If you play first-person shooters, you can expect to dive into a new game every year or less, but for those of us who like our grand strategy, a single title can keep us hooked for a decade or more.
Distant Worlds 2 has been that long in coming and has quite a legacy to live up to. Can it compete with the original? Can it challenge Stellaris, the current reigning champion of the space strategy genre? We look into what it has to offer in this review.
There is no real campaign to be found in Distant Worlds 2, but that doesn’t mean there’s no storyline. Each of the factions has a race-specific victory condition as an option within the in-game setup. There are also plenty of minor events that occur as you explore the galaxy, meaning no playthrough will ever be the same.
The premise is simple enough: build your faction up to achieve victory. We can do this in much the same ways as any other 4x you may be familiar with. If you’ve never played a 4x, it stands for Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate.
There are multiple ways to play and many victory conditions, but all involve getting one up on the competition in some way.
There is also the option to play in a sandbox universe with conditions disabled. This allows for a much less restricted experience where players are free to build their empire into whatever shape they want without worrying about a game over. Unless they get themselves conquered…
During galaxy creation, there are dozens of options of how and when you want to begin your game. You can choose to begin anywhere between a pre-warp civilisation on a single planet or a quadrant spanning empire well into its decline. The level of detail in the map itself is also spectacular and they placed all these options into a living galaxy of up to 2000 star systems with hundreds of thousands of objects, from asteroids to abandoned stations to dire monstrous threats.
Distant Worlds 2 currently has 7 playable factions, each with their own unique visual designs and histories within the universe. This means you’ll be coming across alien races that may like you immediately, or instantly try to kill you.
The gameplay itself is brilliantly, absurdly complex. At first, this can appear daunting, but the intelligent automation guides new players through every aspect of gameplay through regular notifications and suggestions, all of which can be customised.
This customisation allows the player to not only decide what they want to be notified about, but the default actions carried out by the automation. Not interested in building mining bases? Set the AI to build them for you in the background. Want to design your ships yourself? Enable manual control. On and on this goes, letting you decide exactly what parts of the game you want to focus on and the behaviours of the AI when it’s in control.
This level of automation might lead you to think the game is too complicated to handle manually, but Distant Worlds 2 has a very streamlined interface. Take resources, for example, where there are dozens but important data like shortages in supply are highlighted in the construction menu, letting you rapidly queue up exactly what your empire needs without having to check every deposit.
There is also a detailed in-game manual called up with the F1 key that can be used to learn quickly about something you’re stuck on without the need to alt-tab and look it up. Many of the main screens come with mini-tutorials as well, further helping with learning the ropes.
One of the unique features of Distant Worlds is the private economy, and unlike most strategy games, you play as a government that doesn’t own everything. Private companies handle their own affairs and run the mining stations, freighters, and the industrial sector. Then supply you with resources if you can afford to buy.
You can give these companies deposits to mine and they will build the stations they need out of their pocket. They’ll also build freighters to ship these resources back to your starbases and colonies, providing them with building materials and luxury goods. This builds the economy and increases your tax income, providing that you keep them safe from pirates and enemy empires.
This is where the player comes in. Diplomacy, espionage, and war are integral to the prosperity of your empire, and both pirates and opposing empires can be fought, infiltrated, or negotiated with. Pirates, for example, may show up early and be too much of a threat to fight, but we can buy them off with a small tribute. This tribute should be viewed with caution though, as they will use it to increase their strength, much like a full-fledged empire.
Despite the in-depth diplomacy system, sometimes you’ll just want to play war. In these cases, as we all know, technology can turn the tides, and researching the best hulls and weapons is paramount. We can set the research tree up in multiple ways at galaxy creation, from a randomised blind path keeping you in the dark about where a project leads to a more traditional standard visible template, letting you beeline to exactly what you want.
Distant Worlds 2 also features an in-game editor allowing for the spontaneous generation of systems, planets, and anything else you can imagine, all in real-time. This, combined with the modding support that encourages importing of 3D models and event scripting, is bound to create an endless amount of new content in the future.
Code Force has done well with the graphics, creating a spotless interface that displays all the information you need in an easy-to-understand way. This is further aided by built-in mini-tutorials that can be accessed on nearly every main screen.
One of the fundamental problems facing players of the original game today is the lack of a scalable UI and even modern games in the genre struggle with it. Distant Worlds 2, on the other hand, has multiple scales to play with, allowing for readable text even on 4k displays.
The speaks well for the longevity of the game, but on lower resolution screens, larger or above scales cause clipping issues and affects the click zones of various UI elements. This limits the usable options and stops players from really cranking up the font size if they have poor vision. Still, it’s a massive leap forward for Distant Worlds and puts a lot of other grand strategy games to shame.
The UI also comes with 7 different themes, including a colourblind assist which is nice to have. If you like things simple, you can also cut down on the clutter with icon tweaks, that let you turn on or off a lot of the icons that appear on the map. This plays in nicely with the automation, so you can essentially disable any information you don’t see a need to know about.
If you’re curious about the zoomed-in visuals, well, they too have a clean look and it’s very easy to see what’s going on. Players can swap between several angles of the viewport, ranging from a top-down to a low angle through a few spots in between.
Audio & Music
The audio is well done throughout, offering nothing special, but gets across everything you would want. Different zoom levels often change the ambient noise depending on what you are looking at, with stellar phenomena and ship combat being the most noticeable examples.
The one place the audio let me down - and this is a purely personal gripe - was the notification sound. A double ping certainly gets your attention, but I found it grating after several hours of alerts. We can partially resolve this by minimising the notifications received, but I’d have liked an option to tweak the sound as well.
In Distant Worlds 2, the AI handles more than just enemy actions. With the phenomenal automation system, it is behind a lot of your operations, chugging away in the background and making sure they deliver your resources to where they’re needed most and occasionally plotting colony independence movements.
Distant Worlds 2 performs well out of the box despite a lack of the frilly options that you’re likely to find on more graphic-intensive games. That said, the customisation for what is here is impressive, allowing for a lot of tweaks to the visuals that many developers leave up to modders.
I noted a little sluggishness when fully zoomed in, but this didn’t detract from the game as you rarely spend time that close to the action, and when I was, it wasn’t unresponsive, merely syrupy. Despite this and the staggering amount of content being tracked on-screen, the game ran incredibly smoothly on the 64-bit engine.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Launching an invasion on an independent colony, only to have the reputation penalty trigger an internal uprising and independence movement across my colonies.
DISTANT WORLDS 2 VERDICT
There are a lot more intricacies and features we didn’t have the time to go into here, but suffice to say Distant Worlds 2 will keep you interested in its universe for a long time with no shortage of mechanics to learn.
If large scale galactic strategy is your idea of fun, you can’t go wrong giving Distant Worlds 2 a chance to shine.
Streamlined UI giving information at a glance
Automation system allows delegation of unwanted tasks
Massive living universe
Masterful ship designer
Great tutorials and in-game manual
Complexity could put new players off
A lot of micromanagement for full manual control