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Distant Worlds: Return of the Shakturi Review

By on October 10th, 2011 11:45 am

Ok, it took me a bit longer to review Return of the Shakturi than I expected. First of all, Distant Worlds: Return of the Shakturi is a complex beast, so I took my time to experience all it has to offer. Secondly, I lost myself playing for hours. There were times where I forgot I was doing a review at all, and that was a good sign.

Distant Worlds Return of the Shakturi is Distant World’s first expansion pack. Distant Worlds is a 4X real-time space strategy game developed by Code Force and published by Matrix Games.

When DW first came out it had many problems, many of those related to its weak user interface. The game was practically unplayable by then, and that ruined the entire gameplay experience. RotS solved many of those issues. Here’s how.

From the Potential to the Actual thing

Many things changed in DW since the original release. But the thing that changed the most, the one that unlocked the game’s true potential and turned it into an actual playable and enjoyable game were the changes made to the user interface. But before getting to that let’s first see what’s new in RotS.

The research system was completely revamped. RotS offers many tech options now. You can queue projects and decide to buy/crash research to substantially accelerate it. Tech trees are well organized and provide sufficient information to the player. The only two less positive remarks I make to the tech trees is that sometimes it’s really hard to read stuff (font sizes are incredibly tiny in places) and the scroll bar does not provide a good color contrast, which makes it a bit difficult to navigate up and down in the tech trees sometimes. But these are pretty minor issues. RotS research has good depth, it is meaningful and is ultimately fun to handle.

There are fighters and bombers now. One major addition to the weapons research tree are star fighters. You have now many kinds of bombers and interceptors to choose from. To deal with enemy fighters you can use point defense weapons. I’ve used fighters in a couple of battles. They were fun to watch and can be a pain for enemies that don’t have point defense weapons. You can replenish your fighters and decide to launch them for battle at any time.

Another interesting new aspect in RotS is that you can build planetary facilities now, although there are only a bunch of them available to build and many of those are related to troop training. In addition to troop facilities you can also decide to build a Giant Ion Cannon to disable invading ships or a Planetary Shield to defend your colonies against enemy bombardment. Yea, very SW Empire Strikes Back, but that’s ok, I’d say that if you’re going to get inspiration at least you should take it from the best :)

RotS comes with a new backstory featuring two new alien races (the Shakturi are one of them). You can decide to take action and follow the story line or just play normally, as you prefer. There are plenty of victory condition possibilities to choose from. You can set population, territory, economic or time goals. You can set one of these, all of them or none at all and just decide to play a completely open sand-box game.

But I saved the best for last. RotS provides major user interface improvements to Distant Worlds. The UI was the worst aspect of DW vanilla. You could sense that the game’s potential was there, the huge amount of depth waiting to be unleashed, but the UI failed terribly and didn’t allowed the player to use that potential, and the gem remained unpolished.

I use the following aspects as a basis to analyze how good a UI is, taken from experience and literature (doesn’t matter if a game is complex and deep or not, or how many windows and amount of information it provides). And to simplify things let’s take out the presentation aspect from this list. That’s nice to have but not that ultimately important.

  1. Do players feel in control of things? (The MOST important of all aspects)
  2. Does the interface let the players do what they want?
  3. Is the UI intuitive and easy to master?
  4. Do players feel like they’re having a strong influence over the outcome of the game? Do they feel powerful?

I’m afraid DW vanilla UI failed terribly in all of these major aspects, especially in point 1. That was one of the major reasons why I gave DW original such a low-score (checkout my Distant Worlds vanilla review for details). Let me already advance that Code Force managed to solve most (if not all) of the UI known deficiencies.

First of all, it’s now possible to perform common tasks, like colonizing planets, build mining stations, construct new bases and so forth just by clicking on one-click action buttons from the main screen. For example if you want to create a mining base at a gas giant planet, an option is shown below the selection panel that allows you to easily instruct a construction ship to queue an order to build a base there. The same for building ships, colonize worlds, etc. These quick-action buttons solved the annoyances of having to find a suitable constructor, turn back to find the target to build the base (if you still remember the name or location). This UI new feature made the player’s life much easier, and removed a good deal of frustration from the player for not being able to properly manage his empire.

In addition to the quick-action buttons, RotS offers now an Empire Navigation Tool. This was it. This UI addition made all the difference. This navigation tool offers a set of scrollable lists that provide a quick glance and access to almost everything that is happening throughout your empire. You can navigate, access and interact easily with your colonies, construction ships, space ports, exploration ships, fleets, individual military ships, potential colonies, potential mining stations, potential research locations, potential resort locations, enemy targets and special locations. Wow! Someone was listening. This was exactly what the original DW game lacked. Due to this new UI feature it is now finally possible to play and feel in control of things. Thank you Code Force for this, great job!

A word on Immersion

Immersion is probably one of the best factors to define how good a game really is, because in the end playing a game is all about getting experiences, and feeling you’re being part of the game’s world is one of the best experiences you can get. In space games, especially in 4X games, the idea is to provide the player a feeling of being in control of a space faring civilization. In my opinion, RotS succeeds in providing a good deal of immersion to the player. Now that the UI is fixed the player is finally able to handle his huge empire and deal with everything DW has to offer more easily. The experience is not perfect because graphics are not very good. Ship models are not very detailed, are a bit blurry and not very pretty.

But if you can surpass that graphics issue (which is not that hard) you should have a great ride since music is wonderful, the galaxy feels alive and diplomacy options are very rich (you really can feel you’re out there negotiating with alien races). To add to all that, time flies (another way you can tell you’re immersed in the game). However not all is good about time passing so quickly since by late games you get the feeling you’re not progressing that much due to so many things happening at the same time. If you’re a control freak you may get the feeling of being overwhelmed sometimes, but that’s the price you pay for playing a hugely complex game as DW. You can always play a smaller galaxy with less habitable planets, no pirates and no space creatures for a simpler and more manageable experience. The game is rich in customization options so it should be just a matter of customization to get the right complexity for your taste.

Not all is perfect yet …

DW RotS is immensely better than DW vanilla, however there’s plenty of room for improvement still.

For example, DW RotS features a lot of resources, some are strategic, others are luxuries that increase your planetary development level and your people’s overall contentment. Although there are many types of resources, from commonly found to extremely rare, I didn’t feel the lack of them. Ok I felt Caslon scarcity once (gas used in engine fuel) in one of my games but that was it. Some spaceship components require special resources; it would be nice to take advantage of that and force the player to plan a more careful expansion and possibly spice it up a bit by forcing the player to get into conflict with other races for special resources competition. This would also enhance the exploration phase of the game. This resource conflict of interests is at the essence of strategic warfare, and should be looked at more carefully by DW devs. At the very least I think an option should be provided in-game setup time to allow the player to choose the resource availability level. Resources could be evenly spread or not, and could be made rarer or more abundant as the player requires.

Another less positive aspect is that even after the UI overhaul the UI has some oddities still. For example, you can retrofit space ports to later designs only if you click on the space port itself. If you double-click on the space port icon and choose the retrofit function the latest designs do not show up.

You can colonize continental worlds as Humans, since they are your prime environment worlds, however you are allowed to research the “continental colonization” tech…with no additional benefit I could grasp.

When you instruct your ships to refuel, they will head up to a nearby star port or gas mining base even when they have a deployed re-supply ship on their very own fleet. And sometimes ships don’t refuel on re-supply ships even when instructed to. They do refuel sometimes, other times they do not. So unfun.

Fuel is still a pain in the neck to manage in DW. I mean, I understand it is a hard concept to implement well and it’s equally hard to please everybody but Code Force is almost there. Much of the game is very intertwined with fuel decisions and although I really do like that extra layer of strategy it provides I think some things should be done to remove so much dependence on fuel. One possible idea would be to have the option to tell ships in manually controlled fleets to leave the fleet automatically when they reach, let’s say 20% of fuel, and then get back into formation. This percentage could be customizable. The game could also just provide a fuel consumption rate option. Casual players could be free from the refueling burden while hardcore gamers could still be allowed to micromanage their fuel decisions.

It would be interesting to have colony ship and re-supply ship listed in the empire navigation tool. I really missed that in my games.

Bottom Line

Distant Worlds has come a long way. RotS good performance is no doubt the result of its persistent, game-loving developers that did well on listening to the community and provide what they needed. That and their hard work have made RotS into one of the best 4X game experiences available to date.

If you enjoy the RTS mechanic, you love to construct your own spaceships, you like a great deal of strategic depth and you’re fond of a rich diplomacy experience than DW RotS is the perfect game for you.

It may take TBS lovers a bit of time to get used to RotS RTS mechanics, but you’ll get there. Since you’re allowed to pause the game at any time you can take all the time you need to carefully think your strategy (I think my games were paused most of the times). Late games in huge or large galaxies can be a pain at times, things can start to feel a bit sluggish and you will feel overwhelmed at times for sure. But with the new user interface quick-action buttons, the navigation tool and the right level of game customization you should be able to manage. If you still feel overwhelmed you can always switch off unnecessary warnings or turn some things that you like less automated, like espionage or troop recruitment for example, and you will do fine.

DW RotS made me feel in control of the lives and hopes of my civilization, I cared for them and could feel immersed in a huge galaxy interacting with other alien races. And that in my opinion is what 4X games are all about. That was one of the reasons I took so much time to review RotS, I was really enjoying playing :) And I will continue playing no doubt about that.

Distant Worlds Return of the Shakturi

(Buy Return of the Shakturi at Matrix Games)

Space Sector score: 8.7/10
great
(about the score system)
See Distant Worlds: Legends review
The Good:
- Huge universe full of things going on (alive universe)
- Good automation options let the player decide where to focus on
- Very rich diplomacy options. Negotiations feel right
- Immense depth provided
- Good game immersion. Not “just-one-more-turn” feeling but “just one-more-hour”
- Music is extraordinary
The Bad:
- The refueling system still needs a lot of work. Currently it’s still too time consuming
- Graphics are poor still. Ship models are particularly not very interesting
- Font sizes are inappropriately small and blurry
- UI needs minor improvements. Colony and re-supply ships must be accessed quickly

Screenshots

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13 Comments


  1. Lordxorn says:

    Great detailed review of a great semi detailed game. =)

    I have to agree to disagree with you on the Vanilla UI, while it was not Apple inspired, it did have very useful screens that could accomplish many things you mentioned that ROTS did.

    For instance, the one click colonize, could be accomplished from the Empire Management screen where you can see a sortable list of all scouted planets and what value they offer. Then simply click on “send colony ship”, and any colony ship without orders would do just that. If none were available, it would automatically build one at the nearest starport and accomplish your order that way.

    In my humble opinion ROTS provided many of the great things you mentioned like Fighters and Bombers, which I believe was included at the behest of the community and modders like myself who were clamoring for proper figher and bomber representation.

    Another great change was the Research screen, which in my opinion was more needed than the SOTS style UI upgrade. I lamented the Vanilla Research just as you did the UI, and always felt research in DW was only one step above the generic uninspired boredom of GalCiv2.

    However, unfortunately the weapons have still not offered the fun variety of MOO2 in ROTS and this is still a nagging issue for me.

    Your mention of the colonization issue was spot on, which brings me to my final point,

    Why is it games will go to great lengths to include all the successful elements of the gold standard MOO2, but only half implement them. If DW had implemented these elements from MOO2, but in it’s own Real Time unique way, and novel Civilian approach, I believe DW would have possibly set the next mark.

    Good news is there is one more expansion, and I am hoping this is setting Elliot over at Codeforce up for some nice R&R then (GOD I HOPE) a DW2 completely rebuilt from the ground up.

    Mark my words 2013 Winter, we may have an announcement. =)

    • Adam Solo says:

      I respect your opinion on the DW vanilla UI, but in my opinion the “one-click-colonize” option was hardly enough to accomplish the huge amount of things that need to be done in DW (unless you tell me that you played with all, or almost all, things automated?). Without the new RotS “quick-action-buttons” and the “empire navigation tool” it’s hard to imagine how people could stand to play DW, to manually control things I mean.

      I also hope these guys continue their work on DW. Looking forward for DW: Legends. The introduction of the character system and leaders is a good choice in the right way. Another MOO2 great feature everybody after MOO2 neglected. The new frontier/border system also looks very promising.

      I’m very pleased with RotS (as you can see from the review). With Legends’ announced new features I think DW has the potential to become one of the best 4X space games series ever made.

  2. Ermdog says:

    Looks like I’ll be picking up another space 4x game. Sounds like a great game except for the refueling problems and lackluster weapons. If they can implement what MOO2 did with their weapon varieties, then it sounds like it could be one of the top 4x games out there…but first i need to get the game.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Yes, refueling is still a pain to manage, but it seems they’ve addressed that on Legends. Let’s wait and see.

      Lackluster weapons. Yes, I also agree with that to some extent. But luckily the devs also seem to have worked on that for Legends also. This thread opened by one of th devs: http://www.matrixgames.com/forums/tm.asp?m=2943631 shows a very nice preview (thread opened yesterday BTW) of the new weapons in Legends (rail guns, new beams, …).

      To me DW RotS is no doubt in my mind one of the top 4X space games out there. Even considering refueling issues, and AI issues, and poor late game performance, and the huge complexity especially in late games and the subpar graphics. Some if not all of this seems to have been addressed in Legends so it seems. Can’t wait to get my hands on Legends to see if it holds to promise. Don’t miss the Legends preview I did some days ago.

  3. Ermdog says:

    So yeah I got the game finally and it has a huge learning curve. Any tips on how to ease into the game? So far im just doing a random quick start and looking at all the different screens and menus to find out what is what and make sense of things.

    • Adam Solo says:

      It has a huge learning curve indeed. I suggest you do these steps first in order to learn to play:

      1. Do the tutorials first of all (both of them). It’s very important. They are not very big and detailed but help nevertheless.

      2. Then look around the Galactopedia. You can’t read it all at once since it’s quite large but start with the basics, the concepts and probably skim resources a bit (there’s around 40 of them between strategic and luxury ones).

      3. Then put everything in the game automated and watch the game for some time. You can witness what the AI is doing: building new ships, etc.

      4. After a while try to put some of the features on “AI suggestions” instead of fully automated. Watch what the AI recommends you to do, you can then accept that or change things like the number of ships to build, treaties to create with other races, etc

      5. Finally start to put most , if not all, the game options in “AI suggestions”. You have full control but the AI will trigger recommendations from time to time.

      6. When you’re ready you can switch everything to Manual (what I play now).

      RotS is way better than the original Distant Worlds, with a much better user interface so you are with luck. Use the empire navigation tool to the left to check your stuff, where your ships are, your spaceports, your explorer ships, etc.

      Now design a new ship model, start slow, learn by watching what a previous model looks like, what components are there, what are their use and then start to design your own models with better weapons or more fuel for example.

      Then try research. You can have 1 project for each research field being researched at the same time. To boost research you should build a couple research stations, that will be space ports with research labs components (there are 3 types, one for each research field) or dedicated research stations for that purpose. Everything is customizable, so you can design your own multi-utilitary bases from scratch.

      Let me know if this is sufficient to get you in the game. If you have any particular question don’t hesitate to ask.

      Cheers and Happy gaming! :)

      • Ermdog says:

        Thanks for the tips! Slowly but surely I’m getting the idea of how things work.

        I hope you don’t mind me asking some questions. I know I could go on the game forums but I kinda feel at home here…if that makes sense.

        There are a few things that confuse me about resources though.

        1) If I set up a mining base on a planet that has multiple resources, do the freighters decide what resource they want to pick up, and is there a way to tell how much of a specific resource a mining station has, or is collecting?

        2) Every colonies cargo is different, or has different amounts. Are there freighters for each colony that go and collect resources for their specific colony?

        3) Under cargo it shows the amount of that resource as well as RSVD. I believe RSVD means how many items are actually needed for use. Is there a way to see what those resources are making or what they are being used for? Luxury items don’t make anything I dont think, but they always have a rsvd amount, does that mean it just goes to the population for consumption?

        Thanks in advance for any help. The game is fantastic even though I haven’t totally grasped the whole thing yet. There is just so much detail to the game and allows for great ship customization. I can’t wait till I finally get the hang of it, it seems really, really fun.

        • Adam Solo says:

          1) Most of that is decided by the private sector of the game, which you have absolutely no control. I don’t have a straight answer for that, sorry :|

          2) This is related with 1. All freighter traffic is handled exclusively by the computer, so, you don’t interfere with any freighter business. The only thing you can do is increase the number of space ports (or space prots size) and build more colonies. That will incentivate the private sector to build more freighters and do more trade. The computer handles all the cargo transfers, if something is required in a planet then (hopefully) the freighters will send what is required there. I don’t really like this private sector concept in Distant Worlds (I think it hurts control, and then the players make these sort of questions, the ones you’re asking now), however the game runs pretty smooth nevertheless so I don’t complain much.

          3) Reserved resources are already allocated to projects to be undertaken in that colony/space port. Perhaps it’s also reserved by constructor ships that need them but I’m not sure. Again, the computer handles all this so it’s hard to answer your question with precision. My suggestion is not to worry much about control (exactly how much is extracted, traded, etc) DW intention is to abstract that from you with the private sector concept. Again I don’t like it, but it seems to work, so … ok.

      • Ermdog says:

        Opps, I forgot you have a forum on this site, I should of asked there. The forum I was talking about in my previous post was the actual DW/ROTS forums.

      • Ermdog says:

        Another question if u don’t mind.

        For right now I have my new ships automated (don’t know if i like that) and they pick their own mission they want to do. In a way I don’t mind when they automatically decide to patrol a mining station or escort a construction ship, but its a little confusing to me i guess. For example I just started a new game and have about 4 mining bases in my system. I build new frigates but for some reason they all decide to go patrol the same mining base and leave the other ones undefended.

        I don’t know about you but I like to know what is being patrolled and escorted and its a little difficult to find that out. I know you can show all your military ships and it shows what ship is patrolling what or what mission they are on, but its hard to find out exactly what that item they are actually patrolling. It gives the name of what they are patrolling or escorting but there are so many different names its hard to really know what is what. Besides actually zooming in to the ship that is patrolling or escorting, or actually trying to find that Mining Base’s name, is there an easy way to track things?

        Should I just not have my ships automated and assign missions manually? Is that what you do? Just trying to figure out how to make things easier. I might have to accept the fact that certain things are just the way they are, but I’m always looking for a easier way.

        • Adam Solo says:

          I don’t use automation for ships (or anything else) so I don’t know how good the computer handles that. If all frigates decided to guard the same mining station when you have 4 that’s not a good thing. In time I think you will not want to use automation at all in any case.

          I don’t use patrol/escort/guard functions that much so I can’t say much…

          Yes, I assign all my ships orders manually.

          For these sort of questions you can always check the Distant Worlds forum and make a quick search there. There are folks there also always willing to help you further that know much more than I do. As I told you I run my empire fully in manual so I don’t know much about the automation parts (which it seems it’s where you have your doubts), I suggest you try the DW forums for those.

  4. Ermdog says:

    Thanks. The more I play the more I’m understanding things. I pretty much got the hang of it and understand how everything works. The one thing I still leave automated is ship designs. I can’t find anything that shows what exactly certain techs or parts do. So if you know a site that goes into detail about ship parts, and tech that would be great.

    One other thing. When it shows me that my spy stole a tech, is there a way to find out what he stole, because i cant seem to find out what it is.

    Besides all of that, I love the game, its very in depth and there is so much to do. Its easily one of the best 4x games out there. I think once Legends comes out it had the potential to be the best one out there. Thanks for the review, I’m glad I picked it up because of it.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Regarding ship design I agree, there are some techs that are hard to grasp what they do (e.g. energy collectors, plants, and some others). You will understand better the more you play. This has been a long time addressed issue in the DW forums.

      Nobody has ever stolen a tech from me. I always have at least 3 to 4 agents doing counter-intelligence, so I don’t know the answer to that one.

      It’s also what I think, DW RotS is probably one of the best 4x space games, Legends will be even better.

      For further help try the forums: http://www.matrixgames.com/forums/tt.asp?forumid=782 Use the search feature at the bottom.

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