Distant Worlds 2 is a space-based 4X game through and through. The core gameplay loop is simple, but it hides tons of depth. While managing that fledgling empire might seem a daunting task, the game offers a helping hand. The idea is that you truly settle into the role of a galactic emperor. And you have all the tools at your fingertips to manage that ever-expanding influence. How well does the game cope with this setup? Keep reading to find out.
In Distant Worlds 2, everything – from diplomacy to economic management, to combat – can be toggled between Manual or Automated modes, which each mode being further customizable. You can set your settings to your liking with tons of options that exist between the two extremes. Finding a balance that works for you is the core focus of how you play the game.
If you want to offload most of the actual minutiae of managing your empire off on the AI, that’s an option. That’s great for roleplayers who want to use the automation to feel more like they’re just the leader directing their empire. You can just control whatever you want, or even focus on particular zones of control. If you want to put all your attention into your military buildup, the game’s systems are built around modularity.
This gives you a true feeling that you’re at the head of the table, rather than a person behind a screen shuffling numbers around. A lot of 4X games falter in truly giving you this feeling. And some more infamous titles, like Aurora 4X, take it to insane levels. The comparison to Aurora 4X is favorable in this instance, as this PC game strives to land somewhere between the insane spreadsheet nightmare that game is, and the easier experience of Stellaris.
How you direct the development of your empire is through economic, scientific, and social investment. The primary face of the economy within the game is that it’s divided into a State economy, representing your investment in your empire directly. Then there’s the private economy, this represents the economic output of your planets outside of your direct control. This is where the AI in Distant Worlds 2 takes hold. Based on the resources you develop and the infrastructure you provide—the private economy builds from there. And that’s where the first clue that you’re supposed to delegate comes in. Let the economy handle some of the weird little details, your sanity will thank you.
And in the process of doing all the economic management, you’re going to butt up against various other systems. You need to practice espionage to spy on your rivals. And even though the UI is a bit cumbersome, you can make it work. There’s also the massive amount of research you have to do. This is probably one of the problems that Distant Worlds 2 has, as there’s so much to understand, and the UI isn’t always clear. Another problem that the game tries to address is being able to find something specific, like a certain planet. There’s no direct way to search for planets, but you can search for fleets, hostile forces and other modifiers that tell you what system you’re in.
This all does lead to a big problem with being able to tell which way is up. A clearer breakdown of who’s who on the map would be a huge help when dealing with a bunch of sprawling AI empires. One of the more annoying aspects of this UI jumble is that there’s no clear diplomacy screen. In Hearts of Iron IV, a single button press can bring up your relations with other nations in a variety of ways. Distant Worlds 2 makes it much harder to find that information, and you’re often resorting to clicking through UI screens for each empire to figure things out.
As you conquer new worlds, you have to develop them carefully by giving them good access to resources. Mining resources from the various galactic sources and then piping them back into your economy becomes this complicated dance of civilian freighters and military escorts. The game handles the actual minutiae once again, very beautifully, if you can forgive certain foibles.
The real challenge in the game comes from perfecting your economy to your liking. Finding that key balance between letting the AI manage the small stuff and perfecting your economic output is key to success in any run of this 4X title. This balancing act of keeping on top of resource acquisition, research, and military infrastructure can be stressful. Players in the late game will find themselves hard-pressed to keep up with their enemies if they don’t have good resource management.
Fuel is one of the biggest parts of managing your fleets. You need to produce it and keep the fuel flowing. Having better technology will help you travel longer distances using less fuel. In the early game, you won’t be blasting across the stars, that will take researching jump drives and setting up your fuel industry. And yes, you can run out of fuel, even in the middle of combat. This game can be brutal if you don’t plan ahead. This kind of minute detail might annoy some players, so keep that in mind.
But don’t get confused when it comes to this or any other system in the game. You’re not stuck in the weeds with having to manage every little ship movement. Many players will find this a pretty big improvement over competitors like Stellaris. Though that game has a lot more graphical prowess and faction-based gameplay potential, I would argue there’s much more fun in Distant Worlds 2 for a certain type of player.
The Role of a Tyrant, or a Liberator
This is where things get nuts. After you’re done building up the two sectors of the economy, you have to put that muscle to work. Building ships to supply your colonies is key, but so is defending them. Pirates and other factions alike will seize upon any opportunity to take you down. And with the mountain of random events in the game, the universe itself seems out to get you as well.
Having a powerful military backbone to defend your holdings is key. You will need to invest resources into ships, weapons, and research to ensure you stay ahead of your competition. You will also want to manage all the different aspects of your military. You can take military ships and shuffle them around to various tasks and fleets, with full player control over the tactical settings of those ships. And how you choose to unleash that power is up to you. But be careful, being careless and expanding too quickly makes a lot of problems for a small empire. Not only will your infrastructure not be able to keep up, but people despise a warmonger. You may even find yourself on the end of a galaxy-spanning rebellion if you’re too despotic in the decisions you make against other empires.
The warfare mechanics in Distant Worlds 2 is also another area of departure players coming from the likes of Stellaris might find strange. There are formal war declarations, but there’s no requirement to be in that state to attack enemy ships. You can certainly take on the role of the aggressive horde of roaming space barbarians, if you wish. Although this can certainly backfire against later diplomacy efforts. But at times, you will have to wage war to protect your empire. After all, your borders are only as real as your ability to enforce them.
This is where the roleplay aspects of Distant Worlds 2 really come in. Reacting to the various random events and changes within the political landscape, a story starts to immerge. That story can turn on a dime though, so be careful. Having your first colony rip itself to pieces because you neglected some key development of luxury goods is a guaranteed bad time. And keep in mind, all of this is on just the default settings for the game, you can easily tweak this level of insane control to your liking.
As for now, the game has a pretty impressive UI and presentation. Distant Worlds 2, despite its focus on being a more large-scale game, has a lot of graphical beauty to it, for what it is. Don’t expect stunning visuals or anything, but what is there is clear and high-quality. The overall performance was also fairly solid. Modern hardware won’t have any problem running this game at an even 60 FPS at 1080p, which is what the game was designed for. Even older and less powerful machines should be able to handle most runs of this game.
At $50, it’s a pretty steep price to buy into if you’re not sure if the game is for you. Genre fans will love to see this amount of granularity in a 4X title. Too many entries in the space try to compete with the framework Stellaris and other similar titles laid down. Distant Worlds 2 sets itself apart just enough to appeal to both the casual and hardcore elements of the sci-fi strategy nerds. One of the biggest sticking points for some might be the lack of features that were present in the first game. Modding and a bunch of extra races won’t be there at launch. But don’t fret, the devs have promised updates.
The casual player may also find the number of options overwhelming at first, but don’t worry, as you can let the AI simply manage most of the finer details. And with a solid in-game tutorial system, the learning period is pretty short for what this game is. But even with that help, there’s just so much information that needs to be made clearer. The polish that is there is great, but more could be done.
At launch, there are several races you can pick from. Also, Slitherine and the developers have promised more options as add-ons over time. Each faction has its own set of storylines as well as an overall AI path through the game. This way, each faction has a bit more of a unique time between playthroughs. And thanks to the modding potential coming after launch, there will be a ton of potential for adding new content beyond just races and cosmetic options.