Distant Worlds is a massive 4X game that shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of the genre: detailed systems, technology, and options; very long games that form their own histories and stories; minimalist graphics and effects; and a steep, steep learning curve.
Distant Worlds is definitely aimed at the hardcore player for this genre. It does not attempt to simplify or strip down gameplay or worry much about "approachability." I have a weakness for games like this (see Aurora and Dwarf Fortress) but they're not to everyone's taste. Code Force/Matrix Games has designed Distant Worlds for a specific niche, and they've produced a game that will satisfy the target audience very well.
Distant Worlds is sold as a core game and a series of expansions. This review is based on the latest bundle, which included all of the released material. The expansions don't just add "more stuff." They add in entire new categories of activity, such as planetary facilities, changes to the tech tree structure, and so on.
The latest expansion, Shadows, adds something very new: the chance to play as a pirate, rather than an empire, focusing on raiding, constructing hidden bases, smuggling, and generally ruling the galaxy from the, well, shadows. The Shadows expansion also offers a mode of play where you begin at a primitive level, with no FTL capacity, and must first develop your home system and learn to build even the most basic craft. The default start position gives you a certain amount of technology and a small fleet of exploration and construction ships.
In many 4X games, the player has total control over all aspects of their empire. In Distant Worlds, civilians run the economy. As the empire grows, fleets of freighters and transports appear, carrying cargo between worlds, constructing mining stations, and so on. You can add mining stations of your own, but the transport of resources across your empire is almost entirely out of your hands, short of making sure you've secured the worlds that have the resources you need on them.
This can lead to frustrating shortages if the civilian AI isn't moving the goods where you want them the most. However, this "living universe" feature is one of the most compelling aspects of Distant Worlds. It's a lot like Sim City, in that you can build the structures, but you can't control the people.
As is typical of high-complexity/small-market games, the documentation is sparse, and the full impact of your choices is not always obvious. Distant Worlds offers a lot of freedom, and that means a lot of ways to undermine yourself. Random factors play a part, as well. A game where you begin with high-quality colonizable worlds nearby is much easier than one where you don't find a potential colony world for a long time. A random disaster took out most of my homeworld's infrastructure in one game, leaving me with basically no economy and a perennially-increasing debt, so I couldn't build the facilities to repair the damage.
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