I tend to play my fair share of 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) games here on 411mania. It’s a genre I tend to enjoy; most of them are turn based games involving building up your empire, starting out small and reaching the far corners of your planet (or galaxy) by diplomacy, economic power, or simply by crushing all of those who stand in your way. Distant Worlds tries to do this, and almost succeeds, but the game is so dense as to almost be impenetrable by mere mortals.
Distant Worlds: Universe is a 4X game, but arguably the most hardcore, involved, and intense game of them all. Distant Worlds takes place in space, almost akin to the Gal Civ series, or Sins of a Solar Empire. Thankfully, Distant Worlds is only 2D, which is about the only helping hand this game gives you. You start off in a basic system with your home planet, and are told to explore around your system. You’ll soon begin branching out, meeting other alien races, finding other planets to colonize, finding ancient ruins to explore, asteroids to mine, etc. It’s all under the auspices of expanding out your empire and increasing your sphere of influence.
The first thing is, this game has a lot of automation. A lot of it. It needs it, to be honest. Everything from your economic policy, to how wars are waged, to ship design/construction, to exploration can (and at the start is) automated. You can choose to take direct control if you want to, but you have my prayers if you do. Some systems can be somewhat easy to grasp like colony tax rates, or buying a ship is easy to grasp. Others, like actually designing a ship, sending your fleets out for battle, or to even explore, are so labyrinthine in design, that I have to imagine it is intentional. There is another factor that might have caused this, however.
The secret of this game is that it isn’t new. This was news to me when I saw it pop on Steam and requested it. The game is actually from 2010, with the “Universe” moniker used to collect the DLC expansions that have come out for it. Due to this, there are some slightly funky things going on in the game. The first is that even though Windows 7 came out prior to the game, it has a real hard time playing nice with the Aero desktop system. Menu’s, in the game, use the default scrolling/navigation icons that make it look really odd. Also, booting the game up, when I had Chrome running, caused these issues to magnify.
Aside from the Windows 7 issues, this game does have some flawed interface designs that can drag it down immensely. You can hire pirate factions in the game and pay them “protection” money, so they won’t attack you. That works fine. However, these protection plans only run on 6 months schedules (I believe), so every few minutes your advisor will pop up, in a sneaky way, saying “Do you wish to cancel this treaty?” It’s sneaky because when you are normally presented with a treaty it will ask “Do you want to offer a treaty?” You can get tripped up with the change in question. However, this pirate treaty question pops up ad nauseam. This is multiplied when you are dealing with multiple pirate factions and paying them off. Here’s my story:
In one game, I encountered about 6 different pirate factions in the map. Each demanded payment money, but only of like 100 credits per month. Considering I was making around 140,000 credits a month, this 600 credit fee meant squat to me. Still, every 5 minutes or so, my advisor would suddenly ping with about 6 different messages (which also move out of reach other important choices) asking if I wanted to break the pirate treaties. There should just be an option that “YES, keep paying them for as long as I have money coming in”
I actually don’t know if you can scroll up the message wall, once you get deep into a game, they can go by so quickly that you’ll start feeling lost. These messages include ruins you find, derelict space ships, retrofitting your old ships with new tech (there are three research trees going independent of each other), building new bases and ships, warning of attacks or political uprisings, etc. It can all get overwhelming after a while. It says a lot that Gal Civ 3’s (a game not even close to be done) UI is more logical and easier to grasp then this game’s.
The game seems tailor made for people who operate on a macro, MACRO scale, when they want to build their empire out. Here is a picture of the map fully zoomed out:
That is intense. I showed it to Adam Larck and his response was “That looks like the map from EVE Online”, and he’s right. If you thought the stage 5 (space sim) part of Spore was too easy and kid-like, then Distant Worlds: Universe is for you. It is probably the most complex game I’ve tried to play, and while it broke me, certain people will spend countless hours on it. For that, I salute you, and also am afraid for you.
Note: I did have some instability running the game, aside from the Aero issues. It crashed on me a few times as I played. Also, when I first got it, it was on version 184.108.40.206 where I had some games. It patched itself to 220.127.116.11 and my games appeared gone. They weren’t, they were buried in a subfolder for that version, but when I tried to load them up, the game got a little wonky. Not sure if it was a save file incompatibility or not, but I wanted to mention it.
If you can get into it, it has limitless replayability
The pirate factions are interesting
The way the game expands outward is impressive
Deeply confusing and intricate gameplay
The menus has some problems with modern OS’s
The UI is very cluttered and hard to grasp/can be annoying
I definitely don’t Distant Worlds: Universe is a “bad” game, per se. But I think some of the advances in the 4X genre make it a particular challenge to try and tackle. The interface is cluttered and overly full of information, the advisor can be annoying, it has problems running on modern PC’s, and a single game could take you days, if you wanted to just conquer everyone. However, no other 4X game has the amount of scale that is in this game, nor the depth to which they allow you to control your empire. It is a double-edged sword, no doubt, but if you want the deepest 4X game you can imagine, then Distant Worlds: Universe is definitely for you.
The graphics are old by today’s standards, but work well enough. You can zoom out to incredible levels which is nice
It’s 4X style gameplay done on the biggest stage around. It’s hard to figure out though, and can be very challenging.
I The music can get very grating after a while. The sound effects are fine, but I don’t think there is voice acting.
If you get into it, the game has endless appeal. Multiple expansions are included, as is mod support from the older games
People will enjoy it, but it takes a specific mindset. Still, I did have some fun exploring the galaxy and meeting new races