Distant Worlds is the most complex space 4X strategy game I've played in my 15+ years of gaming. Where it lacks in flashy graphics, it makes up for in vibrant, uniquely immersive gameplay. While it's not without flaws, I definitely recommend it to any would-be galactic emperor looking for a thoughtful space 4X experience.
- Its galaxies are bustling with life and activity. DW provides pretty much the most engaging simulation of a sentient life-filled universe I've seen to date.
- A rich and unique economic system: Your civilian taxpayers are actually running their own private economy with ships and bases you can't control.
- You can automate pretty much anything, letting you focus on controlling the parts you most enjoy.
- Every little ship has a competent AI allowing your empire to fend for itself even without constant input from you.
- Colony management is rather simplistic.
- Research is done by advancing through a fixed tech tree just like in the Civilization series. I consider this a con because it makes large parts of each game play out rather samey, hurting the otherwise great replayability.
- Due to the complexity, DW isn't an easy game to get into.
- There's no multiplayer mode. This isn't a con for me but it might be for some.
I've played many of the space 4X games out there including Master of Orion 2, Imperium Galactica 1-2, Pax Imperia 2, Galciv 1-2, SotS 1, Endless Space, Space Empires 4-5, Star Ruler, Lost Empires, Armada 2526, etc and to me what sets Distant Worlds apart from all of these is that its galaxies feel "alive" and real to a degree that I just haven't seen in any other space 4X game to date.
They are living, breathing worlds filled with hundreds to thousands of ships, each with their own agenda, going about their daily activities around the clock: civilians hauling cargo, tourists visiting resort bases, military ships patrolling trade lanes, pirates raiding, ancients scheming... all in real time. There's always something going on.
At the core of this bustling activity is the economic model that's one of the most richly conceived ones out there.
For once the people that you're taxing for income are finally actively present in the galaxy - they're running a private economy, buying freighters from your shipyards, hauling resources to wherever they're in demand, carrying tourists to your resort bases, migrating in passenger ships from colony to colony to avoid high taxes, etc and they do that completely without your input - in fact you can't even control them directly but merely influence them (e.g. by designing better freighters for them to buy) which gives DW a bit of a Majesty-like charm.
All of this isn't just a small sideshow either - these civilians actually make up most of the interstellar traffic in the game.
The part of your empire that you directly control is also a lot smarter than in other games. It's not a completely helpless child that needs babysitting with even the most basic tasks such as resource flow or self-defense.
Resource flow for instance is handled by the aforementioned private economy *if* they have enough money to buy and maintain their own ships and bases after paying your taxes.
As for self-defense, even on full manual control, your ships can be given individual AI that automatically assigns them to civilian escort, patrol, defense, etc duties across your territory according to your empire's needs (and yes they're smart enough to refuel/repair without you). You just build them and they'll handle the rest *if* that's what you want but you can also take manual control and have them follow your orders only.
In either case, you can leave your ships completely unattended because it's possible to configure their design to e.g. kite enemies with long range weapons, close the distance for short range attacks, board and capture hightech enemies for disassembly, etc so that they fight exactly how you want them to even when you aren't looking. And it's always a glorious moment when your automated defense fleet first defeats a pirate raid without any input from you.
In fact part of DW's appeal is that when building your empire you're basically creating and nurturing a complex self-sufficient system with the aim of making it more efficient than the rival empires.
An interesting quirk is that you can automate just about anything from research to foreign policy, military operations, espionage, etc. On full automation, the game essentially plays itself. That'd be like watching a pure AI vs AI match in other games. Only here you can influence your AI by taking control of certain decisions. One possible playstyle is to only control one aspect (or just one fleet, or ship) of your empire while leaving the rest to the AI which makes it feel like you're just a minister/general/fleet admiral/ship captain instead of a supreme ruler.
The ability to automate things also makes the late-game mop-up period a lot less tedious. In other games, I often just quit once I reach a point where nothing can stop me because the game is practically won and the only challenge left would be to endure the tedium of rinse-repeat steamrolling whatever is left out there. In DW, you can finish up by declaring your wars, putting your military on full auto and watching your good hard work come to fruition as carnage ensues without the hassle of having to manually control all of that.
Naturally you also have most of the standard/good bits from other 4X classics such as custom ship design, diplomacy, research, espionage, pirate factions, assignable characters (scientist, governor, etc) with developing abilities, random events, hidden tech, abandoned ships around the galaxy and so on.
There are also some extras like the logistics system - in DW your ships generate their energy from fuel which will limit how long they can travel or fight before needing to stop by a gas giant's mining station or a spaceport to refill their tanks. I also really like the pre-warp starting condition where you're confined to your first solar system until you develop some type of warp drive due to the simple fact that your impulse engines are too slow and would take forever to reach even the nearest star.
My primary complaint would be that the research aspect which is exactly like the research in the Civilization series (and most other 4X games) is too static. Since technological progress essentially defines how these games play out, if the tech tree is always the same, then each game will also start feeling the samey after a few playthroughs. Fortunately in DW, 1 playthrough can be very long - I'm 137 hours in and only played 2 games so far.
Of course, this isn't a negative point in the sense that most other 4X games handle research the same simple way (remarkably, one of the few exceptions was good ole MoO2). But I hope game designers will someday inject some dynamism and randomness into this most overlooked and outdated aspect of the 4X concept.
My other complaint would be that colony management is rather simplistic. Setting taxes and race policies is pretty much the only meaningful "management" you can do as there are very few buildings to build and most have no economic impact so there's not much you can do to customize colonies.
Last but not least, it deserves a mention that the first few hours of DW can feel quite intimidating in various ways: If you don't use automation, it can feel overwhelming while if you use too much automation, it can make you feel unneeded. Don't let that discourage you though because with practice it will all become second nature and you will eventually do much better than the automation so just experiment to see which learning style suits you best.
At the end of the day, if you persevered, Distant Worlds will reward you with an epic space 4X experience that you just won't find anywhere else.