So 2012 came to a close and the world didn't end. That's actually great news, although I know some of you are disappointed that the end is late again, but 2013 will be the most splendid gaming year ever, so there's something to look forward to. There's a lot of great stuff coming. I'm looking forward to Total War Rome, Grand Theft Auto V, Saints Row 4, Europa Universalis 4, among others, and a whole host of great DLC's for different games that have been promised; Skyrim's Dragonborn, to name one. Don't worry, apocalypse-fans. You can save your expensive survival kits for the next hype!
As for gaming, 2012 was a rather dry year for me. I haven't found many new releases that have taken my interest. Crusader Kings II was released at the beginning of the year and has been a favourite of mine during the course of the year. Fallen Enchantress also caught my interest and I've been enjoying that quite a lot. It would have grabbed my personal "Game of the Year" award if it hadn't been for me finding the title I'm going to tell you about in this review - Distant Worlds. I found this game in april through a coincidence as I found a Let's Play of it on YouTube. When I went to buy it, it was seriously overpriced for such a game and I even complained about that on the game's forum. I've been keeping my eyes on this title though, because I found it really interesting. Right now, they're offering Distant Worlds on Sale, so I went ahead and bought the base game as well as its two huge expansions in December.
Distant Worlds is a 4X Space exploration and conquest game. This genre is known for having some bad titles; I've stepped in a lot of bad ground myself trying to get into the genre. I seriously disliked Endless Space and Sins of a Solar Empire wasn't something that I caught onto although it was fun for a while and looked smashing. Sadly, due to terrible marketing and the pricing, Distant Worlds hasn't gotten the attention it deserves, because this could have been the 4X game to rule them all. The game is created by CodeForce, a small New Zeeland team, and produced by Matrix Games. The small team has been working at it for a long time and it started as a personal project and developed into a full-fledged commercial game. There are two expansions, "The Return of the Shakturi" as well as "Legends". Both are massive and improve the game in so many ways; I know, because I started by playing the base game and worked my way up. Both expansions are recommended, and there's more, there's a THIRD expansion coming early next year, "Shadows".
The game runs as a pausable Real Time Strategy and has a lot in common with the detailed strategy titles Paradox produces in that regard. The map is zoomable right down from the grand galaxy map into seeing single spaceships, fleets, planets and other details in the galaxy. Depending on your choices, the most common start is when you start the game with just one planet and a few ships and resources and you expand from there by colonizing suitable planets in other systems, and/or attack and capture the colonies of other empires. The next expansion, Shadows, is going to... erm... expand on this theme and let us start our civilizations in a pre-warp era with no means of getting out of our starting systems before the proper research is done. That sounds absolutely amazingly fun to me.
The galaxies this game creates are truly enormous; you can generate massive galaxies with up to 1400 stars, which is really huge. Each star has a logical planetary system orbitting; and it's on these planets that you found your colonies, mine for resources and fight other empires or pirates over. There are treasures and surprises and other "pre-warp" civilizations to be found. For exploration fans, this is heaven. The galaxy feels surprisingly alive as you explore ruins from lost civilizations, encounter pirates and friends and/or foes and try to exploit the star systems you discover. It's filled with surprises that makes exploration a lot of fun and on top of that there are two storylines to follow if you want that in your game.
There are many other empires out there to discover and all represented by a different race; you can choose to play any of them and they all have their own traits, weaknesses and strenghts and even specific victory conditions. There are the usual humans, but also some relly weird ones, like the ones who look like dinosaurs and the irritating rodents to name some examples. Diplomacy works like in Civ4 with masses of options of trade between empires, treaties, defence pacts, DOW's and so on. One feature I really enjoyed is the fact that you can committ acts of war without openly declaring war on another empire. These situations lead to exciting border conflicts where you take out irritating mining stations or single ships that haunt you. You take a diplomatic hit from using this strategy, and the other empire might respond forcefully, but sometimes this feature can be very useful and a lot of fun. All empires also get hero characters who boost certain areas of your empire. There's a national leader (who actually gets replaced every once in a while, which is really cool!), fleet admirals, planetary governors, great scientists, ambassadors, army generals, and even spies who you can send on missions against the other empires to gain valuable information or disrupt their activities.
War is fought mainly in space. You have complete control over your ships and can even design them yourself with all the systems you think your ships will require. Are you going for small and lightly armed, or big but with a deadly punch? Shipbuilding is easy and you soon have your fleets set up; you can bunch ships together to form grander fleets so that they are easier to move about the galaxy. The battles are fast and furious; like lightning. Land battles are a bit more basic. You build regiments at your own colony and transport them over to the enemy planets and then wait for your troops to either conquer or fail. The Shadows expansion coming next year will give more detail to land battles and land troops though, so thumbs up for that. As it is now, it seems like it's following the formula of he who has the most regiments on the planet wins.
The UI may seem cluttered and daunting at first, but you soon find your way around, because everything is there for a reason. The game supplies you with a lot of good, detailed information about what's going on in your empire and around you in the galaxy. It makes Paradox' games come to shame. This game is an information and statistics fetichist's wet dream, but the statistics are only there if you really want that kind of detail. It's all well laid out and works as intended. The game may not look like much in the screenies, but I swear it's really beautiful. The ships are made up of simple sprites and graphics overall are quite simple, but when it all comes together it creates a game of stunning and surprising beauty. Watching your own colour paint the galaxy is quite something.
Your technology advances at a steady rate, giving you updates to your weapon systems, shields and other ship equipment, but also offers some fun new functions as you go, like planetary surface bombardment. The extensive tech tree is divided into three categories and you research stuff from each category simultaneously, giving you advances in ship upgrades and civilian techs at a steady rate.
The economy of your empire is run by the private sector. You have no control over what happens in there, and this is actually one of the ideas of the game. The player plays the state, setting the foundations for what the private sector does. The private sector builds and maintains freighter spaceships, passenger ships, mining operations and all those other small details that make the economy tick. You, as the state, are tasked with exploring, colonizing planets, expanding the empire as well as protecting the trade routes of the private sector from pirates and enemy attack and really setting the stage for that private sector that works in the background. This is all a very cool idea. Much of what you can control in this game can also be completely automated and run by the AI. In theory, it's possible to let the AI run the whole empire around you while you yourself only control one ship. This is an area where the game could shine even more and probably will in the future, because the devs are evidently really hard at work on this title.
The game has a few problems that need addressing. Among other things, the economy soon goes boom and you start making heaps of money with nothing to spend it all on. The money just keeps rolling in and there's never financial crises or money problems that makes you have to decide between whether to buy a couple of cruisers or building that defensive base. It's a matter of game balance. Also, as I've mentioned, the land battles are quite meh at this point and there are other problems with the game within it's extensive automation and AI that need addressing. Luckily, from what I've read, the devs are hard at work on these areas with Shadows and I bet the problems will all be addressed sooner or later to create what will in the end be possibly the best 4X game out there, and just overall a purely fantastic PC game. Overall, what I found to be problems are also just down to balancing and other small things. I've put in a lot of hours in the game already, and I've found nothing game-breaking so far. The game doesn't crash and it runs fairly well. The game is also very moddable and the devs have written modding guides and continue to support the moddability of it in different ways. There are some really excellent mods for you to try out at the Matrix forum as well; everything from single new ship designs to grand-scale total conversions featuring, for an example, the Star Trek universe. The games' devs are proven to listen to their fans and take suggestions into account and they have a forum where you can discuss the game and get in contact with the devs themselves. The crowd gathering on that forum are also polite, intelligent, suitably nerdy and dedicated to the game and its development leading to a good atmosphere over there.
All in all, Distant Worlds is an enjoyable, fun and interesting game with staggering attention to detail that keeps me going and which I can't recommend strongly enough for those interested in the genre and strategy in general, and it is the only worthwhile 4X space game I've seen in a long, long while. It's also under continuing development which is also encouraging, since those few problems will be smashed and new, exciting functions added to the already excellent game in the future. So let's throw out those over-hyped excuses like Endless Space and Sins and get to some real 4X gaming with Distant Worlds. Although not a new release for 2012, it still gets my vote for Game of the Year 2012, with the excellent Crusader Kings II as a close second and Fallen Enchantress as the glorious third.