Distant Worlds: Universe – PC Game Review
Passed Inspection: Very high replay value; adjustable levels of empire management; excellent AI
Failed Basic: Very steep learning curve; clunky and complex user interface; unimpressive graphics
Distant Worlds – Universe (DW-U) is a vast and deep 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) real-time pausable space strategy game. The game allows the player to manage as much or as little of his or her empire as desired. Players may, if they care to, oversee every jot and tittle of their star nation. Or, they can build a starship to tool around the galaxy exploring and destroying stuff, while the marvelous AI takes care of the day-to-day running of the player’s dominions.
Let me admit up front that I have not played any of the previous versions of the Distant Worlds franchise, so I come to this review tabula rasa, meaning I have no preconceptions regarding the game. However, I have played other 4X space games such as Sins of a Solar Empire and the venerable Master of Orion.
DW-U is less an update and more a collection of all the previous releases of the game: the original Distant Worlds, Return of the Shakturi, Legends, and Shadows in one package. But the designers have added expansive modification (modding) and customizing capability. Included in the game is a 99-page modding manual to help the player use this feature.
Choices, So Many Choices
Anyone not familiar with the Distant Worlds family of games should—nay, must—read the excellent manual and go through the tutorials before starting to play the game.
The scale of the game is epic. The player may choose any one of a number of play-styles. Play-styles are the starting point of the game, meaning the player may select any one of four historical eras with already fully developed empires, or play as a pirate, or start with a single planet and pre-warp technology. The various eras have more or fewer pirates, rival empires and ancient secrets to unlock. I found starting with a single planet, with no light speed ships, to be a good way to learn the very complex game mechanics.
Then, the player chooses galaxy size and shape. Galaxies can be up to 1,400 stars and 50,000 planets, moons and asteroid fields, or as low as 100 stars and just over 3,500 planetary bodies. Galaxies can be set to six different shapes from elliptical to ring to varied clusters.
The next job is to pick the race the player wants to play. There are twenty different species to choose from, including Humans. Each race has advantages and disadvantages, like bonuses for research or spying, the ability to live on different types of planets, and so on. Also each species has a set of characteristics, such as aggressiveness, intelligence and how dependable they tend to be as allies. Further, each race has its own unique set of victory conditions. The player can select the number of opponent races desired and even pick them specifically.
Also, the player can select the type of government for his preferred race: Democracy, Republic, Feudalism, Monarchy, Despotism or Military Dictatorship. Each type of government has advantages and disadvantages, like high corruption levels but increased trade bonuses. Insectoid races can also use the “Hive Mind” type of government. Other races have access to other types of governments, like “Utopian Paradise.”
From the start menu the player may select options and then decide how much or how little of the game to automate. “Expert” level automates nothing, while “Rule in Absence” automates everything. There are five preset levels of control (Default, Expansion, War & Combat, Diplomacy and Spy Master), or the player can customize the level of control.
Players can set their own victory conditions or follow a story-line set of victory conditions, and they can set a game length as well. And now, finally, the player (after heaving a deep sigh) can push the “Start New Game” button.
With all the start-up options available, there is no way to describe a typical game—indeed there is no such thing as a typical game. However, outside of that large number of choices to be made before the game starts, the actual game play is very conventional for a 4X space game.
There is a nicely extensive technology tree, divided into three areas (Weapons, Energy & Construction, High Tech & Industrial) to research. Each new tech discovery gives the player more capabilities in the various aspects of the game.
The player builds ships and space stations of various types; explores the universe, discovers and colonizes new worlds and develops resources; and, naturally, interacts with other races through diplomacy, with trade agreements, or, of course, by going to war.
Almost all aspects of the civilian economy are out of the hands of the player; players cannot direct commercial activities in any way. At most, the player can influence the civilian economy by changing the tax rate and finding new resources to be exploited. However, the AI does an outstanding job of managing that side of things, leaving the player to focus on the government and military aspects of the game.
Sadly, the graphics are no better than average. While the stars and planets are beautifully done and carefully rendered, the ships and stations are surprisingly flat, like they are cardboard cut-outs rather than fully realized space vessels. Also the space battles are singularly unimpressive; the ships exchange some colored dots or beams and then one explodes or escapes.
The user interface (UI) a complex and clunky. At any time there are three or four different menus open on the main screen, including the strategic map. Almost none of the shipbuilding, empire management or any other activity, except directing ships, can be done without clicking through a number of pop-up menus. Also, none of the menus seemed very intuitive. In fact, as I played through the game, I found myself constantly pausing the action and referring to the manual. Of course, the player may avoid all this by automating most of the game’s actions. However, the more players automate, the less they actually play, and the more they just watch.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, if you like your strategy games dense and complex then Distant Worlds – Universe is certainly for you. But with the vast flexibility that the game allows, most players should be able to quickly find a level of automation and interaction at which they are comfortable. The $49.99 price tag should not put off potential new players to the franchise; there are hours and hours of game play to be had in Distant Worlds – Universe.
For owners of older versions of the game, Matrix Games has a program that may discount this upgrade for you.
Armchair General Score: 91%
About the Author
Patrick Baker is a former US Army Field Artillery officer, currently a Department of Defense employee. He has degrees in Education, History and Political Science. He cut his war-gaming teeth on Squad Leader and Victory Games’ Fleet Series. He bought his first PC in 1990, a Wang PC-240, specifically to play SSI’s The Battles of Napoleon (much to the annoyance of his wife). He continues to use all his education to play more games and annoy his family.