Version tested: Wii
It's always a little worrying when you see developers and marketers working at crossed purposes. On the back of the box, at the top of the series of captioned pictures describing Anno: Create A New World's prime features, it says, "Team up with a friend and explore together".
Which sounds very nice, and very Wii-co-operative-social-play-stuff, but as far as I can see, it isn't mentioned in the manual. It doesn't appear to be mentioned at any point in the game, either. After playing my way through the story mode, I figured I'd just plug in a second controller and see what happened. Up comes a second pointer, which doesn't seem to be able to do anything functional in the game. You can send fireworks and put decorative things on the floor - which the other player can get rid of without even reaching for the delete tool - but nowt else.
While it doesn't actually contradict the back of the box, and the fireworks are pretty, it's only little more interaction than getting your friend to crouch beside your television and point with their fleshy finger to anything at which they think you should be having a nose.
There are lots of these flashes of strangeness - bits where the strenuous effort of making this as slick a version of the venerable PC Anno games as possible goes slightly awry - but to the developer's credit, it generally succeeds. The Anno games are PC games so quintessentially PC - and German PC specifically - that even as staunch a PC follower as myself has never quite found the time to play them properly. A bit too scary. A bit too economic-y. A bit too much of a silly name. As such, a console version makes a lot sense, in an attempt to do to Anno what Civilization: Revolution did for Civ.
It's basically an island-colonisation game where you build and then manage a string of settlements. The core of the game is that you arrive on an island, and you set up some fishing villages, some houses and some foresters huts. Add to that a chapel and some milk, and the inhabitants of those houses will change from pioneers to settlers, which allow you to tax them. This continues, as you busy yourself adding other bits and pieces, until they turn into hyper-profitable aristocrats.
This also requires several islands, since the majority of the bits you need require the landmass in question to be fertile in that resource. You can only grow herbs in herb-fertile places, for example, and indeed there's a lot more along those lines: different levels of fertility, the ability to irrigate certain islands to make them fertile in a resource, having marketplaces to gather up resources and secondary sites to process raw materials into useful stuff (e.g. hemp into clothes). But that's the basics. You're creating an enormous tottering pyramid of production to satisfy your demanding citizens, who will then give you cash to spend on fizzy crisps and pop.
In other words, it's an economic game, cut back to the essentials and not too worried about its abstraction. You soon start playing the game rather than your own impressions of how something would work in the real world. For example, all that matters for production chains is the distance to the nearest stockpile. Actually having your, say, clay-production besides your potters is no quicker than having potters and clay-production on entirely separate islands, as long as a marketplace is in the vicinity to feed into a global stockpile. It's a very gamey way of doing things, and Anno's fine with that, as am I, because in other areas it's absolutely its strength.
Take exploration. Initially on a new story mission, the majority of the map is locked off, and you can unlock a single section for every achievement. This provides changing and localised goals to press towards, assuming you're looking for another island, and it also presses you into things it's easy to ignore, like treasure-hunting. You can purchase maps, which give you the location of a treasure chest. And you can always go to war with your rivals, which... oh, I'll deal with the war eventually.
There's a lot to learn, but one area where the game does a pretty good job is introducing these larger toolsets. On some level, the story mode is a glorified tutorial, lasting 14 hours or so and only releasing the actual combat to you in its last couple of levels - but I never felt as if I was being held back. The story - which has the emotional complexity of the Playmobil figures with which Wii graphics seem to be obsessed, yet has an agreeable humanist tone - actually justifies the individual aims of it all well enough. In fact, for an audience that primarily doesn't wrestle with economic games, it could even be necessary. And if it's too slow for you? Hell, there's the free-to-play skirmish mode where you can generate a map to your requirements and just go for it.
The friendliness, though, makes its flaws more confusing. For example, it's never made clear enough for my liking just how many production centres are required for every processing centre - or, even worse, how many resource-production centres are required for a given amount of the population. Generally, you expand until citizens start complaining about running out of milk or whatever, at which point you throw down extra milk until the problem is resolved. Which would be fine, except that if starved of the resources, the citizens will all devolve to their lower (and less taxable) level. Having a city of aristocrats turn into pioneers makes you appreciate your milkmen a lot more. A clear indicator on the stocks page showing whether the levels were rising, falling or keeping steady would have allowed this sort of thing to be monitored more carefully.
Another minor issue is the level of voice-over help. While you can turn it off or reduce it, the advisors are incredibly insistent on you dealing with problems that you simply can't deal with yet. It grates being told every minute that you have to go to the tribute bar to pay someone some resources when you know that you don't have the resources - and it's doubly annoying that when you do hit the correct level of resources, the game tells you that you've done so, showing that it was monitoring it all along. The problem, of course, isn't that you can't switch the voice-overs off, it's that it's inevitably going to annoy anyone who does want all the tips.
The biggest problems though - and the reason why I'm being a little downbeat on something that's a pretty fun strategy game - are to do with minor control systems. For example, when you've placed a building, there's no option to undo this. With the best will (and wrist stability) in the world, the Wii controller can be pretty shaky, so this means that if you misplace a building you have to demolish it, and this doesn't get back the resources you've just spent. Something as simple as allowing you to demolish within a few seconds to regain resources would have solved the problem.
More grating though is the combat system. It's really simple (barracks make soldiers, soldiers get on ship, soldiers kill all other soldiers on island, win!), but the problem isn't that, it's that its micro-management seems entirely at odds with the rest of the game. Painstakingly ordering each of your ships on the map, having to manually order them to help when friendly ships are being attacked, and a control system where I'm never sure which mode I want to be in to give this kind of orders, spikes into open frustration.
But still: I sat and played 15 hours of management. Its oversights are mainly ones where you wish the developers had pursued their line of thought longer. Only the combat system would require a complete rethink to come up to scratch rather than a tiny tweak, and combat is - as evidenced by it only appearing towards the campaign's close - a tiny, tiny part of Anno. Mostly, this is a relaxing Sunday-afternoon game, and good at either accompanying the digestion of a roast dinner or the slow exorcism of a hangover. I also liked the bit where I was complimented for delivering herb-tribute to the king, which sounds like some kind of drug-dealing slang. Although that may just be me.
7 / 10