Ok class, pay attention. Beards at the ready. Can anybody name the biggest selling PC game in Germany? The Sims Party Like It's The Last Expansion Pack In The Series? No, but good guess. The correct answer is, in fact, Anno 1602, a civilisation building game that Sunflowers reckons captured the hearts, minds and Deutschmarks of PC gamers everywhere. Not that you'd have noticed on these shores, but the mighty EA has picked up the distribution of the sequel in the UK and sees it as the third prong in its strategy assault (C&C = future, Sim City = present, Anno = past) Set 100 years before the first game, Anno 1503 - The New World promises to do everything that the first game did but bigger, better and, ahem, presumably older.
It's the year 1502 and your task is to discover new lands, build a colony and develop it into an empire, but this simple premise belies the complexity of the game. Reading through the accompanying blurb it's not short on ambition, blending empire building, trading, diplomacy, combat, and real-time strategy in what promises to be a massive challenge. And after several hours action of the colonialist variety the massiveness is apparent in that we have only scraped the surface of this game.
Decisions decisions decisions decisions decisions
This is a game about decision-making; the choices you make are life and death for your people, the future of the civilised world shaped by your every whim. Bearing this in mind we plumped to play the game in campaign mode, essentially the game's more coherent story mode with an unfolding narrative as you perform key tasks or hit targets. For the more open-ended gamer, there is a freeform empire mode as well as the obligatory multi-player mode for up to 8 players. For us, though, we prefer the more structured story mode, which kicks off when an island is gifted to you by a benevolent duke, with the task of building a colony of 250 settlers.
After setting sail on a brief voyage to our designated island, you get a chance to take in what Anno 1503 has to offer in the visual department, with an isometric 2D/3D concoction that at initially strikes you as a rather old school combination approach. The buildings and backdrops are hugely detailed, populated by basic sprite-based 3D objects. It's hardly up there with Generals or Total War for eye candy, but serves its purpose well, with four directions of rotation and three levels of zoom giving you either a global view or an up-close and personal one. It is in the closest zoom that the level of detail and beauty of the world becomes truly apparent, and scrolling around the world reveals a variety of terrains from desert through to lush, fertile countryside.
On arrival at the island the task of building a local infrastructure begins, with the first job to construct a coastline warehouse. This is achieved with the minimum of effort by navigating the intuitive menu system placed on the right hand side of the screen. The construction menu details and subdivides the buildings available to you by type, and allows for demolishing structures. The player menu shows stats relating to your economy and population level, while the info menu shows stats and options pertaining to the selected ship or building. Hovering the mouse over the icons brings up a brief text description to give useful information, and overall it's a pleasure to use.
Bah bah bah bah Build
Once you've built your warehouse, you have somewhere to unload your cargo. The ship supplies wood and tools for building, and food to keep the pioneers happy, but these resources won't last forever, so you need to create a basic self-sustaining settlement. A woodman's hut and hunting lodge are the first step, allowing you to produce food and building materials. Build a few houses and some more local amenities and you have a little society, but at this stage of the proceedings, there is limited involvement for the player other than placing the relevant buildings in the best locations.
The literature promises that there are elements of micromanagement, but these are not the main focus of the game and - as far as we can tell at this relatively early stage - they are very limited. The settlers get on with life within the world you have built them, and as long as resources are available they are self-sufficient. In fact, they seem a fairly clever bunch - sometimes a bit too clever.
Where oh where oh where is our wood going?
At one point we were flummoxed: we had a reasonably flourishing village but wanted to build some more. The woodman was chopping away merrily but we couldn't muster up enough wood to build. We checked the market to make sure we hadn't been inadvertently selling our stocks, but no. So where was the wood? It was a proper head-scratcher, and very frustrating, until we eventually noticed the plumes of smoke rising from the settlers' houses. The little sods were burning it! An additional woodman's hut ensured that fires were stoked and building could continue. It's moments like this that you appreciate the intelligence of design that has gone into the settler AI and you start to bond with them a bit, the little buggers.
So far, as we say, we've only scratched the surface. Initial impressions are good, and the makings of an immersive experience are all in place, although we do harbour some reservations - so much is crammed in that some elements may suffer as a result. Also, some of the empire-building areas feel a bit lightweight but we'll reserve judgement until some more hours have been put in - and it's a time-drainer, no mistake. Expect a full review soon detailing the expanding empire, the combat the continuing quest for wood, and beard growth...