PC Game Review: Distant Worlds - Return of the Shakturi
Colonel Bill heads into cybertronic hyperspace to find a cure for his galactic inner self, and returns not only well nourished and renewed, but damned impressed as well.
- science fiction, outer space, military leadership, operational, strategic, 4x (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate), spaceship combat
This is a cracking good game, and coming from me that is saying something. To be honest, I’ve never really liked 4X (explore, expand, exploit and exterminate for all you space cadets out there) games. They always seemed to be glorified resource management projects, much like what I did at the Pentagon for the last eight years of my military service. It was all about decision making as to when, where and how to allocate resources and how much it was going to cost someone, all about as sexy as a slide rule on a hot first date with a spreadsheet. And so it is with most 4X games such as the granddaddy of them all, the fabled Masters of Orion. Collect and allocate funds to research, build factories, engage in a little interstellar diplomacy and sabre rattling if you have a moment, all guaranteed to warm the cockles of a CPA’s heart. Me? This is just like work. I snore.
Well, butter my butt and call me biscuit, because someone finally got it right. With Distant Worlds – Return of the Shakturi we have software that locked me in front of a computer screen for longer than any other game I’ve reviewed. Interested? Read on and I’ll explain why.
Distant Worlds – remembering an excellent entre
Return of the Shakturi an expansion module for the Matrix Games 4X computer game Distant Worlds. As such what makes this game really rock has as much to do with the original product as it does with all the extras that expansion software brings to the gaming flatscreen. Like most games of this genre, you the player take the role of ruler of a galactic empire, and your only purpose in life is to explore and expand your interstellar borders, becoming as rich as possible while whacking as many uncooperative aliens that regretfully cross your path. Distant Worlds would be no different were it not for one vital characteristic and that is the game’s enormous customization potential. In Distant Worlds you play the game the way you want in the environment you want. Specifically:
Most 4X games start you off small, with only a single planet from which to begin your conquest of the known universe, which quite often isn’t that large. Not here as the player can not only select the size of his empire to start, but also the size of the environment in which he lives, even the shape of his galaxy such as spiral and so forth. I really like this feature. One of my biggest complaints with most 4X games is that you are forced to start off as a small civilization and must spend game defined decades expanding, exploring and collecting wealth before you run into the first alien race to befriend or shoot (normally the latter in my case). With Distant Worlds you can start the game as a moderately or fully developed interstellar state with known aliens to deal with (PS: if they are insectoid or reptilian, don’t turn your back) and more just around the next asteroid field.
Likewise Distant Worlds also nails the level of detail to exactly what the ruler of a great space empire should be interested in. First, the private business sector is handled by the computer AI so the player can’t touch if he wanted. Thus when the Weyland-Yutani Corporation sends off the next colony ship to LV-426, it’s not the player’s decision or his concern, though he might assist with a few military patrol ships to keep pirates from interfering. And when the government does get involved in such operations as planet conquest and similar, it’s more macro level force structure development, not maneuvering tanks or choosing the type of round a nuclear cannon might chunk at the enemy.
There is one exception, and to me this makes perfect sense. There is a high level of detail in terms of customizing and building your space fleet, with a noticeable glance in the direction of warships. Obviously the designers get it and realize that most players who approach such games are not budding economists but gamers with a pronounced interest in all things military. While looking into whether taxes are at the right level given the population of your Imperial Outland colonies may be a tedious affair, manipulating the combination of Shatterforce lasers, fusion reactors, Talassos shields and marine contingent on your next battle cruiser class is not. Assigning such craft to various fleets to menace your neighbors is equally as fun, so kudos to the design group for a smart choice here.
But say the player thinks even this is too much granularity, not to worry. The player himself also has a lot of control over which imperial operations he gets to personally manage. Every different set of management priorities, say diplomacy, comes with a convenient drop down menu during set up that allows the player to take personal charge of the situation, leave it totally up to the AI or simply have the computer alert and recommend action whenever an issue arises (such as one of those Giant Kaltar’s gobbling up a space freighter or several; seriously nasty critters). In my game I personally took charge of the diplomatic and military efforts, left research totally up to the whim of the software, and mandated the AI alert me whenever everything else needed my attention.
Wow, what a concept! Executive management done the way the real world does it, and in a science fiction game no less. Oh sure, other games have dabbled with similar options, but never to this extent in anything I’ve played. Indeed I often recall that the Great German General Staff was created to harness the collective intellect of the German officer corps because of the belief that geniuses like Napoleon were simply impossible to grow and appeared so seldom. Thus, since you have all these well paid bureaucrats and subject matter experts at your disposal in the form of the computer AI, why not use them? It’s likely, dear player, that you are not a star faring Napoleon and getting overwhelmed with all the detail has seen the demise of many a 4X player. This game allows you to avoid this mistake.
And as noted above, if you choose to make it so, you will have a lot of interstellar turf to keep an intergalactic eye on. Your home galaxy can contain up to 1400 planetary systems and over 50,000 planets, asteroid belts and the like. Likewise, humanity and its alien rivals are not limited to three or four species as was found in Sins of a Solar Empire, but instead nearly two dozen different space faring races, any one of which the player can play, and any of which the player can modify the attributes for when he sets up the game. Want your own race to have a monarchy for a government, no problem. Want all the insectoid races to be a bit more pacifist (yeah, right), why not? Or you can just let the AI randomly select
the races in your galaxy with their default attributes. Just be advised that unlike other 4X games, if you have selected a big galaxy and an empire that is very mature in its development, contact with other worlds comes a lot more quickly than you might expect. I like it!
Game play is very intuitive and in real time, although you can pause the action, and when you bring up a window to contemplate some process, the game also stops until you finish. I was especially pleased with how well one can zoom in and out going from your home planet and its associated space dock, out to virtual galaxy level and everything in between. Even when observing multiple planetary systems, conveniently displayed are logical symbols and lines of communication so you can always have a good idea as to where your forces are deployed and moving. Likewise, the interface is more professional than glitzy and if you’re expecting top of the line Homeworld + style graphics, you will be disappointed. Instead when battle fleets confront each other and the shooting begins, it’s more or less with two dimensional visuals very reminiscent of Star Fleet: Armada for those who remember that game. Likewise the tactical maneuvering reminds one of the grace and elegance related to ships of the line during the age of sail, swinging about to cross the “T” of the enemy. Above all, it works and works well.
And it works exceptionally well on systems even without a lot of horsepower on the mother board. I have been easily able to run the game on a system akin to my work PC, which runs an integrated IBM graphics card and nothing more. In fact the game did not noticeably improve on my home PC which has a faster processor, more RAM and a rocking ATI video card. It will even run on a netbook such as the Acer Aspire One, but unfortunately such systems’ screen resolution is just barely inadequate. For example I found impossible to close management windows once open as they took up the entire screen and could not be moved around for me to find the kill switch. Bummer.
It’s all a veritable space game buffet, with some of the best gaming appetizers and entrees one could find, and not simply for this genre either. But as with any succulent main course, one has a right to expect an equally delectable dessert. In this regard I can only attest that if there are seven deadly sins, then Return of the Shakturi must be eight, nine and ten.
Return of the Shakturi - a dessert worth waiting for
Changes and upgrades to the original software come in two flavors with Revenge of the Shakturi. The first is a new story line that involves the species mentioned in the title. As with the original, a player can choose a game with specific victory conditions or choose an open-ended sandbox scenario where he could conceivably play forever. Likewise, the player can choose to play the original story line, the new Shakturi story line, neither or a combination of both. If he chooses to play with the Shakturi he will eventually have to deal with a species that no longer exists in his galaxy, or so everyone thought.
At this point it’s a good idea to review the game’s so called Galactopedia, a reference manual with lots of data on the background story and environment of the game, as well as detailed instructions on how to use every management module the software provides. Indeed, a nice touch is the fact that nearly every management window that appears will have yellow annotations to take our budding space emperor directly to that portion of Galactopedia that describes his environment or instruct him on game
play. In the case of the Shakturi we find out that these lads were an insectoid (note: insectoid, so you know this can’t be good, right?) race that came from a distant galaxy hell-bent on destroying or enslaving your part of the universe. Cunning, perverse and merciless, they were on the verge of victory when they suddenly vanished, though no one knows how or why. In fact, the very lack of evidence for their prior existence has convinced some that they are but a myth created to slander all insectoid races as devious, aggressive and brutal.
As of the writing of this article I have yet to encounter the Shakturi, but I’ve a feeling that first contact must be just around the corner. Like Distant Worlds, if you choose to pilot a mature space empire from start, you begin to meet other races in your galaxy very quickly. In my case, I have had contact with the Dhayu Empire (insectoid, they don’t like me and have executed one of my intelligence, er, I mean cultural exchange officers), the Haakonish Mercantile Guild (reptilian, think Feringi with scales, and they really don’t like me), the technocratic Arcanea Empire (relations pretty cordial, actually) and just before I left for work this morning, the Naxxilian Commonwealth.
In the vicinity of a neutron star I have also happened upon a mechanoid race called the Ancient Guardians. Though they prefer to keep to themselves, they seem quite friendly as well as exceptionally tolerant of all the exploration my empire is doing in their sector of space. In fact, last night I received a diplomatic cable from the Guardians advising me that an “ancient darkness” was on the verge of returning and to be extremely cautious or even stay the hell away from any unusual artifacts or any abandoned shrines I might find. Their last transmission of “beware the destroyers” somehow has me hoping Rosetta Stone has a Shakturian language package, but we’ll see what happens.
Otherwise the expansion module has a boatload of enhancements that either improves current game play or provides additional functionality. In the former category there are two particular upgrades of note. The first is located on the left edge of your screen and is called the Empire Navigation Tool. Pressing any of these individual icons will immediately pop up a scrollable list of most of the important resources supporting your space empire, or that might be a potential challenge to its well being. For example you can at a glance glean information on and immediately access ships in your fleet, potential colonies open for explanation and much, much more. One of the niftier lists concerns all known enemy targets threatening your empire. A simple mouse click on any of the items in this list will immediately send your closest available battle fleet in its direction, loaded for bear.
The other nice improvement in an already elegant user interface are the inclusion of Action Buttons at the bottom of the Selection Panel, located at the bottom left corner of the main screen. The Selection Panal displays vital information about what ever item you have clicked on in the main screen, such as, say, a military star destroyer. On the left and right edge of the Selection Panel are arrows what allow you to scroll to the next or previous similar item, while at the bottom lay the Action Buttons. These buttons are simply some of the more common tasks associated with whatever is being displayed above, such as refueling or rejoining a fleet in the case of interstellar military ships. This makes a player’s ability to respond to his environment far more immediate and convenient than in other games I’ve played.
As regards additional functionality not found in the original software package, there are several but I will mention three that caught my eye. First is now the ability to build fighter or bomber bays into ships or bases, thus having the ability to create a fleet of space going carriers. You can build specific types of craft that will intercept different types of targets, and be it known that even when I left such production trivialities up to the whim of the computer AI, one of the first notifications received was about my first class of medium torpedo bombers.
Secondly there are now a lot more options for your warships than in the past. Here you will find such things as ion weapons, area shield regeneration to restore defensive power to ALL ships in proximity and even a Trace Scanner that will allow you to examine the internals of that one enemy ship you really have a desire to toast. Similarly and thirdly, you can now specify additional construction projects for your colonies, with my favorite options the Robotic Troop Foundry and the Troop Cloning Facility for producing the nastiest, butt-kicking space marines this side of the Imperium. One only wonders if they all answer to the name Boba Fett.
There are several more upgrades to mention, and these include a newly redesigned tech tree with a Crash Project mode for very quick research into “absolutely gotta have it yesterday technology”, more detailed Imperial Policies selections that allow you to fine tune what you manage and what the computer does for you, and automated star fleet management that not only generates fleets large and small to serve you, but allows them to attack the enemy without you having to give the order to do so. There is even more, but I think you get the idea.
Admittedly the game is not perfect. I’ve already mentioned that it’s not netbook friendly (and listen up - Lord, if I could run this game on my Android tablet . . . just sayin’), and the animation is certainly not the most modern I’ve seen. And for some reason I really wish this game had a home button that would take me directly back to my home planet. Perhaps there is one, but I sure couldn’t find it. Yet these are quibbles and no more. Overall this is game very well done.
Verdict – shall we dine?
So what can one say about this computer gaming repast? Well, I’m thinking that if the Michelin Guide were to rate the cuisine we’d be looking at 2.5 to 3 stars without batting an eyelash (“exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey,” for those who are unfamiliar). The unbelievable vastness of the galactic environment modeled when fused with game play infinitely customizable to the player’s taste could well make this game an instant classic. I’m sold, and given my experience with the genre, that’s about as good a recommendation as you can get.
Pros – This is an elegant game system that combines a huge gaming galaxy with limitless player customization made even better by a new story line, additional game play enhancements and improved management functionality. Michelin three stars for Grognards, Demi-Grogs and pure Players alike, for everybody.
Cons – Unfortunately not netbook friendly, somewhat quaint in the animation department, and I could really use the addition of a “Home” button.
System – Medion 2.6 GHz 64 bit dual core, 4 GB RAM, Windows 7, 360 GB Seagate HD with 500 GB Western Digital backup, ATI Rage 4550 video card with 512 MB video Ram.
Review written by: COL Bill Gray, US Army (Ret), Staff Writer