Distant Worlds: Shadows is the third expansion to Distant Worlds, a real-time (pausable) space 4X strategy game for the PC developed by CodeForce and published by Matrix Games and Slitherine.
Distant Worlds: Legends, the second expansion, is a true 4X masterpiece, one that managed to elevate this game to become the quintessential space 4X gaming experience.
But, this isn’t a review about Distant Worlds, or Distant Worlds: Legends. It’s about Distant Worlds: Shadows, the third and latest expansion to Distant Worlds. So, what does Shadows brings new to the table? What changed? And, are these changes enough to justify your investment, to make you expand an already excellent experience?
It’s about offering a new experience, a Pirate ruler experience
As the title suggests (Shadows), this expansion is about a darker theme. Deceit, paranoia, fear. Things you can’t see. The kind of feelings you would experience if you were being threatened by a dark and chaotic force. If you were being attacked by space pirates, in this case. But, you are the pirates now. You control what CodeForce calls: a “pirate empire”. Before, pirates were minor factions that would annoy you from time to time, but could still be useful for information. Now, they are full-fledged factions, with their own particular play-styles and victory conditions.
So, Shadows offers you the possibility to play as a pirate faction. Instead of collecting taxes from your citizens, you loot and extort those citizens. Instead of owning planets and colonizing new worlds, you control planets, being those independent or imperial owned. You can also board, capture, raid and loot ships and bases. And, you can also raid planets for bounty. Money rewards in most cases, but also goods and even new technologies can be obtained from the plunder. “Normal” empires can also board and capture ships, by the way, but raiding and looting is exclusive to pirates’ gameplay.
When you play with a pirate faction, usually you start small. Very small. Only a handful of military ships at your disposal, a refuelling ship, an explorer, a couple of freighters and a spaceport, which is your base. But let me tell you that playing with a pirate faction is very different from when playing with a normal empire. I was very skeptical about this completely different way to play the game at first. After all, the 4X gaming experience is all about empire-building, where the usual formula is to develop a full-fledged empire, a very advanced civilization, from a very humble beginning. How could that work when you play as a rogue pirate ruler?
Well, it does work. Pirates are indeed, pirates. They plunder, sack, exploit, terrorize and extort. A criminal experience. But, in a way they are not so different from an imperial play-style as one would first assume. At least according to CodeForce’s design, pirates can also explore to discover new resources and to get in contact with other civilizations. They also expand their influence, not by owning but by controlling planets and by building secret bases on them, allowing them to eventually have full control over those planets like normal empires do.
Pirates also exploit resources, and in a way it’s even more fun and challenging to play with them in this aspect, because they start very small and your progression is not as fast as when playing with normal empires. Everything matters more. And, you can also decide to exterminate everyone if you decide so, but only when you’re powerful enough, which tends to be much later than when playing with a normal empire.
So, although I had some reserves about this new pirate gameplay, and still think that the main game mode, playing as a normal empire that is, is still the way, or at least my favorite way to play this game, I think that CodeForce did a brilliant job designing and delivering this new pirating experience. Which is what an expansion should be all about in the first place, about offering new experiences and not as much as offering more of the same.
Playing as a pirate ruler, with the pirate-style that better suits you – Shadows allows you to play as a Raider, a Smuggler, a Mercenary or follow a more balanced pirate approach – is indeed fun, and while there are still some imbalances to be found in this new gameplay, with some areas that still need extra polishing and balancing made just right, I think this expansion pack is entirely justifiable just for this new addition alone.
However, I have to warn you that the pacing, the progression, what you actually do in the game, is quite different. It’s much more overwhelming, and chaotic, to play as a pirate faction. The focus is much more on ships, fleet management and patrol than it is on colonization, diplomacy and technology progression.
At one point in the game you may decide to build pirate facilities, which are secret hidden bases, to expand your wealth and research capabilities, and research will start to progress faster, like when playing with normal empires. Eventually, you can even decide to transform your pirate nation into a pseudo normal empire (a mix between the two play-styles), after building an ultimate pirate facility on a planet. Then, after that point, technology progression will increase even more, your wealth will be much bigger and you’ll finally be able to build colony ships to colonize your own worlds and build more construction ships like regular empires do (you start with only one Construction ship). However, you’re still a pirate faction, only one with some “normal” empire abilities (diplomacy-wise you’re still restricted to pirate gameplay, and you can continue raiding as you once did).
I like this new pirate experience, for a change of pace, and for the new experience. But, personally I still prefer playing with a “normal” empire faction, and that’s probably what I’ll keep returning to. But, you may think otherwise, of course.
But, it’s not only about the new pirate gameplay.
Another big change: PreWarp gameplay
The new Pirate gameplay is no doubt the bulk of this new expansion, but there are other relevant changes and additions as well. Probably the most important one is the ability to play before the hyperdrive technology is discovered. What CodeForce calls: “PreWarp”. Not to confuse with the also new “Age of Shadows”. The Age of Shadows is just a setting you can play, an ancient time, where it makes more sense to play PreWarp, but you can decide to play PreWarp in the Classic Age, as well. The Classic Age is the “normal” Distant Worlds setting, the single one offered before the Shadows expansion.
So, before, you started with the capability to travel to other stars, and start the colonization of new words almost immediately. You already had a few constructor ships at your disposal, a bunch of mining stations and a moderately strong civilian sector, with lots of freighter ships ready to dispatch goods around.
But, now, with Shadows’ new “prewarp” gameplay, you may decide to start with zero spaceships. That’s right. No spaceships of any kind, no bases, no space ports, nothing space-based. You start with your homeworld alone, its population and only the very basic techs in each branch of the tech tree. So, no hyperdrive capability. No travelling to other stars yet. You have regular thrusters only, which will make exploring your homeworld’s star system feel like when you previously explored the galaxy.
Playing since prewarp is much more interesting and fun, and one can’t help not to wonder how on Earth wasn’t this in the game since the beginning? Well, better late than never. A note though: when you play with a pirate faction you can’t play in PreWarp, that’s an imperial feature only, because, with Shadows’ current design, Pirates wouldn’t have any advantage when playing in PreWarp and would be swallowed very quickly by full-fledged empires.
Now, the thing is, this “PreWarp” period is not as big as you probably thought it could be. Well, it will also depend on your expectations, but I thought this period would be bigger, with more tech “breakthroughing” required. More stuff to do. Don’t get me wrong, the key technologies are indeed time-consuming, and the progression is nice, sprinkled with some nice background story checkpoints. But, it felt like the whole thing ended too fast and there I was again, already a full-fledged space faring civilization, again.
So, just a few moments before I could only travel very, very slowly across my entire star system, to transport critical goods around, I can now travel across the entire galaxy with just a few more technology breakthroughs. I understand that you could delay this progression by setting up a harsher start, with a worse homeworld and more expensive tech progression. But, that would feel more about delaying the experience, I guess. My expectation was probably for more content in between. But, it’s good that this option is in the game now, and I really enjoyed playing in prewarp, which I did twice for this review. It will probably be the default option for me from this point forward.
Another big change: Expanded Ground Combat
Another big change, apart from the new pirate gameplay and the prewarp start, is the expanded ground combat experience. Before, up to Distant Worlds: Legends, you could only train basic infantry units. Invasions were light in features. You dropped your troops on a rival’s planet, wait, witness a very basic combat progress and then the invasion outcome would be presented to you. This was basically it for ground combat.
Shadows brings a new tech branch entirely devoted to ground combat and a new ground resolution panel where you can now watch how well the invasion is going. You can’t manage battles I’m afraid, at least not directly, but you’re presented with some useful information still. I took note of at least half a dozen modifiers (e.g. overwhelming forces, space control, planet penalty,…) which give you combat bonuses or penalties. Therefore, although you can’t intervene directly, you can still adjust your invasion strategy, and order more troops to land in case you see that what you have there will not be enough.
By the way, there’s a new feature called “garrison” now that lets you set a predefined number of troops that will not get into troop transports but stay on the planets. Previously it could be painful to manage troop loading, but now it’s much simpler to load troops due to this garrison feature. You can’t selectively unload troops yet however.
There’s also new troop types now: armored units (like tanks or mechs), special forces (which are very useful as a first intervention unit) and planetary defenses (specialized in attacking invaders while they’re still on the planet’s higher atmosphere). Yes, there are two invasion layers, or stages now. First you land your troops, which during the descent are more vulnerable to the new planetary defense units, and then the actual land invasion begins where some units will excel in attack while others in defense. So, there’s definitely a lot more going on during ground combat. A good deal is certainly cosmetic, but the different troop types, the different specializations, and the expanded tech tree, will make you wonder where should you invest more concerning troop handling and invasions.
So, the ground combat experience has more depth now. You really feel the difference and don’t really feel like going back after you experience the new features. However, remember that this is a “small” portion of the game, one that you may even not enjoy particularly. If you rarely paid attention to ground invasions in the past, maybe because you like to play more peacefully, and use ground troops only to defend, then there doesn’t seem to be much here for you. If, however, you would like to have more ground combat options, with more decisions to be made, then I’m convinced that you’ll be pleased with CodeForce’s improvements in this area. Oh, and it’s worth noting that you can also take advantage of the new ground combat invasion screen resolution while raiding planets when you play as a pirate empire.
But, there are other less than major changes and additions worth noting. For instance, there are two new weapon techs now: gravitic weapons and tractor beams. Gravitic weapons are quite powerful, and while expensive they can bypass both shields and armor. Ouch! Yes, these babies need to be considered very carefully. The graphical effect is also quite impressive, so you’ll not miss it when someone uses them in battle.
The new tractor beam weapon is useful to pull enemy ships in case you want to board and capture them (note than this isn’t exclusive to pirates, you can also capture objects when playing as a “normal” empire, but you can’t raid though) or push them away if they are a menace. These are interesting new weapon choices. I particularly used, and liked, the new gravitic weapons a lot. I wonder if they could be too powerful as of now though?
As we are in the subject of new techs, there are also new planetary facilities now, specialized in attracting more leaders of a certain kind (by the way, there’s the new ship captain leader now also, which can enhance a particular ship’s stats). And, there’s also the new techs used during prewarp. Yes, precursor new techs that eventually lead to what the basic techs were before, but I will not spoil it all for you.
Then there’s the new attack, defense and smuggle request missions. These are in fact quite major additions on their own. When you play as a normal empire you can request pirates to attack a particular military objective or to defend a particular colony if you’re short on ships near a certain area. Interested pirate factions will bid, and the one which prevails will take the contract and try its best to destroy the target you designate, or defend a particular colony or base. If you’re the pirate faction yourself, you can consult a list of currently active attack and defense missions, and decide to bid on contracts if you wish.
These are like the “current pirate jobs” in the galaxy bulletin. It’s actually quite fun and disturbing at the same time. At times you really do feel like a gun for hire pirate faction. “So, what do we have here today? Hum, destroy the Space Marauder’s space port for the Securans? They pay 35.000?! Oh, I think we can spare some boys near that sector. I’ll take that!”. This part of the pirate’s gameplay can be quite immersive indeed, but only when you’re powerful enough :)
As for the smuggling request missions, they are a very welcome new feature as well. When you play as a normal empire they are quite handy when you have resource shortages, and now the user interface displays which resources are lacking in a particular place for you. Pirate smugglers will, eventually, bring you the necessary goods. When you play as the pirates you may also earn a lot of money if you decide to invest in smuggling and accept smuggling missions.
The smuggling mechanic is not handled by you directly though, but by your private sector’s AI. But, you can always decide to “help” it by buying more freighters (yes, pirate empires can buy civilian ships directly, something not possible when playing with a normal empire) and eventually they will go to their smuggling business. I do have to note though that the smuggling missions feel like they are too much out of your control. Sometimes you do spot freighters smuggling resources but other times they will just sit there and you’re left wondering why aren’t they fulfilling the smuggling requests. But, overall, the feature does seem to work.
Then there’s new achievements and medals. It’s mainly cosmetic but still quite a nice new touch.
There are also two new tutorials now, one that explain the basics of playing as a pirate faction, and a second one to help you on your way when playing in prewarp. I found both tutorials essential before starting playing, and adequate. The in-game galactopedia was also expanded to accommodate the new gameplay. And, after going through the tutorials, and through the in-game encyclopedia for the occasional doubt, I had no trouble figuring Shadows’ out.
But, I’m used to this game. Note that Distant Worlds, with all expansions, and this new one is no exception, takes a good while to learn if you’re new to the series, as the learning curve is quite high. But with time you’ll eventually start to get the hang of things. But, overall, it’s easy enough to learn the game by consulting the manual, the tutorials and the in-game galactopedia. For the most tricky doubts you may need to go to the game’s forums to ask for help though (I had to do that quite a few times myself in the past). Fortunately, the community is very active there, since the game was released back in 2010, till the present day.
The ship design screen also has new entries: boarding assault and boarding defense (due to the new ship/base capture ability). But, there’s also range now (measured in system diameter during “PreWarp” and sectors during “PostWarp”). This is useful, especially during prewarp gameplay. And, there are also resource shortages highlights now, that inform you of lack of resource sources for particular components. Also useful.
There’s also an option to not allow pirate factions to respawn, a new difficulty level (Extreme) and an option to scale difficulty level as you progress and come closer to victory, but more on difficulty on the next chapter.
Matrix Games promised a “much improved” AI, especially with respect to the “economy” handling and the new “difficulty” settings.
I played a total of six games exclusively for this review. Three normal empire games and three pirate empire games, some in the “Age of Shadows” setting (an era where pirates tend to rule) and others in the “Classical Age” setting (where normal empires tend to have supremacy). I played with different difficulty settings (including “Normal”, “Hard” and “Very Hard”), and also with the new “difficulty scales as players nears victory” option.
I also made a point of playing a full Legends game before playing any Shadows game and I have to say that I didn’t feel anything too radically different about the AI, or about the game’s difficulty in general. However, I have to say that I feel that Legends’ AI was already quite competent. Not brilliant, because you could easily take advantage of it, if you knew the tricks that is. But, it was Ok. Resources shortage, and the civilian sector response to these shortages, do seem better handled by the private sector now though. The private sector is the part of the game that you can’t control and have to rely on the AI to manage.
I feel that money is slightly more important now also. Or, at least it’s not as easy to extort other empires via diplomacy as it seems that they tend to have less money available than before. It’s still possible to take advantage of some diplomacy shortcomings to get rich fast, or rush and build a few of the more powerful wonders (which boost colony development, and consequentially money generation) but in any case I feel that there were some improvements to the AI in this respect.
Now, about the new “difficulty scales as players nears victory” option, quite frankly I didn’t feel the promised difficulty increase that much. It should start to increase after 50% score, and be very noticeable when you’re closer and closer to victory. In my pirate games I did feel that the game was starting to “get out of hand” at some point, when I was very close to victory and was on the lead, so, that was probably it. But it’s something that you’re not informed by the game at all. It’s an automatic thing. So, I’m not sure if what I felt was really a significant difficulty increase, or the natural result of everybody becoming more powerful as the game progressed. Or, just the product of my imagination really.
The game does feel a bit harder overall now though. Even on “Normal” difficulty. I also played a “Very Hard” game and feel that I had a good challenge. Had a satisfying war and a great diplomatic experience handling that war and its ramifications. It was already about so in Legends, where the diplomacy interaction was already very good, but I felt less comfortable playing a “Hard” game now than before. Of course, I can’t tell if the new resource model, which makes resources scarcer, had a strong influence on that, or if that was due to a more efficient AI in the end, which made the other factions play better. But, overall, I think the game is somewhat harder now and gives more of a challenge if that’s your choice.
In conclusion, I think the game is somewhat harder now and can give you a more challenging experience than before. Or, at the very least it gives you the tools to customize a more challenging game, especially by manipulating the number of colonies, which consequentially affects resource abundance.
On performance, stability and overall quality
There was a big improvement performance-wise with Shadows. It’s indeed quite noticeable, even on huge games full of stars with lots of rivals. Late game in Legends could still stutter a bit and be less responsive than desirable, especially on larger games. CodeForce and Matrix really did a good job here. The game has no more slowdowns due to graphical rendering now.
However, there’s still room for improvement though. Zooming is smoother now, but the UI interactions could be even more responsive. Sometimes it still takes a fraction of a second longer than desirable to activate consecutive UI functions. For the record, Legends’ most recent patch (v22.214.171.124a) should have fixed some of the Legends’ performance issues, particularly in late game. Check here for the patch notes. However I don’t know how extensive these changes to performance were in this Legends patch. But, in Shadows, the performance increase is indeed very noticeable.
I also found this expansion to be quite stable. Not as much as Legends (not surprisingly). I got a couple of crashes when alt-tabbing to Windows, but never had a crash since (there were already 5 patches since release that seem to have fixed many crashes – this review is based on v126.96.36.199, by the way). So, things look good in terms of stability. As I said, I had no crash or freeze ever since. So, everything looks good here.
Now, with respect to balancing, polishing and bugs I think there’s still a long road ahead for Matrix Games and CodeForce. For balancing (or lack thereof) I believe that’s not so much of a problem. Or shouldn’t be. After all, strategy games, and in particular 4X games, always have (or usually have) a post-release support phase to help get balancing right. And that usually requires a lot of player’s feedback. Matrix’s record with this has been very good to excellent, so, there’s a very good chance that this will be the same case again with Shadows. The fact that they already released five patches since release (in two weeks) helps reinforce this belief.
But, where things get worse is with polishing and bugs. Some aspects of the UI, namely the ones concerning the new features, are still in need of serious work. Some sentences go beyond the limits of the window, and can’t be read completely. The attack/defense/smuggling mission request UI portion is also far from ideal. It’s easy to lose track of all the missions offered and hard to focus on the ones that do matter. Maybe they should be grouped by type and collapse and be made visible by type, so that you could focus only on attack missions if you wish, or only smuggle. As of now, that part of the UI is still quite poor. It’s functional, but it’s definitely not that user-friendly, with tiny fonts and lots of sub-optimal color contrasts which makes it hard to read. Something more definitely needs to be done there. Check this pic to see what I’m talking about (at the top-left: “Pirate Missions”).
The font issue, the small size and blurry effect at places (which I’ve been addressing for a long time), is not totally solved yet. There were improvements, but a few areas are still a bit hard to read. For instance, you can enlarge the selection window/box now (where things are displayed when you click something). That has improved readability substantially. But, the worse has always been the tech tree descriptions. They tried to fix that in a Legends patch (if I recall correctly). The font size increased, and that helped. But, it didn’t fix the issue completely. So, it would be great if something more could be done about this. Note: I play on a 24” monitor with 1920×1080 (native) resolution.
Then there’s some fleet handling that could be better fleshed out, or at least made more intuitive. As of now it can be hard to micromanage your fleets, telling them to stay put or make them attack invaders and raiders effectively. At the moment, it’s not uncommon to witness pirates successfully raiding your colonies, with huge defense fleets present there. The problem is that defense fleets tend to take too much time to react, and when they do react sometimes not enough ships enter the fight. This lacking could have been in the game already, the thing is that the new pirate mechanics made fleet management much more relevant, and so these small quirks all add up quickly and are in need of some serious ironing out.
Also, things like not being able to tell badly damaged ships to leave a fleet quickly, but to manually having to remove them, or scrap them, by going to other screens. Or, ordering ships to capture ships but witness them destroying them in many cases. Or not being able to set taxes when you upgrade your pirate empire to a normal empire.
So, there’s definitely a road of polishing and bug ironing in front of the developers. But, if they keep up the patch ratio (five relevant patches since release), it’s possible that these and other bugs may be squashed fast. However, you’re warned that you may experience some bugs here and there, especially (not surprisingly) concerning the pirate gameplay (the “normal” empire gameplay seems solid though). So, take that into account if that’s very important to you when you buy and play a game.
Distant Worlds: Shadows is definitely worth it, especially for veteran Distant Worlds’ gamers. It offers more than enough to justify the purchase, but more importantly, your time. Even if you think you may not like the new pirate gameplay, there are other features that I think you will find your investment worth doing. If not the ability to start really small, in a prewarp age, then perhaps the significant performance increase will be enough for you. If not the expanded ground combat options, which are still considerable, perhaps all the other less than major changes all added up will make the trick.
So, in my opinion, Shadows is a must have for Distant Worlds’ veterans. Of course, please take into consideration that the game still needs extra balancing, polishing and bug squashing. But, even considering that I think it’s still very much worth it. And, because I consider that Matrix Games has a good reputation (so far) on fixing/improving their games over time, the risk of being left with some important bugs seems fairly low.
But, what about new players? People who are interested in getting into this excellent space 4X game? The ones already familiar with 4X games, but also the ones who are not and would love to feel what it’s like to run a big space empire, and who are generally interested in the space exploration subject. Should you buy the all package, including Shadows? Or, where do you start (or stop) to have a great experience? After all this isn’t a cheap game (unfortunately). To newcomers I don’t recommend you buy the base game alone, that is to say, Distant Worlds with no expansions. If you’re going to buy the game I recommend you start with the base game plus, at the very least, Return of the Shakturi, the first expansion.
If you can go up to Legends (the second expansion), then it would be preferable because it’s really worth it, and I strongly advise that you go that far. If money is not really a problem, but only time is, then I highly recommend that you buy the full package, because Shadows increases Legends’ already ridiculously high replayability to almost infinite possibilities. And, as the full game (base and all expansions) is on sale now (at the time of this review), and Matrix Games only does these once or twice a year, this is a great opportunity to get the full Distant Worlds bundle, which, in my opinion, is the best space 4X gaming experience money can buy at the moment.
Space Sector score:
- The new pirate gameplay is rich in features and fun
- The new “PreWarp” option (play before hyperdrive) enriches the main experience
- The expanded ground combat succeeds on deepening the extermination phase
- New game setup options help elevate replayability to almost endless possibilities
- Substantial graphical performance increase
- Some rough edges and a few bugs, especially on the new pirate gameplay
- Font sizes are still inappropriately small and blurry at places, especially in the tech tree
- Leaders’ look & feel could be improved with more portraits
- Fleet management is not yet intuitive and flexible enough
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