I'm always happy to let someone else take the reins here at Kotaku and write a reader review or two - especially when that man is Adam Ruch, who has become a bit of a regular contributor here. Adam is currently writing a PhD on the subject of video games, so it's safe to say that he knows his stuff.
The best reader review of the month recieves an awesome Blu-ray pack from Madman.
Take it away Adam.
In anticipation of the upcoming Anno 2070, and as part of my foray into the slightly lesser-known games, here’s Anno 1404! The Anno series is a quiet little success story, at least for me. Living in the shadow of games like Civilization, Total War and Age of Empires, Anno 1404 is a real-time 4X game, for explore, expand, exploit and exterminate, and is known as Dawn of Discovery in some parts of the world. The numeral 1404 is a general indication of the time period modelled in this game, a medieval time of feudal rule, crusades, peasants and spice trade to the Orient.
Given that I recently wrote a review of Tropico 3, I may as well compare the two games. Anno is something like Tropico, if you were to control more than one island. The feel of the game is not as humourous as Tropico, but seems a little like Fable as a strategy game. The art, like just about everything in the game, is polished and detailed. Like any good 4X game there are chains of production based on an array of base materials, which are not all available on each island. The raw produce includes wood, stone, hemp and iron in the Occidental islands, and spices, quartz, clay and indigo in the southern Oriental islands (among many others). These are combined in various ways to create a whole range of products, desired by the different strata of society. The Occidental inhabitants move from peasants to citizens, patricians and eventually nobles. In the Orient, there are only two levels, nomads and envoys. Each time a house gains a level, more buildings are available to improve the settlement, but more complex products are required by the population.
Loved Like Tropico, I enjoyed the real-time function of this game. Building a working trade system using the really very handy route map tool along with the automated warehouse sales to other factions is very satisfying to that same Rube Goldberg ‘make a thing watch it work’ bug I get. The fourth X, exterminate, is somewhat underplayed in this game, so probably won’t satisfy anyone moving from the RTS genre towards the city-sim area. Anyone moving in the opposite direction, from a city-sim like Tropico or SimCity, will find the simple combat an entertaining addition.
Any budding designers would do well to play through the arduous but finely-crafted example of a campaign-as-tutorial. Of the 8 chapters, a couple took me up to 10 hours to complete. The important part is how it teaches the player about the game. Without going into tedious detail, each part of the game is carefully introduced to the player through specific quests and a sensible guide character, who also serves as a trade partner. The lessons miss out on some of the really early fundamentals, but overall it’s an excellent example of a guided, just-in-time tutorial that is actually fun to play.
I’m not sure if I loved or hated this, but the design of your city really takes some practice. Farms, for example, need fields and aren’t automatic the way Tropico’s are. Each field is a fixed size, like a building itself, but must be built within a small radius of the farmhouse. Thing is, the radius around the building isn’t the same size as the fields, so if you are clever, you can put a lot more farms in an area than if everything is left to automation. If you hit auto-cultivate, you might not even end up with road access to your farm, or the full number of fields it could support. The radius mechanic comes into play again when moving goods around. Production buildings are much more efficient if the goods they require are produced within the radius the journeymen can walk. Otherwise, they use market carts between warehouses, and this slows the whole process down. So make of that what you will, I haven’t decided yet!!
Hated Again like Tropico, learning this game can be difficult, even with the great campaign. My example in this game is the epiphany I had about halfway through the campaign (towards the end of one of the marathon scenarios) about setting my warehouses to sell to the trade ships controlled by other factions, rather than relying only on my own fleet to carry goods to their harbours. That saved me enormous amounts of effort in setting up trade routes, and on the costs of a gigantic trade fleet! There is still some mystery to me in this area, as in the last chapter of the campaign I had trouble getting the other factions to buy anything from me, so was running out of money constantly.
Overall I’m very pleased to have taken the plunge with Anno 1404. It’s a little more complicated than Tropico, but the level of polish for a non-blockbuster game is really commendable. Little things like the minimap pinging important locations when hovering over quests are really handy. The complexity is just about right for me: enough that each new island will probably bring a real change to your economy, not just expand what you already have. As a comparison, in space-based 4X game Star Ruler, everything seemed to start with ore and go forward from there. That made each planet added to the empire feel like more of the same. So if Anno 2070 has a similar model to 1404, I will be well-pleased.