first it turns out that not being in full control of your empire violates a fundamental requirement on “4 Reasons Why We Like to Play Space Strategy Games“.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of stuff to do in DW, so much that you must choose where to focus on leaving all the rest automated. You can focus on military aspects, ship design aspects, exploration, colonization, tourism, mining, you can (try to) control everything or you can even decide not to do anything at all and just watch the game unfold in fully automated mode.
The other DW downers for me, besides not having full control of my empire, are the Graphics and the User Interface.
Graphics are seriously outdated, poor and distracting. In the planet view you sometimes have so many ships on top of each other and so many lines and circles (remember that DW map view is 2D) that is really eye bleeding to watch all that. Ship’s rendering in specific are particularly awful. Planets and galaxy graphics are not terrible but are not good either. This is what you get when you choose to mix Spaceships RTS battles (tactical aspect) with galaxy/planetary view (strategic aspect) together in a bad way:
I find this confusion of ships, this constant overlapping totally unacceptable. Many times it’s very hard to select the ship you want and you keep selecting a planet, another ship or a starbase. Terrible. Or you choose to go all the way like Sins of a Solar Empire or Star Ruler did in providing a full 3D model of your world or you stick to the two separate perspectives (tactical and strategic) to give a clean galaxy/planetary perspective to the player and a nice 2D or 3D tactical battle perspective in separate like Sword of the Stars or Armada 2526 did. Trying to mix the two without a proper 3D engine simply doesn’t work, you have to agree with me on this.
But it gets worse. The User Interface is probably the worst aspect of DW. I did not tried the latest DW patches and the Shakturi expansion (probably they may have already fixed some of the issues) but in the original version of DW the user interface was really bad. Let’s start with a screenshot.
The user interface has way too many buttons, drop-down choices and information (that sometimes is hard to read) and so it gets too overwhelming to remember what everything does (remember the simulation aspect I introduced earlier?). Another issue is the user interface presentation itself. The interface graphics lack beauty and are very WindowIsh. Let me summarize it this way, I’ve seen business software applications that are more appealing than this game’s user interface.
But it’s not just the presentation aspect, the overwhelming and hard to read information and the buttons that make the user interface bad. The user interface does not help you get where you want and does not provide any visibility of things going on and so you easily lose track of things. This is another serious issue.
For example you send a scout somewhere, or you forget about a mining base you sent to some system or a building order you did on some planet. In DW it’s very easy to lose track of things and to move around. You are constantly clicking your way through system to system and ship to ship because the user interface does not provide a monitoring panel of some sort telling you where your ships are. (If this is fixed by now please let me know so that I can add that note to this review).
The best example I can give you of a complete and successful opposite is the Sins of a Solar Empire UI monitoring panel (see red circle in the picture below).
As you can see in a small corner in your screen you can keep track of dozens of ships and planets at a distance of a click, in DW just forget about it. It’s click fest (where was my ship again? What was I doing? err)
Another annoying issue I had with the DW user interface is that fleet management was a mess. I created a fleet then gave an order to go somewhere. Next time I noticed the fleet was disassembled and I needed constantly to recreate the fleet again and again (I seriously hope that they have fixed this by now, let me know if that is the case).
One more annoyance. Ships need to refuel in DW, and I mean a lot. I can say that perhaps 30 to 50% of the spaceship’s decisions you have to make are based on fuel. Sending a ship somewhere is not sufficient, you have to make sure that the ship really arrives at the destination with the amount of fuel it has. And the problem is that the decision cannot be made upfront, you need to monitor the ships all the way to see if their fuel is enough to reach the destinations.
This fuel thing is another unacceptable design decision (or bad implementation) for me. When fuel is up you need to refuel the ship with specially refueling ships but first you need to remember where the ship was headed and again the UI problem of not being able to track things. How less fun can this be? I seriously hope they have fixed this annoyance by now.
Distant Worlds is a nice attempt to create a huge living universe full of things going on and also a good attempt to allow the user to choose the degree of control he wants. And although I find the concept appealing in my opinion the game failed to achieved that.
DW failure is due to an unappropriated and incomplete user interface, a bad design choice to separate the powers into public and private sector (in 4x empire building games we want to feel like we manage an empire not a realistic earth like government), poor graphics, a very steep learning curve and some bad design decisions along the way. All this culminates in a dry, sterile, overwhelming, boring and ultimately not fun game to play.
Having heard so many good things about this game (mostly from people in the game forums, now I get it) I felt compelled to play DW and like it, however the result was very different from what I expected. I got very quickly frustrated playing the game which resulted in the worst negative 4x gaming experience I had to date since Master of Orion 3 (that bad).
I recommend Distant Worlds only to hard-core fans of 4x sci-fi strategy gaming, and even here not for all. If you’re a less than hardcore fan of these type of games or if you are a casual player stay away from Distant Worlds.
[* Update 29th March 2011]: This review is based on Distant Worlds “vanilla”, i.e. the released version (Mar 25, 2010). The game is much better now after the patches so take the final score below as the score that reflected the state of the game right after release. Codeforce has released many patches since then, which have improved the game significantly. So by all means try out Distant Worlds as it stands now, including the Shakturi expansion. You will get a much better product that the one released in 2010. There is no demo available unfortunately. I invite you to read the Distant Return of the Shakturi review (1st DW expansion pack). It is a complete new experience.
(about the score system)
- Huge universe full of things going on (alive universe)
- Good automation options let the player decide where to focus on
- User Interface is daunting, inappropriate and incomplete
- Graphics are poor and completely obsolete
- Bad design choice to separate powers into public and private sector takes power away from players (huge mistake)
- Very steep learning curve
- The refueling design decision and implementation is very annoying
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