Genre: Strategy Developer: Blue Byte Software Publisher: Ubisoft Classification: PG Consumer Advice: Recommended for mature audiences 15 years and over
Release Date: 1st Jun 2010 Platforms:PC
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What makes games enjoyable, I think, is that they appeal to a couple of base desires in most of us. Firstly, there's the desire to conquer or destroy - something present in everything from space invaders to a first-person shooter. Secondly, there's the desire to explore and learn - something that began in adventure games and now has a presence in just about every genre. Then we move on to mastery over something complicated. Simulations and puzzle games are the obvious ones here.
And finally, we get to something that arrived strangely late on the gaming scene - creation. These days it's probably the construction of the perfect house & family in The Sims that springs to mind, but games allowing you to build cities and countries have been around for much longer.
What began entirely in your mind with little letters and symbols to tell you what was allegedly sitting on a certain plot of land has advanced to hundreds of little men living virtual lives in your cities in games like Tropico and Caesar - these games have a big following, as shown by the sheer number of different titles that turn up each year.
The Settlers 7 isn't some brand new title, obviously. It's the latest in a 17-year old franchise - a series that bridges the gap between city-builders and combat strategy games. In short, it merges the childhood desire to build sand castles with the slightly more dubious desire to kick the other kids' castles over.
I must admit that while I play city-builders with some frequency, this is a series I haven't looked at in a while. It seemed each new game had review scores lower than the last - and other games in the genre being pretty middling didn't fill me with confidence. But with The Settlers 7, I'm extremely glad to say that the developers have turned out possibly the most polished, feature-filled and surprisingly intuitive city-builder I've played in a long time. They've even made the combat system (which is often kludgey in games of this genre) both simple, fun and quite balanced at the same time.
Some games of this sort try to merge a complex economic system with a typical RTS combat system (building enormous armies and moving them the game map with precision waypoints). The problem here is, with the complex economic system required in a city-builder, all it takes is one player sending a force on a suicide mission against, say, your only two active lumber mills and your whole economy can slide to a halt - and it's just not possible to defend against everything in this way, meaning multiplayer in this genre has generally been pretty frustrating, even at the best of times.
In The Settlers, however, the game maps are based entirely around conquerable settlements - open areas with a number of natural resources, based around little castles. These towns are connected by roads in very specific ways, making easy choke points to hold. Once you've built up a strong economy with the towns you currently own, the next step is to recruit an army large enough to march down one of these roads and take the next settlement - and if it's defended by an enemy player, you may have to knock down defensive towers using your ranged units such as canons or musketeers.
There's no micro-managing of combat here, however. Armies, under Generals, are either defending a settlement of your own, or attacking another enemy-held or neutral settlement. And given the choke-point system, this means that what could be a finicky mess becomes a very enjoyable, almost chess-like experience. Sure, you could send your pikemen in to take the small settlement to the east with all the Iron you're missing - but if you did that, you might give your opponent first dibs on the resource-weak but strategically important settlement to your north.
The economics of the game are quite complex - there's easily 20+ resource types, all with varying uses and often more than one way to come about them. For example, if your opponent has knowingly cut you off from all your coal resources, you can build a coking workshop to press excess logs into coal, albeit at a rather inefficient ratio.
Beyond just resources, there's also trade and research. You'll find yourself building huge monasteries and sending your monks (which are, amusingly, paid in beer) on expeditions to far-away places to unlock new technologies, or manufacturing fine clothing and jewellery to recruit merchants, which are then able to unlock new trading options - lumber for gold, or gold for iron, for example.
This isn't to say the game is 'dry'. Few people like 'playing' a spreadsheet, and Blue Byte know it. The graphics and animations are gorgeous - it's easy to lose time zooming all the way in to your little towns, watching little bakers frantically shovelling dough into ovens and then running them back to the store-houses, or following armies on their overland treks through gorgeously rendered landscapes.
The interface is very helpful, too. At a glance you can see the state of most aspects of your economy, and even your villagers occasionally hurl advice at you verbally, so you aren't stuck trawling through dozens of pages to find the numbers to indicate the reason your blacksmiths aren't operating at full efficiency. More than once I was zooming in to change something about a settlement only to hear a voice yell, "I can't get easy access to coal!" or the like, and be set on the right path.
Being only too aware that not everybody likes playing the same sort of game, there are many different ways to win most scenarios and skirmishes (once you're past the refreshingly plentiful tutorial missions). Victory points, the goal of each scenario, can be obtained by accomplishing everything from military conquest of certain key settlements, to researching technologies far beyond your opponents, having the most efficient economy - or simply the most gold coins in your coffers. You can even set your AI opponents in skirmishes to be 'peaceful' if you just want a city-building challenge.
Once you're done with the single-player campaign, there's a huge swathe of other features, too. There's a chat client in-built to find advice, support or other players. There are multi-player ladders, private games, and even the ability to customise your home castle and 'prestige items' for your towns using money 'earnt' by completing skirmishes and other scenarios. In fact, there's even a very useful scenario editor. Not sure the placement of the lumber, fish or the objective points quite works for a given map? Well, open it up and make your own scenario.
So, what lets the game down? Well, in terms of design and implementation, it's a hard game to fault. It's pretty, enjoyable, and packed with features to keep you coming back for 'just five minutes' so many times that evenings vanish. That said in a huge game you can find the game begins to slow down a bit. And once you get past a certain point in a scenario it's not uncommon to find your economy gets very difficult to manage - even with the tools they've provided.
Resource movement between different settlements or even just different warehouses can become quite finicky, and there's no easy way to order all (or most) of a specific industrial output to be moved to where it's really needed. This can become quite bothersome when you're also in end-game and you're trying to focus your energies on battling that last hold-out opponent, or dealing with resource shortages due to over-mining or total deforestation. To the credit of the designers, however, most of the time scenarios are over before these kinds of issues become truly serious problems.
If you're a fan of games like Sim City, Tropico, Caesar or even the earlier Settlers games, this game probably isn't one you want to miss. The changes from the earlier games and from other games in its genre are almost all for the better, and it's just generally a well put-together piece of entertainment - whether you prefer to build sand castles or kick them over.
11 days I have owned this game. Not once have I been able to play it. I keep getting the "server not available - try again later" error message. Three (3) suport tickets to Ubisoft have gone unanswered. Guess we who haven't managed to play yet (and there are many) are all waiting for a miracle.
Spent six hours downloading and installing the patch for this just to be able to play it. Was finally able to start the game and it came up - 'server down'. So much for the vaunted 24 hour server service from ubisoft. Not going to waste any more time on this. Will be taking this one back to the shop to get my money back.
Personally i still like it overall, it has that Setllers feel like the old games and the funny comic style graphics
I don't think much of the forced Multiplayer style gameplay and inability to control your own save games. The whole having to be online to play doesn't bother me, aslong as the Ubisoft servers stay up.
as for the whole DRM debate, thats they way things are going now and there's no turning back, all the decades of people pirating software has kicked the legitimate owners in the guts and sooner or later PC games will be strictly download/online only.