Version tested: PC
Those of you not living in the South East of England might not have noticed, but recently it's been real hot. Even living amongst the fresh sea breezes of Brighton I've been gradually sublimating into a rarefied cloud of grease over the last few days, so shuffling back into the airless Eurogamer offices after lunch on the beach, even when all I have to do when I get there is play games and write about them, has been pretty difficult. (Yeah, I know. Tough life.)
The point is that normally it's not that bad. With a desk fan running full blast in my face and Bertie's eternally sunny disposition warming my right flank, it's almost like being outside anyway. During my time with Anno 1404, however, these office-bound hours have proven especially difficult. Don't get me wrong, it's not because I haven't enjoyed the game, it's because of the water.
See, as pretty much everyone who's wandered past my desk this week will tell you, Anno's water is very, very pretty indeed. It looks cool, refreshing and thoroughly inviting - lapping gently upon the beautifully rendered beaches and cliffs of Anno's islands, swirling around my fleets of trade ships and sloshing against abandoned cargo and shipwrecked unfortunates. Considering that all of the game's territory consists of picturesque islands, surrounded by this tantalising liquid, playing it in the heat is absolute torture.
In keeping with the beautiful ocean, the rest of Anno is quite the looker too, with deliciously detailed 3D building models giving a solidity and genial rurality to your settlements, whilst well-animated citizens bustle from place to place. Trees sway in tropical breezes, sea birds wheel overhead, crops sprout and are harvested. It's soothing, pleasant and absorbing. I'll be surprised if a better-looking RTS comes along this year.
In accordance with this laid-back, tropical experience, Anno generally makes very few time-sensitive demands upon you as you amble towards particular mission objectives, all of which involve settling islands and carving civilisation's name into their unspoilt trees and fields. If you've not played any of the series before, Anno is fundamentally a game of trade and production, with a little exploration and a soupçon of combat adding a delicate frill to the edges of the sensible economic tablecloth. The player's role is to populate and exploit land, gathering resources and refining them to produce mercantile or military wares, and to stockpile or distribute these end products as they see fit according to need and priority.
For example, building peasant huts near to a marketplace will ensure that your little hamlet is soon teeming with the great unwashed, going about their stinking and polluted business as long as they're fed and watered. Add a little spiritual sustenance in the form of a chapel or, later, a church, grow a few acres of hemp (for clothing and rope, actually) and they'll quickly mature into slightly less foul-smelling individuals, expanding your range of available buildings and, more importantly, pumping out more tax money. Turns out that all you really need to run a relatively idyllic island hideaway is a chapel, plenty of dope and a place to hang out. Someone tell Brown.
Keep on improving the amenities available to your citizens and they'll shimmy on up the social ladder, becoming increasingly profitable and demanding as they go. Before you know it, you'll have complex chains of production churning out luxuries like books, carpets, brass and cannons to grease the social axles and turn enemies into pink smears on the beaches.
Once you've got a harbour and dock, you can add to your initially available flagship with a flock of trade and military vessels, populate other islands and trade or battle with other factions. All trade routes can be automated, too, with waypoints and loading/unloading schedules set up with an easy and precise interface on the map screen. This takes a lot of the graft out economic management, whilst maintaining a pleasantly observable front-of-curtain trade mechanism, letting you watch your caravel pootle between islands, laden with spices and cloths, without worrying too much about exactly what they're doing.
This sense of being totally in control without having to concern yourself overly with the minutiae of day-to-day management is one of Anno's real strengths - once things are set up, they generally continue to work pretty well without supervision. Handy alerts will pop up to let you know when a warehouse is full or a well has dried up, but on the whole the game's pacing allows you to focus your attentions on what you're actually trying to achieve, without all the plate-spinning of many similar titles.
Control also feels pleasantly direct. There's an immediacy with which your actions are carried out - actions you can observe - that removes a great deal of the obscurification and behind-the-scenes spreadsheet manipulation that usually pervade resource-management. Goods must be physically shipped to islands if they're to be used there, meaning that trading vessels and the military vessels that protect them, soon become vitally important. Without regular trade, settlements will struggle to flourish and your coffers will rapidly deplete.
Sadly, when it does come to naval confrontation, and indeed combat in general, 1404 rather lets itself down. It's clear that this isn't a game about warfare, even though the campaign storyline revolves around just that, and this is reflected in the relative shallowness of the system. Ships pull alongside and pound each other with broadsides, troops march off and swarm over enemy installations or units, but it's really just a matter of numbers and hit-points, with no room for tactics. It seems slightly trite to complain that winning is simply a matter of building things in the right places when assessing a game like Anno, but it's hard to see what a more accomplished combat system would have taken away from the game.
There are occasional problems with quest info and resolution too, with objectives not always being clear, although not usually to any serious degree. Once or twice I was left a little perplexed as to how I should proceed, but generally the mission structure flows excellently, ferried along by a number of superbly voiced and well-fleshed-out characters. The main campaign is all the more engaging for this, the storyline unfolding conveniently alongside the gradually increasing complexity of the tech trees. It's also massive, and is ably supported by a number of relatively free-form standalone challenges with varying difficulty levels. As with nearly all strategy games, there's also a huge replay value here, with different approaches applicable to many situations, even if objectives essentially remain the same.
Anno's pastoral, languid style will undoubtedly frustrate some, and those seeking breakneck excitement or a complex military framework would do well to look elsewhere, but if a gentle and rewarding management sim with a hint of tropical sunshine is what you're after, then you won't go far wrong with this. Just keep a bowl of cool water handy to rest your feet in.
8 / 10