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.
- Do players feel in control of things? (The MOST important of all aspects)
- Does the interface let the players do what they want?
- Is the UI intuitive and easy to master?
- 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.
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.
Space Sector score: 8.7/10
- 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 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
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