A couple of months back I wrote that Slitherine and Matrix were on their merry way to becoming the new darling pretty of the Strategy and Wargaming genre, surpassing the soulless corporation that Paradox has been turning itself into during the last decade. Since 2021 Slitherine and Matrix have been releasing absolute bangers! First, they finally brought Combat Mission to a wider audience on Steam. After that, Field of Glory II: Medieval endeared itself into my heart by being my go-to game of choice if I want to simulate accurate medieval skirmishes. Then, the big boy came to town with a massive new entry for Gary Grigsby, with War in the East 2. Add to this impressive line-up Warhammer 40,000: Battlesector (the best turn-based Warhammer game of all time), Warplan Pacific, and Combat Mission Cold War. They topped off the year with a genre-defining classic Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive. 2022 Started off strong with Vietnam: Campaign Series coming out to strong public acclaim and now, Distant Worlds 2 that- despite a rocky and buggy start, but more on that later- is chock full of promise and space to grow into one of the best 4X Space games available. Is it there right now? Not yet, but fortunately, the problems are mostly related to bugs and performance and not the underlying game design. In fact, the game design is superb most of the time, every piece comes well. A game like Distant Worlds 2 requires more than a couple of hours to get even a proper feel for it. In fact, a couple of hours (by couple please read: 10 to 20 hours of trial and error) will get you as far as researching half a dozen new technologies, and maybe, if everything goes well, start exploring another solar system. So this first impression will focus mainly on describing how the game works and how its systems come together, if you want a more through review you should really look elsewhere for more in-depth toughts for things such as late game, diplomacy and ship design as I feel I didn’t even peel the surface layer of those onions.
Distant Worlds 2 describes itself in a very humble manner: a “vast, pausable real-time 4X space strategy game”. What this description doesn’t tell you, is that Distant Worlds 2 is a universe full of possibilities and presents the player with depth and detail on its systems few games would dare attempt to replicate. It’s not a vast game, it’s a huge one, every start feels like the start of an epic space opera. It’s not a real-time space strategy game, it’s a massive simulation of intricate economic, diplomatic, research, exploration, and military systems that come together beautifully to present some things that are way bigger than just the sum of its parts. However, the game isn’t without its flaws and loving Distant Worlds 2 can be hard sometimes. This is supposed to be a three-part series review on the game is zooming into three aspects of what I consider to be the most important: The basics of the game and how well Distant Worlds 2 implements them; Exploration and Expansion and then, at last, Warfare. So this is probably going to be a months-long affair. If you want to wait for the full thing, I don’t blame you, but review a game like Distant Worlds in the way I usually review games -by having several saves of the same game running at the same time, while experimenting by doing different things in each playthrough can be quite exhausting but I consider it to be a necessary sacrifice if you want your reviews to be taken seriously, especially in this genre, where expertise is essential and a trial and error approach is essential if you want to break a game’s systems apart in a constructive manner. It’s like pealing onions of a layer, and sometimes you’ll cry all the way through.
Let’s get back on track, with the “vast, pausable real-time 4X space strategy game”. Yup, that checks out. But with a growing number of videogames in both this category and space-theme, what sets DW2 apart from the competition? If a weird space rat aimed a space-mouse rifle at me and could only describe it with a single expression it would be “Dense”. You see, DW2 takes no breaks when it comes to space-faring-empire simulation. Every little world, every small spaceship, every economic transaction, and military encounter happens on a one-to-one scale. Brave space pelagics would be foolish enough to think that just because DW allows each playthrough to feature up to 2000 star systems, and that this might seem quite manageable if you manage to get things right, the truth of the matter is that each of those star systems has its dozen of planets and respective moons within, so things can get out of hand pretty fast. The game also has a double economic system, a private and a public one. The private one you can only control indirectly while gently influencing it by making sure your private freighters and miners are protected and can operate freely in the galaxy. There is a lot to this system, and it might sound convoluted at first, and that’s because it is, and as you might imagine already, it can be hard to diagnose problems with something you don’t directly control but even so, it’s far from the worst I’ve seen in a game like this, but more on that on the second part of the review.
Of course, this economic cluster truck needs to be protected and the space is dark and full of terrors, some quite literally. It might be just my luck but in every playthrough, my first encounters were always those pesky raiders existing just on the edge of your solar system and some asteroid size manta rays. While scary at first, these are easily defeated by a pack of early game frigates, so before starting to colonize other solar systems, prepare yourself to do some pest cleansing. To me, personally, this is where the meat of the game lies, the military side of things. Sure, you can become a trade federation and the amount of choices is absolutely mind-boggling, but why should you? It’s a scary game, a deep game. To the point, it can get somewhat overwhelming if you decide to micromanage everything, but DW2 lets you know, early on, that’s a terrible idea. What’s worse, is that… your silicon delegates aren’t always on the money. You could argue that’s okay and “realistic” (employing this term in a space-expanding venture is weird, to say the least, but that’s Saturday morning me finishing up a review that’s due for over a month).
There are some obvious problems with this, with the AI completely drooling all over its pillow and being completely unable to properly update certain designs. The worst of it is when you directly order it and the AI decides to take over and suddenly, nothing is working as it should, maybe I am the AI of the game’s AI? Don’t know at this point. The point is, the AI needs some refining here and there and the game needs hardcore bug-squashing action during the next couple of months to get it to where it belongs. The game also packs a nasty habit of starting up and ships refusing to outright work, something that, for some reason, ungodly reason, can only be fixed by restarting the game. However, despite some ineptitude from your AI underlings, the granularity of the AI Control is fantastic, and it allows players to tailor almost precisely how they want the AI to behave in most situations. This ability to automate almost everything to your liking makes you feel like a true space overlord, to to grand decisions instead of doing menial, everyday tasks that would usually be relegated to lower public servants. Just want to deal with military matters for the time being? Set your minions accordingly and they’ll ask for your consent in larger matters. The military is going great but the economy needs a helping hand? Leave the mopping up to the silicon generals and focus your whole attention on those space credits. Maybe you would rather wander around space making friends… well, for that you must research the alien’s language and I can’t let you know enough how amazing this implementation is! It always struck me as odd how in every game, civilizations and countries that never interacted with one another before could properly speak with one another as if God never destroyed their Tower of Babel.
Graphics-wise, Distant Worlds 2 is a rather charming and good-looking game. Goofy at times, with alien civilization designs grossly exaggerated with touches of both unique and fun. The sheer amount of things on display is impressive, with dozens of shipping lanes transporting materials from one mining station to colonized planets. The battles are a spectacle and fun to watch. The UI is serviceable and I’ve read quite a lot of complaints going around online but considering the depth of the simulation and considering other games akin to DW2, I can’t say it does a terrible job either. It lacks a couple of tooltips here and there but overall, things are quite tight and solid. My main complaint would be the fleet controls that just act convoluted and forces you to manually cycle between ships to find that one you wish. In fact, let me just sum this up to say the game is sorely missing a search function and i can only wonder how much of a pain this will be later on, when instead of hundred of ships to manage, the numbers will climb into the tens of thousands. Also, for a UI so pretty, the research window looks like something out of Windows 98, you can do better. The ships construction one ain’t exactly really nice either.
Other than being a scarily huge game, what Distant Worlds 2 truly is at its core is a story generator, very much like Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, and Hearts of Iron. Sure, it gives you the wiggle room to optimize every little thing and to interact with every nook and cranny of the game but why should you? Its fun is to be found on the macro side of things, making galaxy-wide decisions and letting your surrogates take control most of the time. At least, that’s how I’ll advise anyone to play it. Yes, it can be overwhelming and the bugs keep creeping, but in all honesty, there’s so much potential in Distant Worlds 2 you would be a fool to dismiss it on that basis. Constant developer updates will elevate Distant Worlds 2 from a very good space 4X videogame to a genre-defining standard for years to come. Is it there yet? Not, but it surely will. As it stands, Distant Worlds 2 is very much a game about making your own fun, deciding what to automate and roleplaying your virtual empire and mandate.
*In a newsletter released yesterday, Matrix games addressed the bugs present in Distant Worlds 2 in an editorial: “Post-release can be insane at times. When we launch a title like Distant Worlds 2 we have to take into account that the unforeseeable can happen. No matter how long the game has been in beta when a game goes out to thousands of players the odds of something not working as planned are always there. CodeForce is working literally around the clock to fix some of the most annoying bugs that came up just after launch, but releasing patches and updates can also take more time than expected. All these fixes have to be tested on multiple machines as they’re likely to open more issues than they solve.”