Skip to main content

Anno 1503: The New World

Review - Andy takes a long hard look at Sunflowers' global domination 'em up

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Global domination. Now there's something to aim for. Total and utter global domination. Swirls around the mouth nicely, doesn't it? Imagine the power, and feel your ego stir. You are a world leader, and nothing can stand in your way! A crazy dream? Maybe, but it fuels the strategy market.

Yeah, yeah, powermongerdom is the classic gaming nerd cliché, and the hardcore RTS player has long been considered a bearded loner, hunched at his PC, shaping the destiny of his little sprite legions. But they're a loyal group, armchair strategists, and it's this market of die-hard study-dwellers that EA is targeting with its recent bid for global domination of global domination. Between C&C, SimCity and Anno 1503: The New World, they're making quite an effort.

What's that last one you say? Well you'd be forgiven for not knowing, as the previous game in the series, Anno 1602, made little impact here in Blighty. It was nonetheless the biggest-selling PC game in Germany (so some of you will be familiar with it), and made enough of an impact for EA to pick up distribution and add it to its roster. So how does it measure up? Is it worthy of standing high with those other two behemoths of the strategy world? And what is this strange growth on Eurogamer's chin?

A tough, dangerous world

The scene is set during the opening credits as a young boy listens to an old seadog's tale of adventure on the high seas - the hardships, the excitement, and the opportunities. But be warned: any spirit of discovery will be quashed should you boldly decide to skip the tutorials on offer. We cannot stress enough how much you need them. It's a tough and dangerous world out there, and you won't get far unprepared. Thankfully, the tutorials are friendly and accessible, teaching you the basics of town planning, trading and combat. Structured as they are in a logical, step-by-step approach, you leave them with a good understanding of the game mechanics and should be prepared for the challenge ahead. But don't expect to be instantly proficient, as this is a difficult game that benefits from a measured approach.

Properly educated you'll be ready for one of the three game types on offer. The campaign game is structured around a story, and you will be set targets to reach or tasks to perform, the achievement of which will unlock the next chapter in the story and set new goals. The temptation for many will be to rush straight into this. We've gotten used to endless narratives in our games and feel comfortable with the structure that they offer. But, make no mistake, this is really hard going, a certain skill level and experience is assumed, and unless you are already proficient within the Anno world it will be a frustrating experience. So save it for later, look on it as a treat to be enjoyed once you have become skilled in the game styles employed here.

The best place to start is the continuous game - the familiar, open-ended strategy game that tradition demands. There is no ultimate goal as such, you just keep on going as long as you want, the challenge being to expand your empire and build up your cities until you fill the map. There are plenty of levels to choose from to match your experience and the type of game you want. You can choose to operate in a peaceful world filled with fertile lands or choose a harsher existence with aggressive inhabitants.

Even the newbies can feel at home

What makes this the best place to start is the excellent auto-help feature, which is missing from the campaign game. As you play, alerts will highlight your mistakes and give tips on making progress. We found that this was essential to learning how to make our way in the Anno world, and it gave the game such a high level of accessibility that despite its eventual toughness, we'd have no qualms about recommending it to strategy debutants. There is also an indexed help section that covers every element of the game in fantastic detail, though we wouldn't recommend you try to get by just by reading this, as it is encyclopedic in size. Reading through this lot would test the patience of the most Zen-like gamer. So stick with auto-help as your initial guide then use the indexed section as a memory jogger or reference manual.

Graphically, Anno 1503 may not employ the latest in 3D bump-mapping delights, but it is nevertheless very pleasing to behold. The landscapes are well detailed and the buildings impressive. In fact you, like us, will be impressed at the care and attention that has gone into the look and the feel of the game. The islands that fill the world have distinctive terrains from desert through to ice regions, with the appropriate fauna and flora - nothing less than you'd expect from Sunflowers Interactive, mind. There are various tribes of inhabitants also appropriate to their location and the impression is that of a fully functioning ecosystem.

The user interface is fairly simple, employing the usual mouse and menu system, with the left button selecting menu options or units in the play area and the right performing actions depending on the context-sensitive cursor. Mostly the gameplay focuses on just two of the four menus; one for building and one titled 'info', which holds the various options for the unit you have selected. The other two menus provide player stats and configuration options. We found this to be a simple, effective system. Initially, we feared that the simplicity indicated a lack of depth but thankfully we were proved wrong. At times there is so much going on that a more complicated control interface would only hamper the player.

Supply and demand

Building a settlement is a matter of organising supply chains. You can build units to harvest or mine raw materials such as wood or stone, and then you need to build more units to refine your materials into finished products. Finally you need warehouses to store the finished products and marketplaces to trade or distribute them to your population. Thankfully, setting up an economy is reasonably easy once you have an understanding of these supply chains.

When selected, each unit shows a highlighted area of the map known as the service area, and the next part of the chain needs to be within this area for the process to work. Building roads is also essential to link parts of the chain together. Before long you will have a thriving network of workshops and farms supplying each other and producing the goods you need to keep the population happy. Once a supply chain is set up it will pretty much run itself, as long as there is a sufficient supply of raw material. When you build a sheep farm, for example, it is important to demolish trees in the service area so that there is sufficient grazing land.

Micromanagement is limited to switching production on and off - for units that supply two or more goods, halting production of one will increase production of the other. Again, this may be seen as a little shallow for this type of game, but there is so much crammed in that we can't really complain and indeed feel that the overall balance is so good that an overemphasis on micromanagement would harm the dynamic.

Thirsty work

As more houses are built the population will increase and other types of building are made available to you. Clicking on a house shows the needs of the population, and as these demands are met, the civilisation will advance from pioneer to settler and so on through five levels. One rather neat touch is being able to hear vocal prompts from the people regarding their requirements at the closest level of zoom. For example, you will hear superstitious comments until a church is built and the religious requirements are met.

One early quirk that took us by surprise was the thirst of the inhabitants. For a town of 150, we needed three farms: one producing food and the other two to meet the alcohol demand. As the only crop available to plant was potato, we can only assume that our people had a taste for the hard stuff, although this seems to be an isolated oddity. As the population grows you will need additional supply chains to meet their needs and a cycle of growth and development emerges that is both challenging and rewarding.

It is essential that you develop a self-sufficient colony fairly early on, as one resource that you can't easily harvest is money. In the beginning, you can trade for raw materials that you can't make yourself, with regular ships that stop at your harbour, but you'll soon be penniless unless you start producing the essentials yourself. Once you are self-sufficient you can start trading in the more luxurious goods that, while not essential to survival, do meet the requirements for the population to advance. Exploring the map by sailing around and sending out scouts will uncover more natural resources to harvest and other colonies to trade with or conquer. Trading is initially is pretty easy and is further simplified by setting up automated trading routes.

This all makes for a satisfyingly complete game in itself, but the ante is further upped when you start building military installations. The construction of a small fort will allow you to train troops of various skills depending on your available resources and civilisation level. This is fairly familiar in gameplay terms to C&C choose a gathering point for the fort on the map than select the type soldier to train. A progress bar ticks up - if you have enough cash - and a little guy emerges to wait by the gathering point. By this process an army is built.

Paper, scissors, stone

Once again the attention to detail is evident; this is no tacked on feature. There are 14 types of military unit from pike men to archers and cannon crew, fighting styles can be adjusted from passive to aggressive depending on the situation, and combat itself has a simple paper, scissors, stone basis where a swordsman beats an archer close up, and cavalry will beat swordsmen. This works really well, and when you are in the midst of battle it will feel a long way from simple.

Storming a city, for instance, requires you to employ appropriate troops to take on the defenders, then siege towers or catapults can be used to breach the walls. Finally, taking control of a city is a matter of reducing the main market building to rubble then sending a scout to build your own market building on the same spot, against a time limit or the economy will collapse and the city will disappear.

Defending your own city also becomes important; walls and cannon emplacements can be built to achieve this. The sight of a large army on the offensive is always impressive and this area of the game is similarly well implemented. One niggle on the control front is that the viewpoint is isometric, but the selecting box you can draw around troops isn't. This can cause some problems selecting groups of soldiers in the heat of battle, but is only really a minor irritation.

SimCity meets C&C in an ancient gastropub?

So, rather like Norwich City's woeful performances of late, it's very much a game of two halves, but unlike the Canaries, they're halves that work so well together. Fusing the city-building dynamic of SimCity with the real time warfare of C&C may sound ambitious, but that's exactly what Anno 1503 attempts, and to a large part achieves.

It's always a tricky balancing act when two styles of play are catered for, and the streets of gaming are littered with the corpses of rotting titles that fell off this tightrope. Eyebrows are always raised when a developer claims to have merged game styles; you can't help but brace yourself for the ill-conceived tacked-on combat or trading element. But it's obvious when playing Anno that its evolution has been natural, and, a few niggles aside, it works as a cohesive whole.

Don't get us wrong; Anno 1503 is not perfect, but so many well-implemented features have been crammed in that we can forgive a few minor irritations. We can safely say that the combat and trading aspects of the game contain enough depth to be good examples of each genre. Not benchmark, but good. Put them together though and you do have a game that deserves to be called great. It's obvious that this has been very much a labour of love from Sunflowers; once bitten by the game you can't fail to be impressed by the level of care and attention within. Definitely a big enough challenge for the hardcore, yet accessible enough for the beginner, Anno 1503 earns its place next to the big hitters… and, thankfully, the beards are optional.

9 / 10

Read this next