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Distant Worlds Review

By on February 13th, 2011 11:10 am

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Graphics are seriously outdated, poor and distracting.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.

Distant Worlds: Ship Design Screen

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).

Sins of a Solar Empire Trinity Screenshot

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.

Bottom Line

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.

Distant Worlds
(Buy at Matrix Games)
Space Sector score: 5.0*
(about the score system)

See Distant Worlds: Return of the Shakturi review
The Good:
– Huge universe full of things going on (alive universe)
– Good automation options let the player decide where to focus on
The Bad:
– 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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  1. jake says:

    Nice review, couldn’t agree more with you.
    Distant worlds is a good game but has quite a few serious issues.

  2. Vaughan says:

    This review makes a lot of good points, but I have actually enjoyed the game, partly because it doesn’t become quite so tedious to micromanage an enormous empire. Once you know which things the AI does badly and which it does well it helps a bit. Fleets can rearrange after you make them, but only if you leave automation on.

    It shouldn’t be hard to tell if a ship has enough fuel to get somewhere though – a circle appears around it showing its range with current fuel on board. Refueling can be a pain, however, when you have to refuel a big fleet and the space port/planet runs out of fuel – even when it doesn’t it can take ages for the ships to dock one at a time.

    My biggest gripe is the AI, which will send my fleets to attack which either run out of fuel before they arrive – meaning they can’t fire weapons – or with so little fuel left that it takes them forever to get back to refuel. Best to run all fleets yourself.

    The game also retrofit advanced ships you find to your inferior designs unless you remember to stop it each time to allow your forces to retrofit – that can be annoying.

    It is also a little too easy to defeat enemies by taking out their home planet – it takes an incredibly long time for any other colonies to develop enough to replace it.

    Good game, but it can be very frustrating until you learn which things to leave automated and which to manage.

  3. Adam Solo says:

    You reinforce the refuel annoyance, I can’t agree more with you. We shouldn’t lose our time micromanaging fuel, that is simply not fun. Fuel should be an abstract concept as always (the elegant spaceship range).

    Fuel micromanagement is a questionable design decision (to say the least) that was clearly bad implemented. Let’s see if the expansion deals with this annoyance appropriately.

  4. Adrian says:

    Thankyou for the review.

    Just wanted to make some observations from my experience with the game so far, which i hope will help a little for someone not sure about playing it or not.

    I actually find that the fuel system of the game allows for each ship and even whole fleets to be given additional character. For example, i might design a series of warships with very high fuel capacities which are then placed in special fleets for long range ops, whilst a homeworld defence fleet will be given just enough to get around the system (and fight for a while) but be very heavily armed.
    Having game elements that provide added texture and character usually helps lead to a sort of ongoing fictional dialogue spinning away inside my imagination. I am sure i’m not the only player of this sort of game that does this (at least i hope so… put that straight jacket away!).
    I tend to have most auto features turned off but then i do that with nearly all the games of this kind that i play. I just find that humans can always do it better, at least for now. Actually i had some AI features set to having me approve first, mainly to see what the AI would have done and i can tell you, if the AI had had its way, i would be at war with the whole galaxy almost every time hehe. It also wanted to build ships, sometimes quite expensive upkeep ships that just were not needed.
    As a result i have a lot of control over my spacefaring race and i find that influencing and manipulating the private sector is both possible and satisfying. For example, you can build tourist space stations at those Galactic tourist spots, establish extraction facilities for the particular materials or luxury items you want (There is a huge range of things that can be obtained from planets, there are even clouds of nitrogen, oxygen etc that can be harvested). Also, as i am the provider of ships to the private sector, i enjoy designing vessels for the commercial sector that enhances their profitability and survivability.
    The game has some space monsters which can attack your ships and there are several pirate groups that you can either buy information (such as location of independant worlds or other significant locations) from or simply hunt down and destroy their lairs.
    Diplomacy is quite good and long term stable relations can be forged with other races. Independant worlds can be found too and may join your empire.
    Combat is fun because i get to see MY designs at work and have basic control over the ships. So design and usage of ships in combat is more in depth than say, birth of the federation or armada 2526 but not as good as space empires V.
    A lot of situations end up being like missions, for example, i find an advanced tech battleship on the other side of the galaxy and then have to try and get it home, it requires some thought and decision making.
    Ultimately, i find that the most fun games for me personally are those that involve having to make a lot of interesting decisions, Distant Worlds does that for me.
    As Adam said, it is probably more a game for the very serious space 4x player and it is a very good reason to become one if you like management heavy games. But be warned, it is a huge time-sink.

  5. Adam Solo says:

    Thanks for your comments. They really enrich this review, no doubt about that.

    Regarding fuel I see your point and I agree with you but I still think fuel management it’s too much to ask for the player. (perhaps it’s ok to some people of course).

    The problem I see in Distant Worlds is that it is so overwhelming. It definitely does not follow the principle that “less is more”.

    However if you put aside the clear interface problems, probably now fixed in the Shakturi expansion and the bad graphics, Distant Worlds is a good game. Different for better from the rest in terms of scale and depth for sure.

    I’ll review the Shakturi expansion shortly. I’ll let you know my thoughts about it soon.

  6. madmax13 says:

    ship desing – real pain in the ass.
    game has some pros but it’s worth to play…
    my favorite: search for ancient ships and salvage them ;)

  7. Vince Whirlwind says:

    This is a good review to read to give you an idea of the game.

    I tried a few of the other games you mention, and I eventually settled on this one, because it’s just the most grown-up one amongst them.
    As you say, there’s a lot to learn.
    As far as fuel goes, my main annoyance is that ships that are on automated patrol missions allow their fuel to run down really low before going off to refuel. This means if anything appears that they need to engage, the battle is often short and unsuccessful as my patrol vessel disengages to refuel. Otherwise, the fuel ranges are good.
    The only other problem I find is the excessive amount of alien salvage that’s discoverable. Finding the odd mysterious ship is excellent, but finding a huge scrapyard consisting of a dozen or more vessels tends to warp the game a bit as you can field a big battlefleet without really having to build any ships yourself.
    Your problem with keeping track of your ships isn’t one I shared – there are buttons on the interface which can cycle you through all your ships by type, or, cycle you through all your ships that have completed their orders. You can also set the messaging system to alert you when ship orders are completed, or when you get attacked, etc…
    I must say, I haven’t yet got to grips with designing my own ships.
    I’m looking forward to getting the expansions to see what they’ve done with the technology tree and any other improvements.

  8. Paul says:

    Agreed. The complexity is enormous, but the reqards for getting through the learning curve are modest. It’s a decent game, and I wish I had the patience to get through the curve.
    Here’s the thing. I play Dwarf Fortress, and find it more accesible than Distant Worlds. I can get my dwarfs mining out tunnels, gathering trees and hunting and setting up their first workshops in seconds.

    Just working out where I am and what the hell assets on screen there are – and what is what in DW is more than I can handle. I’ve basically given up on it.

    A way around it would be to START WITH NOTHING. no ships, no bases. Just you. Then you could learn to manage just your first ship, just one planet, then one agent, one expansion, one fleet, one…well you get the idea.

    I don’t mind the GFX, it’s the “thrown in at the deep end” and interface I don’t like.


    • Adam Solo says:

      Try the expansion Legends (or a least the Return of the Shakturi one) if you haven’t already. The interface suffered a major overhaul which decreased the learning curve considerably, and increased the overall usability. Distant Worlds: Legends is a great product, if you invested in the base game only I highly recommend that you upgrade it with the expansions. Trust me, it’s really worth it.

    • Stupid Space Lizard says:

      Yeah, I agree Paul. I think the main problem is that the manual does a great job of giving you a general overview of the game mechanics, but it’s terrible when it comes to explaining both the fundamentals and finer details.

      If you’re having trouble getting started feel free to ask in the forums, it’s a fun game if you can get into it.

  9. Antarian says:

    I tend to disagree with this review. I have recently found Distant Worlds (where have you been all my life?) and LOVE it.

    I will break my review down into strong points and weak points

    Strong Points
    You really feel like you are observing a huge empire, kind of like your own giant ant farm, all busily working away.

    Having the freighters completely automated, is really good. If I wanted to play a space freighter game, I’d have bought one. This to me is the single greatest thing I love about this game. There are some minor issues with this though, when you see the weak points.

    Ship design is just fine, pretty easy to work with. One point I’d make for new players is, go through all your designs right away and change them up. Arm all your mining stations and gas stations. They will be constantly picked on by pirates, and will get blown up long before your guard ships race there. Shields too, of course. Take useless things like troop compartments off destroyers. Troops are like GOLD in the game, you never have enough, your constantly recruiting them, and your troop ships are more than enough to cart them around, so your troop carrying destroyers will never get used. Load them up with more weapons and shields instead.

    The alien races are varied and really cool. Lots of variety.

    Diplomacy is adequate for a game of this type and better than many. Races take natural like or dislike to you based on if your an evolved reptile, rat, monkey or bug, and will get annoyed by you colonizing and mining in systems they consider theirs.

    Colonies are very automated and I like that, I hate having to rush around building 50 million buildings on colonies, there’s little of that in this game, most structures are built in orbit.

    Weak Points
    The automated freighters are sometimes REALLY DUMB. Like say, trying to pick up some cargo from an empire your currently at war with (!?!). There should be an option when going into hostilities or war, so suspend trade, mark systems off limits, ect… another thing the really dumb freighter captains will do, is repeatedly fly into a storm zone (nebulae with big flashing bolts of lighting) these damage ships severely. I like having a secret base in there, just DON’T GO THERE unless I tell you! The end result is you have a big scrapyard of damaged freighters sitting in the storm zone that you’ll never bother to fix, just not worth the fuel and time.

    Another point about the freighters is the spaceports tend to go a little crazy building them. This can sometimes drag your resources down and have a major spaceport bogged down with 20 freighters on order while your trying to build the fighting ships. This can be changed by elevating the fighting ships to the top of the priority chain, but you have to constantly micro-manage it.

    One of the BIGGEST drawbacks to the game is the semi-autonomous nature of your ship and fleet captains. For example, you warp into an enemy system and capture their main planet. The AI LOVES TO COUNTER-ATTACK, so the last thing your going to want to do is have that fleet fly off in all directions after the attack and start picking on random targets, some that are several light years out from the actual system! This is EXACTLY WHAT THEY DO. Fleets are notoriously un-loyal and will just fly off on a whim and scatter to the four winds if you don’t constantly check on them and load up their orders queues with multiple commands, which is tedious and has to be done manually. To tell a fleet to patrol a planet for the next few months and refuel when necessary, for example, requires about 100 clicks of loading up single patrol commands and single refuel commands. Why not just have a standing order, ‘patrol this planet and refuel when necessary until I get back to you’. Not that hard!

    The random events are repetitive, so after you’ve found the ‘Temple of WTF’ for the tenth time, it starts to lose it’s excitement.

    Random bugs – I was surprised buying a game almost 4 years after it’s release would still see some pretty serious bugs. For example, one of my construction ships found basically a Death Star, and started fixing it up (all without telling me, sigh) so later i find it merrily fixing up a Death Star, and well, you can imagine how elated I was. I raced combat ships there to guard, found more derelict ships around it in a space graveyard, awesome, awesome… so a few months later I go back to check on this treasure trove. The Death Star and the construction ship fixing it are gone. Just gone. No indication of what happened, nothing… WTF…. I was pretty bummed, to say the least!

    There’s some weird behavior in the animosity of races. Most races think it’s ok to just blow up your under construction space station while at peace with you and your not going to say much. Naturally I declared war immediately and blew up some of their ships. You can get away with conquering whole planets before a race get’s annoyed enough at you to declare war. Very strange, and gives the human a distinct advantage over the AI.

    My last annoyance is with the tactical level combat playing out at the same speed as the galactic scale time. Remember this is a real-time game, which means the computer has a distinct advantage, being able to see all and do all at the same time, so when your in the middle of a huge fleet battle which you have to micro-manage, the rest of your empire is chugging along with frequent alerts bugging you. I would have implemented a short time scale system for battles, say they play out in minutes and hours and the galactic time scale plays out in days and months. That way, not much has happened unless a battle goes a really really long time, which is realistic.

    • csebal says:

      You realize, that the review is from almost 3 years ago, right? :) before all the latest expansions and additions and patches accompanying them.

      The game was no more than a 5/10 back then, according to some – including me – it still is a mediocre game, but I’m not here to argue with anyone who thinks otherwise.

      Point being: if you ask Adam today, he would probably give it a different score. In fact, just checking the related articles, you would find a 8.7/10 score for the return of the shakturi expansion review.

  10. Antarian says:

    Yes, csebal, I actually do read dates, thanx.

    As for your comments, you are obviously not aware that:

    Distant Worlds must still be purchased alone as the base product before layering on each new module. A questionable business practice but the game is good enough for me to lay out the money.

    The currently available and still purchasable DW on their site is fully patched and current. The game alone in basic DW is excellent overall when fully patched, and just gets better and better with each add on they brought out.

    Point Actually Being: The points made by the reviewer that I disagreed with had nothing to do with bugs. I like the interface, other than the ship upgrade is clunky (why not have a ‘upgrade and replace’ button to do it all in one?)

    I find the solar systems and planets gorgeous, and the fact that they all orbit and move is rare in a 4X game still, and I really appreciate it.

    I don’t mind the 2D ships at all. I have no interest in more modern 3D 4X games like Sins, they leave out far too much for those gorgeous 3D ships.

    I have already upgraded to Shakuri, and I’m loving the game even more. The ship and base org screen is perfect, the new tech tree design is great, and the addition of fighters is fantastic. Only thing that’s still bothering me at this point is there doesn’t appear to be any concept of ‘borders’ in space. Just blew up a construction ship for trying to build a gas mine right in one of my systems under my nose, there needs to be a ‘request permission to build…’ option in the otherwise excellent diplomacy model. Or, ‘please remove such and such mine from my system’ rather than having to trade for something.

    Looking forward to the next expansions, especially the legendary officers add on.

  11. Artesian says:

    Dammit! I heard about this ultimate micro-management space/universe came and nearly tripped over myself in my hurry to download and play it, but despite all the great reviews I just didn’t like it. I was hoping that a review by Space Sector might somehow let me know that I was an idiot and if I played it a certain way or to a certain end I might experience all that it was hyped up to be, but instead this review has confirmed all my fears – the game just isn’t very good.

    Everything mentioned is true. It has so, so, so, so much possibility to be the best game ever but it’s way to hard to navigate both the panels and graphics. Mechanically, it falls down hard.

    I desperately want to love this game but I just don’t.

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