Back in January, I got a PM on Matrix Games’ forum asking if I wanted into the beta for Distant Worlds: Shadows, the third expansion for what’s become my favorite space 4X games (and one of my favorite games period). I would’ve been excited at the time…had I thought to visit the forums themselves. ;) I totally missed the boat in getting in on the beta MONTHS ago, so yeah, sadface. Thankfully, however, I was brought into the beta until a couple of weeks ago, and crammed several hours of playtime with one of the more recent beta versions. Make no mistake, this expansion adds a TON of stuff to an already bountiful game, and in this preview, I’ll look at the main additions to the game — pirate factions, ground combat enhancements, the Age of Shadows and so on — and discuss how these affect the game on their own, as well as how they affect the traditional empire play that the game is known for. With that said, let’s dive in. :)
Whereas in the original game (with its first two expansions), you basically had one style of play: An empire in the classic age, wherein — if you chose the default options, of course — you already had hyperdrive technology and enough ships to begin moving out among the stars from your home world. With the Shadows expansion, you now have four ways to play, thanks to the addition of playable pirate factions and a new age, the Age of Shadows. This adds even more variety to a game that was already burgeoning with choices on how to play the game from start to finish. Let’s take a look at these two major additions, starting with pirate factions.
Being able to play as a pirate changes the game considerably. For example, rather than colonize planets, you raid and take control of existing colonies, and have to continually exert that control to hold onto them. Gaining ships is done more with boarding than with building. Money is made more through raids, selling stolen technology, doing missions and so on rather than taxing your population. There are also four different types of pirates to play: raiders, mercenaries, smugglers and a balanced approach of all three. Each of these gets different bonuses, and also plays differently than the others as well, adding even more variety. The balanced choice incorporates bits of the following options, but who wants that? ;) (Okay, I did.) ;)
Raiders, for example, subsist on raiding colonies, “finding” and “acquiring” ships (that’s how the game describes successful boarding actions, which I find hilarious), raiding other pirate bases and so on. This is basically, I believe, the most aggressive of the piratical styles, as you persist primarily on raiding colonies and bases, as well as “finding” ships through boarding action. As a raider, you also get bonuses to boarding and raid strength, but it costs much more to actually BUILD ships. This makes for a very fast and aggressive play style.
Mercenaries primarily subsist on completing missions for colonies. Colonies can ask for either smuggling or protection missions, and mercenaries can help with both. They get bonuses for looting ships and bases, and captured state ships are cheaper to maintain. They also get some research bonuses. This is a fun play style if you like missions, as I do (I LOVE missions, actually), as these can be dynamically generated by the colonies you meet. Unfortunately, this is one of the areas you can tell it’s still in beta, as sometimes I’d be offered a protection mission by a colony I myself just successfully raided. This will hopefully be fixed in the final version. ;)
Smugglers are, I feel, the least aggressive of the pirate specialties, as they get a big bonus to smuggling income as well as a bonus to base defense, which can be handy when you’re hoarding, mining and smuggling materials that are high in demand. These pirates can also do raids and boarding actions, but it’s not their main bag, baby. These guys are all about completing smuggling missions and controlling materials, and this, I found, was the play style that suited me best. Why is that?
Honestly, I’m not a very good pirate. ;) I truly never have been. I’m just, honestly, too nice a guy. The only time I can do piracy is when it’s the main thrust of the game, like Independence War 2, for example (at least the early bits, which is all I’ve played). Thankfully, I know a lot of people who LOVE being pirates (as all the folks who ganked me in EVE Online and Jumpgate can attest), so they’ll likely be ALL over these new factions. This doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my time playing pirate, I totally did, I just enjoyed my time as an empire more is all. ;)
Regardless of which style you play, one of the most notable differences between playing a pirate and an empire is how one acquires planets, which is almost a mini-game in itself thanks to the new ground attack stuff (which I’ll be getting too shortly). As a pirate, you don’t just raid planets, you use your ground forces to overcome the planet’s military (and civilian population, if they join in the fighting) and take control of it. You then have to maintain a level of control over the planet with ships and ground troops, or the population might rise up and take it back from you. This makes colonization a much more active affair than in other 4X games, wherein you just colonize, keep your folks happy, and la-dee-da, colony. ;)
This brings us to one of the other new major features in Shadows, ground attacks. When you attack a planet using troop transports, those troops will be transported down to the planet to begin wiping out all resistance. At that point, in the planet sub-screen, you can get a quick summary of the numbers involved on both sides, to get a quick look at how the battle is going. If you click this, however, you’ll get a cute map of the planet with little guys and gals fighting on either side. You have no direct control over this portion of the game, but that doesn’t make it any less tense, as modifiers such as space control, a fortified line, overwhelming odds and so on can mean the difference between victory or defeat. It’s quite a bit of fun to watch, and adds a lovely layer to the game.
Now you might be asking me, “Brian, this piracy stuff is all well and good, but what improvements do the empires see?” Well, imaginary talky voice in my head, there’s still a bunch of stuff you get as an empire, such as new technologies and weapons, a new ground combat research tree and so on. The biggest change to imperial play, however, is the new time period, the mysterious Age of Shadows. Imagine I’m making a ghostly sound now…oooOOOOoooooOOOOOhhh. ;)
The original game, with its two expansions, is now referred to as the “Classic Age”. This is where burgeoning empires already have faster-than-light technology, and they use it to spread their influence among the stars. However, in the new “Age of Shadows”, it’s a whole different ballgame. Empires are now in an era before the discovery of faster-than-light or colonization technologies, meaning they must both research technologies while keeping the pirates at bay. Pirates and mercenaries DO have these crucial technologies, however, and use them to exert their control and influence across the galaxy.
This leads to a much more intimate experience in the beginning, I feel, as you’re basically stuck to your home system scrambling to research tech while trying to keep pirates busy with missions and offers of money, so they’ll loot other systems and not yours. It makes for a very effective play style that I actually like very much, as starting from an even weaker stance than one usually begins these types of games makes for an exhilarating experience.
With all the praise I’m foisting at this, I have to say it’s still a beta, but new versions are being churned out almost daily in preparation for the upcoming release. I’ve not tried the most recent version, but one bug I kept running into was my advisors suggesting I build new ships, even when my cash was in the negative. Seriously fellas, do you take layaway? ;) This kinda stuff will hopefully be fixed in the release version.
Overall, even in beta form, I had a blast playing the latest expansion to Distant Worlds. It’s like I’ve fallen in love with the game all over again. For folks who already have the game and its two expansions, this expansion will be a no-brainer. For those who don’t yet own this marvelous game, apparently there WILL be a sale on the series once this expansion comes out, so I highly suggest y’all check it out. :) I hope you’ve enjoyed my preview, and I hope you enjoy the screenshots I took below. Thanks for reading!