Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Distant Worlds: Shadows

(all screenshots from Matrix Games)

The original Master of Orion was one of my favorite games of all-time. It was basically Civilization in space, and I just love that kind of thing.

You started with your home world, a single planet, and through research and development, you explored the galaxy, colonizing new worlds around new stars and - this is a game, after all - fighting the other civilizations you encountered.

As a game, the combat was necessary, but not the reason I loved the game. I loved the research, the exploration, the building - building your civilization, not just individual structures - and manipulating the environment (terraforming other planets to suit your species).

I've never found another 4X space game which appealed to me half as much as that one did. But now, there's a new contender, Distant Worlds: Shadows. And in my limited time with the game, so far, I'm very impressed.

First, the downside: Shadows is an expansion to the original game, but in order to play it, you need the original Distant Worlds plus the two previous expansions. And they're not cheap. Months ago, I'd looked at a previous expansion, but the cost was just too much for a game I wasn't sure I'd like.

It's even worse with Shadows, because now you have to buy four games, in effect, in order to play the latest one. However, they're having a sale right now - since they just released this expansion - and you can buy the complete set for $70. That's still expensive, but it's 40% off the usual price. That was enough (if just barely) to get me into the game.

The other downside, which I discovered as I started to play it, is that Distant Worlds uses your existing screen resolution, which makes the fonts very small for me. (My eyes aren't that great.) But when I discovered the button to "enlarge selection panel" - that little window in the lower left corner of the screen - that solved most of my problems with readability.

Now, in Distant Worlds, you can play in a galaxy of up to 1500 star systems with up to 50,000 different planets, moons, and asteroids. If you love the idea of exploring space, that should appeal to you. (Don't worry. The entire game can be automated as much, or as little, as you wish. You can handle, yourself, anything that interests you, while the rest of your empire is capably managed by the AI.)

What particularly attracted me to the Shadows expansion is that you can start before you have any FTL technology at all. Since this galaxy has fallen from civilization previously (there is a storyline here), pirates retain the ability to travel between star systems. But empires have to rediscover that technology on their own. I really like that.

I started with a homeworld much like Earth (I'm playing as human), and the first thing I had to do was build an orbiting spaceport around my planet. From there, I could build small exploration ships to slowly explore my own solar system. (A solar system is a big place, and this game really demonstrates that when you're just starting out.)

All empires start in a solar system with the basic resources they need to research hyperdrive, but it takes time. You have to explore for resources, then build mines to exploit those resources, while also researching new technologies. It's a slow process, but very rewarding when you reach important milestones (such as researching your first hyperdrive engine, which finally opens up the galaxy for your people).

Of course, pirates discovered us very early in this process, and I had to pay protection money for awhile. As I noted, they start with a technological advantage, and I didn't even have warships when they first arrived at our planet. On the other hand, pirate factions also have independent freighters which bring us raw materials, which is very useful to a fledgling empire.

Eventually, I felt powerful enough to stop paying protection money. None of the pirate factions have been too happy about that, but they haven't attacked us,... so far.

Now, there's a lot going on in this game, and a lot to juggle at once. As I say, you can let the AI handle anything you want. (In fact, you can let the AI handle everything. One option is just to put yourself into one of your ships and... do whatever strikes your fancy - exploration, piracy, whatever.)

But I always concentrate on scientific research in these games. I want to be the most technologically advanced civilization in the galaxy. (As I say, pirates start out ahead of everyone else, but they can't match an empire when it comes to research.) And I've done quite well on that front in my current game (my first).

You also have to juggle government finances, but I was well prepared for that. I was careful not to build too many ships, since you have to pay maintenance costs on ships and bases. Instead, I used the discoveries from my research program to constantly upgrade my warships and my facilities - quality instead of quantity.

That seemed to work. For most of the game, so far, I've had a very healthy cash flow. Note that you get money from taxes, but also by building ships for the private sector (all that happens automatically). My shipyard stayed busy with upgrades and new construction, and my finances stayed healthy, too.

But I forgot something. :)  Construction requires resources. So do upgrades. There are a lot of resources in Distant Worlds - some common, some uncommon, some rare - and that's one reason why you need to explore the galaxy. You also need to build mines to exploit those resources. Independent traders will automatically bring resources to your planets, but not nearly enough.

Anyway, with all my ship construction/upgrading, I started to run a deficit in some important resources. Then the shortages became so bad that work had to stop, through lack of (primarily) steel. I'm currently desperately short of steel - and short of many other resources, too - because I didn't build enough mines.

My construction ships - which actually build mines - became stranded at my spaceport, halfway through refit, because of my desperate shortage of steel. When they were finally completed, I discovered that I also needed steel to build the mines I needed to get more steel! Argh!

This is what I mean when I say there's a lot to juggle in this game. I expected financial bottlenecks, so I worked hard to prevent them. But these resource bottlenecks caught me by surprise. And my empire is really suffering now.

Of course, I'm still getting some steel from my existing mines. And independent traders bring us resources, if not in the huge quantities I need. I finally started paying pirates to smuggle steel to us, and that's expensive. My cash flow isn't looking so good now, partly because of that and partly because I can no longer build ships to sell to the private sector.

From all of this, we're getting just a trickle of steel and several other resources we need. It's a real problem. I'm doing exceptionally well on science and technology because I spent money building research bases. Then I had to build ships to defend those bases, and I've been upgrading them regularly with the latest technology.

But there's not an infinite supply of money or resources and, clearly, I should have balanced my spending better by building more mines. So, what can I do now? For one thing, I won't be building any more ships for awhile, and I'll try to avoid upgrading the ones I've already got, since I can't avoid the resource cost.

I've got several large projects on hold, due to lack of resources, and if I cancel them, I'll lose the progress we've already made. So I really don't want to do that. But my construction ships are also at a standstill, in their attempts to build more mines, because there isn't nearly enough steel available to build them. (Steel is the big problem, but not the only one.)

Frankly, I don't see much I can do but wait for the steel to trickle in. I'll continue to ask pirates to smuggle us steel, as long as my money holds out, but that's only going to get us another trickle. My empire is in a bind, and we simply won't be able to grow until I get this problem fixed (which means that my competitor civilizations will get a big advantage for awhile, and so will the pirate factions).

Neat, isn't it? So far, we've only explored a tiny section of the galaxy, too. It takes a long time to go from having no FTL capability - and not even a spaceport - to the kind of civilization which can dominate the rest of the galaxy.

Through pirates, we've opened a line of communication with two other empires, but I don't know where they are. So far, we haven't encountered anyone new (just pirates and a few dangerous space creatures). I've been playing Distant Worlds for a couple of days now, but I'm still at the very beginning.

(Note that you don't have to start without FTL travel. You can choose to begin a game at the "classic" starting point, where you have the ability to explore distant stars right from the beginning. But I enjoy starting much earlier - and so weak that I have to pay off pirates rather than fight them. Still, there are a lot of options in this game. For example, you can play as one of the pirate factions, if you want. The game is very different, then.)

If you'd like more information about Distant Worlds: Shadows, you might check out this video series at YouTube. That's where I first saw it. But if you want to buy it, I'd jump pretty quickly, while their 40% off sale is still available. Normally, it's just too expensive. That's their decision, of course, but it does make things difficult for newcomers to the series.

Note: See this page for more game posts.


Jim Harris said...

This sounds like an enticing game, but $70 is too much, and hell, I never could even figure out how to play Civilization. I'm always intrigued by the concepts of video games, and I like reading your game reviews, but I just don't have what it takes to play them. You must have infinite patience Bill. I used to play games like Space Invaders, Breakout and Galaga because they just involved a twitching trigger finger. But once they got more conceptual I never could stick with them.

WCG said...

Other people tell me that, too, Jim, but it doesn't feel like patience. In fact, I'll suddenly come to my senses and realize that hours have passed - often that it's way past my bedtime. :)

It's just personal preference. I never liked those games that required a twitchy trigger finger, myself. Even Arma 3 is more about teamwork and planning,... usually.

But yeah, even $70 (let alone the list price) is a lot to spend on a game you're not sure you'll like. I regularly buy games that look good, but end up not suiting me. So I'm rarely willing to take a flyer on something this expensive.

Anonymous said...

Truthfully, the ONLY thing that bothers me about this game, is that people have been saying everywhere, their own forums included, that they would love to buy in.... if only it wasn't so expensive. The market has been BEGGING them for a price drop, which would have flooded demand for the game, but they seem stuck in their price point...

WCG said...

Yes, I agree. It's a great game, but I haven't played it enough to justify the cost, even when I got it at 40% off. It's just ridiculously expensive.