Distant Worlds argues itself to be the grandest of grand strategy. A 4X game set in the vast emptiness of space like so, so many of them, on a massive scale. Numbers are thrown about such as 1,400 star systems! 50,000 planets! Dozens of space monsters/civs/stuff!
The Universe subtitle is the bringing together of the many Distant Worlds games and expansions, with more improvements on top, promising a whole lot of content. This sheer amount of stuff brings the problem of complexity.
I’ve not played the game yet and I’m already terrified of getting lost in all the stats and potential information you get on screen. I bounced off Galactic Civilisations II 5 years ago for the very reason of getting lost in its unclear systems, primarily out of impatience to properly sit, read and learn how it works before I play. Civilisation Revolution is my favourite Civ game, which should tell you a lot about the kind of complexity I enjoy, as in, not very much.
I’ve wanted to get into a deep strategy such as this for years, but only feel that now that I’m ready and have the patience to do it properly. When I booted Universe the first thing it did was present me with a vast Galactopedia, and tell me before I do anything to run through some Tutorials and always keep the ‘pedia close at hand.
My goal here is to dig in and enjoy a game like this like I’ve not before, and I’m going to challenge the game on making it accessible to not just a newcomer but to someone who has been lost by these games due to the complexity and time it takes to learn stuff. A new release in 2014 should be up to the task, but lets find out shall we?
Day 1 – The Beginning (of nothing)
12:32pm: Booting up the first Tutorial the game’s music kicks in and I feel like I’m in the middle of the most Epic Space Battles. I’m being assaulted with Grand Space Music, which is great, but I’m like trying to read the tutorial screens and didn’t do anything yet. Could do with some calming piano or something.
12:40pm: Huh, so I guess I’m supposed to consult the Galactopedia for each Tutorial step on how to actually do the thing its advising me. Righto.
12:50pm: What…am I doing. Need a cup of tea.
13:41pm: So with my tea I went and had a go digging on the internet, still a part of the process for this kind of game which I’m now resigned to (I gave up pretty quickly on the whole accessibility thing which the game fails at almost immediately), and found a guide for newbies like me on the Matrix Games forums.
Time to read!
14:30pm: Now a lot of this game can be Automated, and the game advises me many times to stick to that so I don’t get overwhelmed. Ships are automated to colonize, explore, build etc and go off happily by themselves to do just that.
The goal of the game, like any other 4X, is to conquer the Universe through culture, science, brute force and so on. In Distant Worlds each race (more than 20 I believe looking at the list) have their own unique ‘win scenarios’ on top, so there are many ways to do many different things. The automation for many aspects, such as exploring, colonizing, even fitting out your ships with gear and researching on your behalf, is designed to allow you to focus on the macro while the game takes care of the micro. You can set your big goals of the empire while the simulation, and that’s really what it is, takes care of itself. Mines will be built, colonies will form, transport hubs will build themselves around everything. The game is split between the you and I suppose the Government and the Privarte sector. The Private sector is always automated, all of the time. This takes care of transporting goods from mines back to your colonies for example, removing the most micro of the micromanagement. This is all well and good, but the game tells me as a new player to automise pretty much everything.
This meant exploring, building ships, research, combat, the entire simulation simply played out before me and I had no idea what was going on. As a completely new player to this world I found the Tutorials all but useless, because everything was automated I had no idea what ship was what, where it was going or what anything was for. This all led to me wondering what the bollocks was going on, and necessitated the calming nectar of PG Tips.
Now, the advice on the forums is to do the opposite of what the game, tutorials, even the advice on the email my review code came in, and turn automation off. Completely. Everything should be down to manual control. So I can actually learn how the game’s systems work together and understand the simulation of my colony. You may have noticed me use the word simulation a number of times. This is because when up and running your, and the many other empires out there have fully functioning systems for governance, combat, trade, research, construction, mining, transport to name a few. Switching automation on really does let you see this world play out by itself, it’s just not at all fun for me in that way until I understand where each piece of this crazy space jigsaw fits in to the whole.
Day 3 - The Beginning (again!)
6.00pm: I’ve now worked my way throughout the entirely of Part 1 of my newbie guide, so I’ll bring you up the speed.
6.02pm: So. Uh. All my Saves are gone. The game has updated itself and deleted my saves. I. Erm.
6:05pm: Poking around a little bit I see the game is looking for my save files in a new folder created for the new update. 19.5.1. My old saves are in another folder, 19.5.0. I have to manually move them to the new folder, AND untick all the automation settings in the Options menu. Come on guys, you design this ridiculously well-functioning space simulator but make me manually move my saves and reset all the options? You can do better than that.
6:10pm: Right so where were we.
I’m a pre-wap empire, meaning we’ve not learned how to hyperdrive and as such cannot leave the solar system. I need to colonize, mine and set up an economy first in my home area before I can reach for the stars. I’m taught (by the forum post, not by the game remember) how to build a space station. Then to build ships for exploration and construction. I haven’t researched colonization so I have one hub planet, and send my exploration ships to see what’s out there. I soon find resources, which in turn I can send my mining ships off to…mine. The game pushes automation but provides every resource, screen and button you need to do it all yourself. It’s satisfying too, and breaks down the complexity of the game when you realise all you’re doing it clicking on a ship, selecting the next best mining spot, and off it goes. The Private sector, the always automated set of systems I touched on earlier, takes care of the rest. They construct their own transport ships feeding from my mines to the homeworld, taking care of those tasks for me while still allowing me to feel in control. In a fully automated world you just have ships going here and there with no idea what they are up to.
6:20pm: One of my exploration ships has found warp technology! Now I can research warp drives. Not only will this drastically increase the speed of my ships for running around my own solar system, but open up the rest of that terrifying map for exploration. First things first though, what else should be researched before I even start to think about expanding? The unforgiving Universe will chew me up and spit me back out if I try to go out there first thing. What about shields for my ships? Weapons? Cargo holds? I can’t even look after myself yet, I’d better take care of that first.
Again working with a guide and someone who knows what’s what, you start to research the basics for you colony. You build entertainment centres to keep your people happy, you build cargo holds to transport people, you start to research weapons and shields to keep your ships safe. It’s all thing we’ve done in countless other games, there’s just a lot of depth and detail here which can be all kinda of intimidating. I have to stress the game itself doesn’t help make it any easier, but at least long-term players are willing to help us through. Once again all of this can be automated, including diplomacy, spending and tax rates.
The game tells me once I get better I can start turning off automation and control things manually, but I seriously feel like they’ve got it completely backwards. Now I know how mining words, I set my Construction ship to automate and build mines throughout the rest of my system. I know how to manually say go to this planet now, so i’m happy for them to do it alone because at least I understand what they are doing in the first place.
6:45pm: Pirates! I’m being attacked by pirates!. Oh right I can just pay them off huh? That seems quite right for pirates. Oh oh I can set up a smuggling ring to bring in needed goods to my Homeworld for a small fee? Absolutely. Hey this is getting kinda interesting now.
6:50pm: So I’ve now got my solar system buzzing with ships moving from planet to planet, mining station to mining station. My income is increasing as more valuble goods arrive, my population expands (and as such more Tax is paid). My next job is to start seeing what’s out there and hopefully start colonizing some planets. My research is almost ready for both hyperdrives and colonization, so let’s see what’s out there!
6:55pm: Oh my. Some Ancient beings popped by to say hello. Uh, they seem a bit angry. I’m just going to throw some money at them and hope they’ll leave me alone. The diplomacy screen is just like you find in Civ/any 4X game so that’s fine. I don’t even have a warship yet, just let me find out how the game works first damnit. Okay, they seem happy with that. So let’s see what’s out there!
Day 5 – The Beginning….again
8:15pm: So two days and two play sessions later I’ve still not left my solar system. It turns out research takes a long time. You then need to design your ships; what equipment do they need, how many reactors, what kind of weapons, storage, how much fuel, how many thrusters. Different combinations for different kinds of ship. The good thing about ship designing is you create the blueprint and build ships according to that. Upgrade the blueprint, you tell your ships to retrofit themselves to it. So at least you only spend the time designing one type of ship, rather than 50 individual warships or constructor ships.
You can of course automate all this and get the game to do all this for you, but then it still feels like missing the point. I can understand why my cruise speed is 24, or how far I can travel before my ships run out of fuel. It’s fulfilling in a way, but just takes so much time.
I have a feeling having one game of this is going to take me several months. There is so much to this game I’ve not even touched on yet. I don’t need to describe what 4X games are like, we’ve all played Civ. We know I’m going to go out there, find out empires, trade with them, fight with them, or even team up and fight this angry Ancient race. I’m sure each and every part of this is going to be as detailed and take as long as simply getting ready to leave my solar system.
I hope I’ve managed to get across even some of the mind blowing complexity of this game. I’ve a whole Universe to explore, and while it may be 2018 before I arrive dead or victorious at the other end, the journey so far has been so fascinating, already all I want to do is see where and how far it goes.
If this sounds like the idea of fun to you, this can only get full marks.