Distant Worlds Early Look Part 1

By Scott Parrino 04 Mar 2010 0

Hello all, I'm Chris Beck, one of the testers for Distant Worlds. Some of you may know me, either as Son_of_Montfort on the Matrix Games forum and on the Wargamer.com (or for my reviews and previews written there), or as Baelthazar on OctopusOverlords or Gaming Trend's forums! Today I am writing a brief "sneak peak" pictorial for Distant Worlds, a new and exciting 4X Space Empire building game developed by Codeforce and published by Matrix Games. I hope you enjoy!

My main goal is to show the scope of the game and to summarize what I feel, as a tester and fan, the base philosophy behind the development of the game and how this philosophy coalesced into a pretty innovative game.

So first up: What is Distant Worlds and will I like it?

I have posted this on a few message boards, and I think it really gives the best quick summary of what went into making Distant Worlds and what people should expect when they go to purchase the game (soon, the oracle will only say soon).

Here is what I will say, If you are looking for the below, you will probably like Distant Worlds:

  1. Something on the scope of Lost Empire: Immortals but with a much more detailed tech and economic system and with some automation to make that 1000 star universe more manageable. Further, there is more active diplomacy and research has more "life" than Lost Empire: Immortals. But I would say Distant Worlds takes the scope of Lost Empire: Immortals and succeeds in the places where Lost Empire: Immortals failed. Lost Empire: Immortals was an ambitious game, one that could have been good had the studio been able to iron out the bugs and fully realize their vision. I think is MORE ambitious and actually realizes much of the vision of the developer.

  2. If you want a 4X space game that has a living universe with NPC ships populating it. If you felt like Sword of the Stars or even Master of Orion 2 was overly abstracted, you will love Distant Worlds. What other 4X space game has Luxury liners ships that travel to space resorts (you built) that overlook scenic areas like nebula or ring planets? What other game do you see space docks building civilian cargo ships to transport your mined resources from starbase to starbase? Sure, these things could be considered simply graphical representations of numbers in the game (i.e. tourism profits, the movement of goods) but they serve more of a purpose than that - want to squelch an enemy's tourism cash flow - blow up luxury liners like a pirate. Want to cripple his supply of the rare vodka-like drink that keeps his population happy and growing - destroy his cargo ships from that planet. 

  3. Are you looking for a sandbox game, then this one is certainly that. Strangely enough, I would say that Distant Worlds is the "Dwarf Fortress" of 4X games. No - it isn't quite THAT deep, but what I mean is that the player gives macro-directives (build this here, send ships there) that are carried out by the unit AI. So a little like Tropico, even, set in space. Perhaps the best analogy would be Europa Universalis in space, which certainly is a bit apt, but even that doesn't encompass the whole thing. There is certainly a bit of a "laissez faire" aspect to the game - you can be contented simply watching your empire's engines hum without doing much of anything - so the what is managed and how really depends on the player. I haven't yet put everything on full auto and simply set the game running and returned an hour later to see what had happened - but I imagine it would have built a pretty efficient empire without any input from me at all. Maybe some would think this is a criticism of the game, but I'm not sure that it should be - what this means is - you tailor your own involvement to your comfort zone. If you want to play Space Opera Ant Farm - go at it - if you want to play Detail Oriented Perfectionist Emperor Sim - do it. 

  4. Going along with #3 - if you are looking for a Master of Orion 3 that actually works - then Distant Worlds might just be it. The idea of macro-planning, macro-control is elegantly carried out here. The story is unobtrusive, and you work to build a huge empire and protect that empire from outside forces and internal inertia. So if you were excited by the larger scale planned for Master of Orion 3, but found the execution lacking, then you might love Distant Worlds.


If you are looking for the below - then you might be disappointed:

  1. Master of Orion 2. This ain't it. It ain't Galactic Civilizations 2 either. If you want pages of text describing each technological breakthrough, if you want to control what buildings your planets build, if you want to see the farming production of your agricultural worlds - then Distant Worlds isn't going to cut it. Unlike Europa Universalis the tech levels do have personality and names, but you are going to see more - red shield (Tech 1) is upgraded to blue shield (Tech 2), which is 5% better than red shield (although do note that some tech upgrades require different levels of resources to build, so there is a difference in function in that you have to be able to support building the upgrades). You can design ships, but I wouldn't say that you are going to see the weapon variety of Sword of the Stars or the intricate Min-Max of Master of Orion 2. There is some similarity to Imperium Galactica - but again, you aren't going to be zooming down to colonies to be a city planner (of course, with 30+ colonies being common and a smallish empire, would you want to).

  2. Aurora with a better graphics engine. A while back, Wargamer.com was rocked by a little freeware 4X game (or excel spreadsheet that played like a game) called Aurora. I would say that it was the equivalent of the Harpoon CE series set in space. Some people saw Distant Worlds and thought - hey, this may be something close. It isn't. You can control ships in real-time battles, but your strategic options are not going to be ultra detailed. You can flank, and move around enemy ships, and use higher range, but don't expect calculating parsecs and such. In fact, I would say that the default for combat is to let the AI unit control handle it. You don't have to, and you can have a lot of fun controlling battles. Certainly there is a lot of detail in MACRO (see a trend here) level war planning - like setting up refueling bases or sending refueling ships to make sure your warships have the striking range needed. So, in some ways, war plays a little like War in the Pacific - you are more the logistics planning High Admiral of the Fleets than the Space General or captain of a vessel. That will excite some, and maybe be a disappointment to others - I just wanted to clear this up for people who were hoping for intricate battle control.

So I hope this helps. Distant Worlds takes methods and ideas used in other games and fuses them into something unique. In many ways you can see the similarities to Imperium Galactica (agents, real-time, story that appears via exploration in space), Lost Empires: Immortals (HUGE universe, galactic emperor rather than city planner or hive mind controller of every action, abstracted tech - but not as abstracted as Lost Empires: Immortals), Master of Orion 3 (ship design, large scale decisions to support a grand empire, diplomacy that has several options for treaties, races that are fleshed out - hate certain other types of races from the get-go, have certain powers and bonuses, look like baby seals [j/k]), Galactic Civilizations 2 (space tourism a money maker - albeit not abstracted in Distant Worlds and using real ships, taxes the end-all-be-all, resources that give bonuses to growth), Stars! (ship components require certain minerals/resources, the mining and transport of minerals/resources will be a huge part of the game, did I mention that resources are on every planet and you will obsess over them to get them back to your star bases to fuel your war machine, oh yeah and minerals/resources are going to be a big factor - ed. note: if you never played Stars! this last "joke" will go over your head), and even Sword of the Stars (random encounters, exploration a major goal of the game, SPACE MONSTERS!).

Still with me? So Distant Worlds is something new built from ideas used in past games and spiced with some just plain innovative thinking. I think that it is pretty clear that this game is a macro-level empire builder. There is certainly room for micro-management, but the galaxies in Distant Worlds are BIG, hundreds if not thousands of stars, numbers of planets, asteroids, and moons in the multiple thousands, space that has real distance to it. Civilian and military ships zip throughout the galaxy, exploration ships seek out new worlds and boldly go, and mining ships work the hard life of an asteroid harvester. You don't have to hand tailor everything in your empire, you make decisions, paint with a large brush (occasionally bringing out the smaller brush to fine tune) and expand your empire. That isn't to say you don't have control - you absolutely do - but you can decide (on the fly even) how much control you want to exert.

That being said, I'm going to show some pictures, with comments, on a game I just started.

So here is the title screen at the startup:

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Pretty standard stuff, you get a nice "Quick Start" if you want to jump into the action, some pretty helpful tutorials to ease you into this rather complex game, and the ability to create a customized experience by starting a new game.

Before we move on, I wanted to mention the Galactopedia. This is a wonderful tool, one you will constantly refer to and use to understand fundamental aspects of the game and hone your strategy. What is truly helpful about the Galactopedia is it is merely a click of a button away for nearly any aspect of the game! If you are confused about something, chances are there is a Galactopedia hyperlink nearby or perhaps the object itself with hyperlink to the Galactopedia entry. This feature makes it VERY easy to learn the game; it's like having a paperless manual that automatically opens itself to whatever topic you need!

So I'm going to go ahead and press the "Start New Game" button, and we can take a look at the options for starting a new game.

Once I click "Start New Game" this is the first screen that pops up - the general universe and game creation dialogue.

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The simple look of the screen belies the underlying amount of options here. You can select the size of your galaxy, ranging from the very tiny 100 stars to an amazing 1400 stars. If you think about this, some stars have 4-5 planets within them and some of those planets have 1-2 moons. The galaxy is also populated with gas clouds, remnants of stars gone supernova, and many more surprised. If you think about the sheer number of elements that could be present in a 1400 star system - it would be enough to even blow Carl Sagan's mind! Needless to say, you might be playing that 1400 star game for quite some time! Even your standard 700 star system will be HUGE and the game will keep you rather busy. Again, the idea of 700-1400 star systems is pretty wild when you think that games like Master of Orion 2, Galactic Civilizations 2, and Imperium Galactica have systems below 100 stars - the smallest possible system in Distant Worlds!

You can set the general aggression level of the universe - which will dictate how willing and often people go to war and the happiness level of citizens. You can also hand tailor research speed, how much independent alien life exists (often in the form of splinter colonies, ripe for the taking) or how powerful Space Monsters and Pirates ARRGH... <ahem> are.

One interesting slider is the expansion slider. This allows you to set the size and development level of you civilization at the start of the game! This is a neat feature - say you want to start as a race leaving it's planet for the first time - set it to "Starting." Maybe you would like to begin play as the gigantic galactic empire: old, corrupt, and constantly in border skirmishing with weak "barbarian" races at the fringes - then you can do that too! I've been reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels, and the idea of being able to play the dying galactic empire, barely holding on against the inertia of time and entropy, is really cool! But for now we will keep everything standard and go to the next screen, where you pick your race.

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Here I have picked my favorite race - the Space Faring Baby Seals of Doom! <uhhh> I mean the Ackdarian, a semi-aquatic mammalian species coming from Ocean worlds (remember, the race pic is a PLACEHOLDER graphic and will be replaced with a cool and less-baby-seal high resolution rendered picture... although I love the seal pic). Here you can really tailor a lot of things - starting location, hostility of your homeworld, tech level, size of your empire (number of colonies, as opposed to how much of the galaxy you have explored), and government. You can even customize your flag and colors here! Again, here you have a large variety of choice in how you want to play. Want to face adversity by expanding from a hostile homeworld, rising from the ashes to consume the universe from the galactic fringe? Go ahead! Want to play a single, high-tech, paradise world at the galactic core. Yup! We have that!

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*NEWS FLASH* Just minutes before this article was published

we got an update of how the Ackdarians are supposed to look!


The Ackdarians are, besides being cute, good at research and ship maintenance. I choose the Republic, a natural choice for the Ackdarians, as it adds 1/4 faster tech research to their 10% - meaning a 35% speedier research. This benefit is offset by the increase in ship maintenance costs - but the Ackdarians racial characteristic mean I still get -5% to all my costs, so I get the benefits of Republic without too many of the negatives. The Ackdarians are also good at producing speedy engines, so I should have the upper hand on striking range and swiftness in the galaxy.

Now on to the final game setup screen! This right here is one of the coolest starting screens I have ever seen in a 4X game, the "Other Empire" creation and selection screen:

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So, what is so cool about it? Well, your default option is to auto-generate whatever number of starting empires you please. This allows you to jump right in the game with a number of fledgling rivals scattered at random across the galaxy - particularly useful if you want to quickly set up a number of parallel empires starting up, just like you, in a race for dominance.

Now what is REALLY cool is the next dialogue box - this box lets you CUSTOMIZE your enemy races in nearly the same level of detail you could customize your player race! Like the screen before, you can decide you enemies' governments, size of their empire at the start, tech level, homeworld hostility, and even how close the race will start to you! This powerful tool really allows you to build your own scenarios.

For example:

Want to play the "Galactic Rebels" fighting against an evil and large empire that spans the stars? Set your enemies to large, their proximity to moderately close, and their government to military despotism. If you want to do a "Small guy with big tech vs. Large guy with low tech" - keep the setup as above and change tech levels. You want to be the Galactic Empire, crushing barbarians and rebels? Just put them as starting next to you and make them far inferior in number and tech. See how many small annoyances you can crush before the constant raiding and picking becomes too much. The possibilities are endless - start at war with two big empires facing off, randomize the whole thing for a roll of the dice, or create whatever story enters your mind - this is like a Space Epic generator!

I do want to take a quick aside. Distant Worlds is a rather transparent game. What I mean by that is that many things can be edited and modded, with a relative amount of ease. Now I'm not well-versed in how to mod, but the buzz is that all it takes in Distant Worlds is to edit text files (for the most basic mods). What I am hoping is that Distant Worlds really catches on with some very creative people who want to create Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5 and Battle Star Galactica mods - so my dream of having G'Kar aid the Federation take down the Cylons can finally come to fruition!

Ok, last set up screen is the victory condition screen:

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Again, a wide variety of options here and only increases the detail level you can put into creating your own scenarios. But if you aren't one for set goals - just turn them off and play to your heart's content in Sandbox mode!

So I pretty much just left everything as is - to be simpler in writing this pictorial.

Here is a nice picture of my homeworld at the start of the game.

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Here we have a handful of military ships (the triangles), some civilian passenger ships, freighters, and mining ships (the circles), two cool looking construction ships (the squares, this big bad boys go out to build stations - like mining and research - on uninhabited planets wherever I please). The big thing with the hexagon around it is my large spaceport. This facility has civilian ship builders who will create certain parts of the civilian economy without any direction or control from me, while I can use the military docks to create exploration ships, escorts, destroyers, frigates, and other types of armed spacecraft. My planet has construction yards as well - I use my planet to build any space stations I want or to build the ever important colony ship.

The Ackdarians start on an ocean world with one moon. Looks like the world has three resources on it, all of these seem to be industrial resources. That's not really a bad thing, since our first priority is to build up an infrastructure and begin expanding to other parts of space.

Expansion is made so much easier with the expansion planner screen:

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This is one of the best tools for colonization available! Here you can see a list of what planets have been scouted that are habitable for my particular race. This screen includes an in-depth analysis of what resources are available on scouted planets, and also provides an "at-a-glance" summary of what resources are currently being mined, what resources are high in galactic demand, and the dialogue box lets the player filter planets according to resource and galactic resource demand.

Not only is that helpful, once you do find a planet you want, you can let the Helper AI do the work by telling it to automatically purchase the colony ship and to send it to a specific planet. The cost of this is helpfully given on the button - and once pressed the colony ships do a great job of getting produced and sent to their destination. If you already have a colony ship ready, you can choose it from a drop-down list and have it sent on its way.

Here I chose to go ahead, build and send a colony ship to Drazoon 6. The planet looks pretty attractive, it is my race's native type of Ocean planet, it has 3 resources, and there is already a small independent community of Ackdarians living on the planet. If all goes well we can assimilate these free-thinking hippies into our greater empire. The Ackdarians can also colonize continental planets (which are the homeworlds of Terran-like races) although their growth rate won't be as good there. We'll have to think about grabbing these two planets soon, but our main priority is the planet with the Ackdarians - it is near my home system, we can easily get some starter colonists, and our birth rate will be much better there.

Here is a picture of my empire summary screen:

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I don't have too much to say, other than it is a clean and easy place to track the numbers that are important for running a space empire. You can see my ledger, a quick rundown of my ships - their energy levels and maintenance costs, my government's characteristics, and the place for me to start a revolution (should I want to chuck that republic for something more authoritarian). You'll notice that my empire is rather modest right now, but making decent profits from taxation. That "seed money" will be great for expansion, but I'll need to be careful about building up too quickly, if I don't want to go in the red. This screen is a big help for planning how many new ships you can build and how many stations you can put up before their maintenance costs become overwhelming. Obviously, you have to offset these costs by colonizing planets, then providing planets with luxury goods to help them grow and prosper.

OK, that's enough for one day.  In my next installment I'll take a look at research, building space stations, missions, and more.

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