Distant Worlds is a real-time space 4X strategy game developed by CodeForce and published by Slitherine and Matrix Games. The series debuted in March 2010 with a first release offering a huge living universe with a lot of things going on, but also a lot of problems. So, I could only recommend the game to hardcore fans of 4X sci-fi gaming at release time, and even there not for all.
But, with the subsequent patching work and the released expansions the game got better. Much better. In fact, the improvement’s extension was so great that by the time the second expansion was released (Distant Worlds: Legends), the game became extremely enjoyable, an experience that all 4X fans and even non-fans could finally enjoy. Shadows, the third expansion, brought even more content, like the ability to play since the early days of pre-warp. It also extended the ground combat, included a new pirate gameplay system and added some badly needed performance improvements.
I thought that was it for the first installment. But, the developers had other plans. Before any work would begin in Distant Worlds 2 (which was already semi-officially announced), there would be a fourth expansion dedicated to extending the game’s modding capabilities. And that’s where Distant Worlds: Universe comes in.
Distant Worlds for Newcomers
But before we dive into Distant Worlds: Universe I think it’s important to talk a bit about Distant Worlds in general. We have produced a comprehensive set of previews and reviews for all the previous Distant Worlds expansions over the past few years. So, if you’re new to the series you may find those articles to be a good place to start to know everything we think about this game (see Distant Worlds review, Return of the Shakturi review, Legends review and Shadows review). However, to make it easier for people completely new to Distant Worlds to read this review I decided to create this section to summarize what you can expect from this game. If you’re already familiarized with Distant Worlds, you can skip this and move on to the next section: “What is Distant Worlds: Universe?“.
Distant Worlds, and now the complete product, Distant Worlds: Universe, is a space 4X game where the focus is put on off-world activities, meaning things you do outside your planets. So, you’ll be looking for suitable places to build new mining stations and colonize new worlds and then hurry on protecting your space assets with spaceships and space-based defensive bases. There are a lot of resources to exploit; luxuries will increase your empire development for more income and strategic resources are needed to build more spaceships for a total of 41 different resources to manage.
Resources need to be mined and transported to where they are needed, for something that needs to be manufactured somewhere, to be consumed or to be sold through trade to other empires. Now, one of the key aspects of Distant Worlds is that the player is only responsible for deciding where to build the mining stations, the star bases and where to colonize. Then, it’s the game’s private sector – a collection of autonomous freighters, passenger ships, mining ships and mining bases – who is responsible for doing the actual goods transportation. It is this private sector, this portion of the game you don’t control, that ultimately decides what to transport where and to which races to do trade with.
Now, this may seem a bit off-putting at first, since a big chunk of the game is outside of your direct control, I surely had and still have mixed feelings about this autonomous important system which you can do almost nothing about. But, with time, this feature has been perfected and you may say that it is one of the most important factors at distinguishing this game from others. It does help on providing the aliveness feeling this game is so well know for, that’s for sure.
This wouldn’t be a 4X game without research and diplomacy. Research is done via three distinct branches: “Weapons”, “Energy & Construction” and “High-Tech & Industrial”. The first is self explanatory. The second branch deals with power, shields, engines and space construction. The last one deals with colonization, planetary facilities and other ancillary systems. To have more research you build more space laboratories. Certain characters will give you bonuses when stationed in these space laboratories. The tech tree is big enough and will keep your busy through your bigger games. I surely never felt the need for extra things to research.
Diplomacy is detailed and feels right for the most part. You can do all sorts of deals with the other races, from signing trade agreements, mutual defense pacts and trading technologies and information. You feel that you understand what your stand with the different races is at all times, which is a very important aspect to get right in a game like this. It’s also easy to know what others think of each other. Overall, diplomacy is very good and will not frustrate you with obscure information or mechanics. It will tell you exactly what you need to know for you to make informed decisions when dealing with the other empires, which is essentially what diplomacy is supposed to accomplish.
Space battles happen in the same layer as the strategic game, and due to the game’s real-time aspect it will not be long until more than one battle instance may be happening at the same time, especially if you play in bigger maps. And this is where the game can become a little bit more complicated to control as you can only attend one battle at a time. However, the game allows you to automate every aspect of the game. So, you may decide to automate some fleets while keeping others under your manual control. This way, the auto fleets can keep your empire safe according to your instructions while you may leave only a couple strike fleets under your full command. The game allows you to automate the following aspects: ship design, research, colonization, intelligence missions, troop recruiting, colony facility building, treaties management, among others. Basically, almost everything. In fact it’s even possible to just watch the game play itself if you want to.
The game has a ship design feature, and quite a detailed one too. You can choose between many different types of hulls for different types of roles, from military, trade, passenger liners, research laboratories and all kinds of space stations. So, although you can’t control your private sector directly, you can still design all the ships they use. The design system isn’t very pretty and you’ll most probably get lost easily at first. But, there are spots in the UI that you can click for hints, and little by little you’ll get to understand what everything is for. By far the most complicated subsystem to design and manage is power. You will need fuel cells to store fuel (from different types of fuel available) and then choose the appropriate number of reactors necessary to propel the ship to the maximum speed while still being able to fire weapons to their full capacity. It will get you some time to figure out how to balance your ships’ power requirements, but eventually you’ll get there.
Distant Worlds’ ship design system may seem a bit daunting at first but I find it fun to design all my ships, including the ones controlled by the private sector. Of course, you can automate this aspect if you wish to.
When, or if you get tired of running a space empire, you may decide to give it a go as a pirate faction instead. Distant Worlds offers a distinct way to play the game after the third expansion, Shadows, where you can take control of a pirate clan and raid other empire’s ships, control their colonies or smuggle resources as requested by the other empires. So, with pirates, the idea is not to expand through colonization but to grow in power by controlling the most colonies you can by constructing pirate refuges in them. With time you get more and more control over these colonies, until a critical point is reached where you may decide to build your own colony ships there and start colonizing the galaxy if you wish.
Playing as a pirate is a very distinct way to play, surely a very different one from the usual empire-building style of 4X games. But I found it fun for a go or two. At least it has the merit of enabling the player to experience how it would be like to be behind a pirate faction where usually these appear as minor factions in 4X games that you can’t play with. I think the devs really succeeded at offering the pirate experience, although I’m not very fond of that particular type of play myself.
But there’s much more to Distant Worlds, like tourism, migration management, ground combat (which is auto-resolved but has some depth to it in the number of troops available and its specializations). There are also many ruins to explore, some giving important bonuses. There’s space monsters, some quite dreadful like the legendary SilverMist which is a deadly menace that consumes everything in their path. There’s different kinds of governments, race-specific victory conditions and many types of characters to manage, like Troop Generals, Ship Captains, Ambassadors, Colony Governors, among others.
If you wish to know more about Distant Worlds in more detail have a look at our reviews (see Distant Worlds review, Return of the Shakturi review, Legends review and Shadows review). The remainder of this review will now focus on the Distant Worlds: Universe expansion itself and I close with some final thoughts that you may find useful as an overall assessment of the complete Distant Worlds: Universe package.
What is Distant Worlds: Universe?
Distant Worlds: Universe is the 4th expansion to Distant Worlds, and it’s also a standalone expansion pack comprising the original version plus the three previously released expansion packs (Return of the Shakturi, Legends and Shadows) combined into one single package.
Universe is also the result of enabling further areas of the game to be moddable (the expansion’s main focus). So, almost everything in the game can be modded now. This includes redesigning the tech trees, creating new technologies, modify almost all the images in the game, sound effects, define new resources, alien races characters, and others. All done through text file manipulation. Ingame it’s also possible to add ruins and setup custom events that work like story triggers that may change the diplomacy status between races; other triggers may kill a specific character, breakthrough a specific tech, establish contacts with unknown empires until then, and other actions. So, you can ultimately define your own storyline within your game with this new ingame event system, if you wish.
Along with the all-in-one package ease and the extended modding and customization capabilities, the devs also included a custom made storyline, or theme, built with the new modding capabilities called “The Ancient Galaxy”, where it’s possible to build your own planet destroyers and research and deploy the Xaraktor virus. It’s probably not a good place to start if you never played Distant Worlds, but it can be interesting for veterans wanting to experience something new.
So, the focus of this 4th expansion was modding, but does it contain anything else?
Any improvements to the existing game?
Officially, there were no more changes announced apart from the modding extensions that I describe above. But, the expectation was that the new expansion could be an opportunity to improve certain areas of the game, like for example the AI. So, are there any noticeable improvements? I believe there are significant improvements.
For starters, I feel that the game is harder now. I played with the same settings I usually play, which is large game in “hard” difficulty and I watched myself fall behind in my games quite easily this time around. Money didn’t seemed as easy to come by as before and the AI seemed to play the diplomatic game much better now, being more active raising trade embargoes, and seeking allies more diligently than before. I also witnessed races paying pirates to attack me because I raised an embargo on them, and that’s a good thing :)
Another area I feel runs much smoother now is resource management. Resources shortage is a reality now, and you do need to review your mining plans more carefully this time around. I think this is very important because being Distant Worlds a game much about mining and trade, it’s good to see that your strategy does matter if you want to keep a steady flow of resources required to build your ships but also the required luxury resources to trade with others and keep your population happy.
The private sector is also more diligent at addressing resource shortages and at satisfying smuggling missions when you play as a pirate. It wasn’t rare to see constructions stopped across the galaxy before without a clear reason why. Shadows (the 3rd expansion) introduced the concept of “resource shortage” which made it easier to know why a certain construction stopped and because of which resources. But, it’s only now in Universe that I feel the private sector works in a fully satisfactory way in addressing these shortages.
The text font has always been an issue with this game, namely the readability and the size of the font in some places. This issue was addressed again in Universe and it’s now possible to choose between three zoom levels in one of the UI panels. Some other noticeable increases in font size can be seen in the event messages list, in the Galactopedia, the component guide in the ship design screen and in the diplomacy tradeable items. All in all I think the font issue is not a major issue anymore. Yes, not everything was fixed, you can still spot a few places where the text blurs, like at game setup or in other secondary panels, but overall I think the font issue was dealt with satisfactorily.
Now, one other change which I’m not sure was for the best is that pirates are now much more menacing and annoying than before. Forget about the other empires, your major threat now aren’t them but the nearby pirate clans. I mean, it was so annoying that I’d swear that the AI was looking in the code to know where I had my weaker defenses to strike me down where it hurt most. It’s in situations like this where you start wondering whether the AI is cheating or if it reached that level of perfection. Frankly, I don’t know the answer to that one but one thing is certain, pirates are a pain and if you don’t like to be facing riders destroying your mining stations every 5 minutes, you better choose few pirates at game setup, and give yourself a favor and choose the “pirates don’t respawn” option too so that they don’t come back. Personally, I like to focus on developing my empire and dealing with the other empires as I progress, but I dislike to be constantly distracted and harassed by annoying pirates. Of course, if you’re not like me you may find pirate hell to be a fun challenge. Fortunately, you can tone down pirate power at game setup or even eliminate them from the game entirely, so this isn’t a critical issue.
Trying a Mod – Star Trek The Picard Era
No review of Distant Worlds: Universe would be complete without playing a mod built specifically for Distant Worlds: Universe. So, it was with great rejoice that I was given the opportunity to try out a mod that the Distant Worlds’ “Trek Team” had been preparing for a while now.
The mod was developed by Igard, ehsumrell1 and a few other members of the Distant Worlds’ community and it was released on August 19th 2014. The mod is called “Star Trek The Picard Era” and it was as easy to install as to unzip and copy a folder to the “Customization” folder of Distant Worlds: Universe. In no time I was ready to start trading some Romulan ale! And happy I was to see that it was indeed one of the changed resources in the game :) You can download the mod here.
Yep, it feels like playing in the Star Trek Universe. I liked to have more personalized characters this time around instead of the uninteresting generic characters that the base game provides you with. Nothing like having Ambassador Spock in your diplomacy team or having Kathryn Janeway leading your strike fleet.
It’s Star Trek, so you can play with many Star Trek Universe races for a total of 22. You can play with the Klingon, the Federation, the Romulan, Dominion, Ferengi and even the Borg, among others. And there are playable pirates too: The Orion Syndicate, The Maquis, the Korgath Barbarians and the Khan Privateers.
Then there’s the ships, of course. And, I’m not a modding kind of guy myself, but I must admit that there’s nothing like being able to see and control the ships of your favorite show in a game. Of course, I named my first cruiser design the SSF Enterprise (SSF for Space Sector Federation). As time went by I made sure to beeline to photon torpedoes and in no time I had my “SSF Enterprise A Photon” design ready for commission. When the opportunity came I designed my capital ship and named it SSF Enterprise B Galaxy Class, but next time I’ll probably name it SSF Excelsior or perhaps SSF Vengeance :) It’s a lot of fun to be able to design your own Star Trek ships, and I can easily see myself playing Distant Worlds with the Star Trek mod for a long while just because of that.
But it’s not only the races, characters and the ships, the music is also appropriate to the theme with many tunes taken directly from the Star Trek Universe. Some tunes I recognized immediately, others I did not, but it’s been a while since I last watched any episode of the “The Next Generation” series.
Then there are some modified resources like the famous Romulan Ale, but there’s also Klingon’s Blood Wine, Bajoran’s Hasperat Spice, Cardassian’s favorite beverage – Kanar, and Targ Meat, a delicacy for the Klingon.
There are also changes to the weapons with different images and some different sound effects. The UI also suffered a few changes presenting a few different icons. And the “click” UI sound is much better now, so are the alert messages which appropriately sound like the red alert signal of Star Trek.
I played as the Federation in a small map with 250 stars over 6×6 sectors. In hard difficulty, as usual. And with few pirates, of course. The Ferengi, far to the North, were my best friends and trade partners. Next to me were the Sheliak and the Yridian. They didn’t like me and the sentiment was mutual, but we managed to coexist somehow. I guess they were afraid of my armada equipped with the latest generation of photon torpedoes.
I had few battles throughout the game, only a few skirmishes with two pirate clans which I ended up destroying. And while I won the game I didn’t feel so confident through the entire game. My neighbors were very unfriendly, but with time I built the biggest armada of the galaxy and so I was allowed to develop my empire peacefully with aggressive colonization and a cautious defense strategy.
Just a small note to the devs, some characters were perhaps a bit too powerful? I don’t know if the other races had equally powerful characters or not, but my leaders, my intelligence agents and scientists were quite powerful. Especially the leaders, which I think may have allowed for a easier game since one had +34% Colony Income and +28% Population Growth. One of my Intelligence Agents had +57% Espionage but also +52% Sabotage and +75% Psy Ops. Not that it’s not cool to have big stats, but perhaps these could be toned down just a little bit, or perhaps only show a big number on one particular ability.
Playing the Star Trek – The Picard Era mod was a lot of fun, and I’m sure my next Distant Worlds’ games will also be in the Star Trek Universe. I didn’t play any mods before Universe, so unfortunately I will not be able to compare how much more powerful the modding system is now with respect to before. But, judging by the modding extensions announced for the game, which include almost all the images in the game, sound effects, new resources and alien races characters I have to assume that this mod wouldn’t be as impressive without the Universe expansion.
Distant Worlds: Universe addressed one of the biggest complaints made by the players and potential buyers over the years: it offers the complete Distant Worlds experience in a single package with a significantly more affordable price. It’s not a cheap game by any means but it surely is cheaper than before. And, the amount of content it offers and the quality of the product at this point totally justifies the price tag.
Now, if you already own the previous expansions (up until Shadows) and were looking for something radically different, like new features and a very different experience, Universe doesn’t offer that. With this 4th expansion you’ll get basically the same game as before only slightly enhanced and improved as I pointed out before. However, while offering basically the same gameplay, Universe does have the potential to allow for some powerful mods to come to life. The Star Trek Picard Era mod is one such example. While not radically altering the game, the mod does allow for the player to experience something new and have more fun than before. So, if you’re fond of Star Trek it may justify the upgrade for you. And, I also see a Warhammer 40K mod (for Universe I believe), one for Babylon 5 and an EVE Online one which seems quite popular, though I’m not sure if this one is updated for Universe.
Now in a general sense, Distant Worlds: Universe, as whole, the final verdict. Who is this game for? Who will like to play this game, and who will not? I’m convinced that all 4X fans in general will have something positive to take from this game. Even if you happen to be much more into turn-based than real-time and like to take your time playing (like I do), I think that if you play on smaller maps (with fewer number of stars and races), decide to play the game fully manual and pause often, you’ll enjoy this game. In fact, you’re in serious danger of enjoying this game a lot. The customization options are immense, and the replay factor is almost infinite. So, whatever is your preferred style of play I’m sure that you can find a great space 4X game experience in here.
But, is this game easy to learn? No. Is it simple to master? No. This is a complex game full of things going on that will require a lot of your patience and attention. But, while complex and apparently daunting at first, the game rewards you with the most exquisite universe full of interesting life, stories and challenges to play. No where you will find more to be in control of a space faring civilization in an alive universe than in this one. So, Distant Worlds: Universe is not an easy game for newcomers to the genre or for casual players but with its good documentation, both in terms of manual and ingame documentation through the tutorials and encyclopedia, and its mature user interface, Distant Worlds: Universe deserves to be experienced by all kinds of players at this point, and while some will probably find the game too difficult to enter, others will find its beauty and perhaps risk to get hooked into the 4X genre ever since.
Distant Worlds: Universe is a game that will give you a lot to do in the years to come. It’s not the prettiest, nor the most approachable, but I’m sure that it is the best space 4X game money can by at the moment, and I recommend it to anyone interested in this genre.
Note: If you already own the base game and any of the expansions, Matrix Games has created a system for you to upgrade to Universe where you get a $10 discount for every game/expansion you own. See how to upgrade and how to redeem a Steam key here.
Space Sector score:
– 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
– High degree of customization options
– Immense replayability
– Fleet management not very intuitive and not flexible enough
– Leaders’ look & feel could be improved with more portraits and personality
– Steep learning curve
- Distant Worlds: Star Trek Mod – Archer Era
- Distant Worlds: Shadows – New Expansion Details
- Distant Worlds: Universe to Launch in May 2014
- Distant Worlds: Universe – More Modding and Wrap-Up Pack
- Distant Worlds: Return of the Shakturi Gets a Major Update