Wot I Think: Anno 1404: Dawn Of Discovery

By Jim Rossignol on July 1st, 2009 at 9:56 am.


Sea-trading city-builder Anno 1404 (or Dawn Of Discovery in North America) has sailed into our critical harbour to unload large bales of real-time medieval economics. Will it attract gaming patricians? Or could it simply be a peasant’s hovel furnished with old-school resource management? Here’s Wot I Think.

Occasionally a game comes along that feels like the raw antidote to what I’ve previously been playing. Having been immersed in the nerve-fraying battle-horror randomness of Arma II for so long, Anno 1404 is like a neutralising balm: slow, careful construction of towns, farms and armies, all under a well-kept, slightly cartoonish theme, where the UI is obvious and the 3D buildings appear hand-crafted. It’s been a kind of instant underlining of how far apart the poles of PC gaming actually are.

Over the past few days I’ve been entirely consumed by the precise-yet-accessible city management, and actually feel a little spoiled by how easy to play the game is. As with the best of such games, mastery of the thing is much, much further off, however, and Anno 1404’s demands on my gaming faculties languidly spiral into complexity as I try to build large cities, or more complex trade structures. That’s okay though, because I feel like I’ve got plenty of time to get into the rhythm. Despite the occasional complaint from one of the NPC characters, there’s really no rush, and Anno 1404 unfolds largely at your own pace.

This latest title in the ongoing building and trading-focused series is – given all that preamble – probably only of the best RTS games we’re going to get this year, particularly if you’re looking for something which gives death-action a backseat. It delivers a huge solo campaign and, unusually for an Anno game, a selection of wide-open sandbox missions. As it happens, the solo campaign is probably the weakest aspect for an experienced RTS player, at least for the first couple of hours. There are some deep frustrations with the story acting as an extended tutorial: you’re initially limited in what you can achieve, despite being able to see the options that lay ahead of you. More annoying, perhaps, is the fact that what you’ve built is not carried over from one level to the next. Either the game resets to an approximation to what you should have built, or it places you on a new map. Neither seems quite right, not least when it’s natural to take a certain amount of pride in the brick-and-timber metropolis that you’ve raised from the ground.

1404’s levels are set on a series of islands. Some of them are already inhabited, while others are virgin territory, ripe for conquest. Once you’re into the main game of the campaign these islands become mixed with “the Orient”, and open up options for building Middle Eastern, or desert-based land uses. Irrigation becomes an issue, while certain kinds of crops must be planted in this new terrain. Whatever the landscape, each island has a large number of resources, side from pure space to build, and these can be exploited for 1404’s secondary money making activity (primary being tax on settled citizens) which is trade. Trade is crucial once you’ve got past the earliest twigs of the tech tree. Controlled via the map screen, trade routes allow you to automate exchange of goods with nearby ports, and there’s always an NPC port around that will accept your goods. Working out what you have a surplus of, and then delivering it to the right port, is the trick that will decide just how wealthy your little empire is going to be.

More significant, perhaps, are the harbourmasters, which allow you to put up what amount to “buy orders”. These enable passive trade, with the NPC players filling in to keep your economy ticking over. There’s an element of artificiality to this, because not all goods are produced “on site” and the Pirate, Oriental, and Occidental outpost ports essentially supply core items from off map, via their respective empires.

Returning to that campaign, it’s clear that the design team were keen to make more of the instruments of trade than simple bus-loads of textiles or fish – the ships themselves become your key agent within the world, and be commanded at will. You use them to explore the various islands of the archipelago, and even land resources for your colonial exploits. (Interestingly, resources are not global, and you’ll need to physically ship resources from one island to another if you want to share them.) They’re also pulled into naval battles, escort missions, and so on. The ships become executors of various quests: repairing stricken vessels, delivering gifts to diplomatic contacts, rescuing ship-wrecked children, escorting trade boats through dangerous waters, and so on. Combat becomes routine, but it’s not all that interesting. The ship with higher number of hit-points will win, and there’s little in the way of tactical space for you to alter that outcome. Ships can, of course, be upgraded with various permanent items and crewmembers, purchased from the faction ports.

Through the ships, and the building, a story unfolds featuring the activities of a number of characters: your gentle guide, a European lord; a grasping, condescending official; the sinister religious overlord; a zealous seer woman crusader; a corsair king; an Asian vizier… all these are well acted, although their repeated explanation of aspects of the game, or insistent demands about this or that quest can get a little grating. I found the campaign to be entertaining enough, but too slow, and I was inexorably drawn to the six sandbox modes.

These half-dozen scenarios allow you to play through sequences of islands with objectives of varying difficulty. The most straightforward level just requires you to build a thriving settlement, and does not threaten you at all. The highest level “Imperator” requires you to crush all resistance across the islands, and to become the undisputed economic and military power on the map. Of course this means that the AI is far more aggressive, and the other NPCs far less helpful. The other maps represent various points along this scale, allowing you to pick up a style that is closest to what you want. You’ll still find yourself busy, no matter what you choose, because the shipping-based quests of the NPCs still arise constantly, and must be performed or ignored, depending on your strategy.

Which leads me into some final criticisms: both diplomacy and combat seems a little under-developed. Combat has barely featured in several days of play, and the options for military toys (aside from your flagship) only open up at the third major tier of development. I’d have liked more options in this arena, even though this is, ultimately, a game about building and trade. (This is nothing like the Total War games, and I’m probably spoilt somewhat by comparison with their mechanisms in these areas). Worse, perhaps, is the lack of transparency in resources flows. It’s not always clear how or why things are distributed as they are, and the little “satisfaction” ratings on civilian houses don’t quite make up for it. Additionally, a detailed balance sheet showing where things are going would have been very useful – there is sadly only a small “income in/out” detail on your main wallet. There are a few rough edges too – vague quest parameters, poorly written descriptions, and so on – but these are so minor as to be almost unnoticeable.

In summation: there is nothing cool about Anno 1404. It is not the bleeding edge of gaming, it does nothing radical or technologically interesting: there is no novum. And yet it is rich, enjoyable, proficient. The 3D engine is smooth, beautifully detailed, and the game as a whole is lavishly presented (the animated “paintings” that set the scene between campaign missions are particularly evocative.) This is the gaming equivalent of cooking a large, delicious, yet unadventurous evening meal. It’s likely that most people won’t remember this game in a few years time, but it’ll nevertheless remain a quietly superb accomplishment.

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62 Comments »

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  1. Ragnar says:

    I sorely miss a detailed balance sheet screen. So I can see where my resources and coins come from and are being spent.

    Excellent game.

  2. Bruut says:

    I centrainly must buy this when I have the money.

    I’ve spent months on Anno 1602 (first in the series) and while it is slow, it gives a great feeling of accomplishment when you look at your main island and see all houses fully upgraded with all traderoutes (from at least 4 other islands) working smoothly.
    After that I usually just blast away the npc’s.

  3. Jim Rossignol says:

    Ragnar: yes, you make a good point, and I wanted to mention the lack of transparency in cashflows. I’ll add that in.

  4. Ginger Yellow says:

    This is definitely on my list, but I think I’ll finish a few more games first (and hope it goes on sale). The Anno games are pitched just right for me, as a city-builder lover, but in the past they’ve always felt just a little bit off – not enough to really hamper my enjoyment, but enough that I don’t get excited by a new game in the way that I did with the Caesar/Pharaoh games. Maybe it’s the cashflow transparency thing.

    Incidentally, there’s an excellent, though somewhat stripped down port of 1602 on the DS.

  5. MrBejeebus says:

    The lack of a balance sheet could clinch it…

    I like the look of it, but its not a game I’d pay full price for as I don’t know how long my interest will be kept with it.

  6. Andrew Dunn says:

    I loved the sandbox side of the demo but I found that the campaign involved far too many tedious fetch-quests with your ships.

    Graphically this game is superb. The fully-3D buildings really do look hand-painted – better than most 2D games of this ilk from a few years back.

  7. Carra says:

    I can see from your review that you haven’t played any of the predecessors. I had a ton of fun with the original game Anno 1602. It ranks amongst my all time favorite games. And this looks like it’s a worthy sequel. The combat has never been great in the Anno series. But that’s not important, the fun in these games is from building a huge city with multiple provider-islands. Add a huge fleet to sustain your citizens and some trade. It’s a pure sandbox game. Start with one little ship, end with a huge empire hours or days later.

    One of the best things that Impression Sutios did with their city building series (Caesar, Pharaoh, Zeus,…) was adding missions where you can continue with a previous city. One mission would have you create a city with 500 citizens and a yearly creation of 10 tons of food. Then another mission would let you create a sattelite city where you create 5 tons of alcohol. And the next mission would let you back to your original city to extend it to 1000 citizens which now have a supply of alcohol. It’s a great feature as it makes you feel like you’re building something really big. And not just restarting from zero every mission. Too bad most developers don’t copy this model.

    And Anno 1404 has the dreaded 3 activations limit. I’m still doubting if I want to accept this kind of DRM in any of my games. A potential lost sale.

  8. Super Bladesman says:

    A spot on review of a very enjoyable game :)

  9. LactoseTheIntolerant says:

    It might have been on my list but for the horrible DRM. Tages, online activation, 3-install limit (unrevokable as far as I can tell, but even if this changes it still wouldn’t be acceptable to me), and all the other fun stuff DRM software is notorious for (not being fully removed when the game is installed, etc). It’s also on the Steam version.

    No thank you.

    A shame as I enjoyed 1701 and this looked fairly pleasant. Still, if I need some summer-strategy fixes then E:TW still has legs, and I never tire of modded R:TW.

  10. Ayekay says:

    Oh, cool, I’ve been waiting for a convincing review of this. Sounds like there’s enough new stuff in there bar the gfx upgrades from Anno 1701 to justify a buy. I mean I say ‘cool’, there goes my free time…

  11. Heliocentric says:

    Get your tages games on gamersgate, they’ll hook you up!

    You can quote me on that!

  12. Humppakummitus says:

    3 install limit! Bloody hell, I had the game in the basket already! Bastards!

  13. Tworak says:

    Great game. I dig.

  14. Jeeva says:

    Hm, sounds like I might enjoy it. Will have to wait for steam sales or such, though, at the moment. :( And fix my PC, but y’know.

    Sorry to quickly say it, but… “accessible.” should possibly be removed?

  15. LactoseTheIntolerant says:

    Heliocentric: Do Gamersgate really ditch Tages? That’s good news if true, though I’m still somewhat loathe to give Ubisoft any cash for this thing now. Also, it’s £35 on GG! But the ever-decreasing value of digital distribution sites is another topic.

    Hump: I was about to add it to my basket on the day it was released, before I noticed the Amazon reviews and did a quick google. I would have been livid had I not noticed before dropping £25. If they won’t get rid of the DRM, publishers should at least be mandated to advertise, even slightly, the copy protection on their games. This way people could at least make an informed decision, and weigh up whether they think they can grit their teeth and bear the restrictions. In this case, as usual, there’s nothing on their website about it except forum posts, or on the Amazon page. Unacceptable.

    Derailing thing’s a bit, but this is utter, utter crap. And it’s something potential buyers need to be aware of. Am I right in thinking, Jim, that your review code wouldn’t have included Tages?

  16. Jim Rossignol says:

    I reviewed from the retail version, and it does include said DRM.

    That said, pre-release review code often has even more draconian DRM than retail, and generally expires after a few weeks.

    Perhaps that’s why I didn’t consider it: as a reviewer I’ve got used to reviewing from code that requires ludicrous online checks to function.

  17. LactoseTheIntolerant says:

    I suppose it makes sense to have pre-release code protected, but still, must be a pain.

    If it drops in price a year or so down the line and/or Tages is miraculously removed I might consider it. Now, back to Zangband.

  18. feighnt says:

    hrmm… whenever i’ve heard of games with activation limits, it usually stirs up a ton of complaints from the consumers and the company eventually kills the activation limit. are there many games which they *havent* eventually revoked this for?

    a shame one way or another…

  19. MrBejeebus says:

    I like Egosoft (of the X series) method, while the game originally came out with no activation limits and TAGES, in the patch coming out in a few weeks, all DRM is being removed.

    However alot publishers still haven’t clicked that DRM causes more piracy and only hurts the innocent buyer.

  20. pkt-zer0 says:

    Really liked the demo, really don’t like the DRM.

    And thus, the proud PC tradition of copy protection killing sales continues! Well, killing my sales, anyway.

  21. Jim Rossignol says:

    Killing sales, killing decent discussion of games. DRM has a lot to answer for.

  22. MrBejeebus says:

    Sorry Jim

    I want this game now, after re-reading the review

  23. MonkeyMonster says:

    All bought and sitting at home – overlord 2 pipped it to the post to be installed first :) Looks rather swish and having dipped back into dosbox settlers 1 and 2 of late – twill be nice to do some brain niceties of no real violence just careful planning.
    Didn’t give two hoots about DRM when bought, still don’t – if by some miraculous incident I actually want to re-install for a 4th time I imagine we will all be playing games via thought beams inside a virtual environment…

  24. Ravenger says:

    I researched Tages DRM when I was considering buying Dark Athena, and found that Tages don’t allow revokes – they state that it’s ‘not possible’ on their website.

    It’s ironic that a game based on resource management requires you to resource manage your installs.

  25. pkt-zer0 says:

    Piracy vs. DRM – which is worse and why? DISCUSS!

    So, on-topic-ness: why no mention of the multiplayer feature being removed?

  26. jamscones says:

    Been playing this for nearly a week, and it’s a fantastic game. The best city-builder of this generation (note, Rossignol: this is not an RTS. Are you on drugs?)

    One thing though – it is a complex trading and city-building game and it’s almost completely undocumented. A 10-ish page manual tells you nothing, and the Annopedia from the previous game has mysteriously disappeared. You are left to figure out almost everything for yourself, including how the game’s rules and design have changed from Anno 1701. Lack of any documentation is not just lazy, it’s a slap in the face for customers – Ubi should be ashamed of themselves.

    The DRM is neither here nor there for me. While I dislike the “3 activations” limit, I do so love not needing the disc in the tray.

  27. Jim Rossignol says:

    They didn’t actually remove multiplayer, afaik they said from the start it wouldn’t feature, and that they’d address it in later games?

  28. Mark says:

    @MrBejeebus
    Do you have a link about the DRM removal? I’ll pick it up right away when that happens.

  29. Hi!! says:

    As for income/expenses, you can use the trading route screen to check how much money you get/pay for each of your colonies (mouse over the harbor icons). I agree there could have been more detailed info, but it’s not really been a problem for me.

    I love the game, BTW. It’s almost too addictive, actually.

  30. Trithemius says:

    Just played this for Several Hours and I have to agree.

    I also agree with Jim about the interstitial paintings. It reminded of the neat (though static) art from King of Dragon Pass – and that’s a Good Thing as far as I am concerned.

    (P.S. I move that someone does a KoDP retro review around here!)

  31. pkt-zer0 says:

    Removing multiplayer was in comparison to its prequel which had it. I think it was actually advertised as such on Steam for a while, anyway.

  32. lePooch says:

    Did anyone actually TRY the multiplayer? When 1701 came out, I did. I am kind of glad that they ditched it altogether this time around. Anno multiplayer either ended as skeleton armies raiding barely developed economies, resulting in a ten minute victory, or as four hour long slogfests.

    Picture this: You and two of your friends decide to set a game up on a lazy Sunday morning. All three of you fire up the game, connect, and start…
    … forty minutes later, the three of you have enough of an economy to start building troops and a warship…
    … two HOURS later, one player is close to losing (because he lost his tobacco plantation to raids end everyone is devolving), and he leaves the game/gets disconnected…
    … it is now close to sunset, you both have been at it for seven hours. By mutual agreement, you both quit. Ten minutes later you’re all online playing Call of Duty, where human interaction is a lot less meaningful, but at least there is plenty of it.

  33. unclelou says:

    The installs are revocable with a simple email to the support team, and it’s not three installs in total, but three installs on different PCs. In other words, you can install, uninstall and reinstall it on one and the same PC as often as you want, as long as you don’t change any vital components.

  34. drewski says:

    This sounds really interesting, right up my alley. I’d love to play it and be able to discuss it.

    Shame I won’t. DRM FTL.

  35. Vinraith says:

    While I adore the Anno series, I’ve been trying to figure out whether 1404 is different enough from 1701 to justify the $50 price tag. The DRM is also obnoxious, although I’m content to buy it on Gamersgate (which guarantees it’ll give me new installs if I need them) to get around that. Anyway, any experienced Anno players want to comment on whether the differences are substantial enough to justify the price?

  36. Clovus says:

    I’ve never played an Anno game but love city builders so I’ll buy this as soon as it drops in price a bit on Steam. I’m glad the combat stuff doesn’t come up once. I’ve never liked combat in city builders. Mostly because I enjoy working on the city more, but also because combat in city builders is universally awful. Please, prove me wrong.

    I can’t help but comment on the DRM here. Does this kind of game really need it? I can’t imagine medieval economic simulators as having a huge pirate audience. I do imagine that it has an audience that will be pissed of at the DRM though; an audience that has money to waste on this stuff if not for being treated like criminals.

  37. ulix says:

    I’d say the differences in 1404 are pretty substantial when compared to 1701. Of course it is still Anno.

    Probably the most apparent change is that there is now a second culture, the Orient. While this culture on first sight only has 2 advancement-levels, it actually has a lot more, because you need to earn standing with the Vizir to unlock certain building-tiers in this civilization.

    Another difference is that there now is a fame-system. You get fame for all kinds of stuff, from fulfilling tasks for one of the NPC factions (the northern guy, the vizir or the pirate) to reaching new civilization levels (etc.). For this fame you can then buy stuff from these NPCs (its one number, you don’t earn it individually for everyone of them). From the obvious (commodities) to certain items with which you can either improve your ships (sail giving it +25% speed) or your islands (all weaving mills +25% productivity).

    Also there are many more commodities in this game. I think 1701 had arround 35, this one has over 60.
    “Needs” are now grouped into 8 groups (food, drinks, luxury items, faith, order, entertainment, clothes and something else…) and higher civilization levels will now need different commodities from each group, for example spices, fish and bread from the food group, while the lowest level only wants fish.

    Islands are much bigger, because you’ll need to build much bigger cities. You need 2000 inhabitants of the highest level to build special “wonders”, which will take insane ammounts of ressources and many steps to build (each step costing insane ammounts).

    What else? Don’t know… but I think it is definitely a better, deeper and much different game, while retaining the core-mechanics of the series.

  38. ulix says:

    “I can’t help but comment on the DRM here. Does this kind of game really need it? I can’t imagine medieval economic simulators as having a huge pirate audience.”

    This being a German game, and Germany being one of the biggest countries in terms of pirating, and the Anno series being THE most succesful series of any computergame in Germany… I’d disagree.

    Still, this DRM stinks.

  39. Jim Rossignol says:

    Yeah, Clovus, if ever a game didn’t need it.

  40. pepper says:

    so is this one better then the older anno games, or should i just start out with those now that you can pick em up for a fiver or less?

  41. CakeAddict says:

    Probably going to get this at some point, I can remember this time having a lan party with some friends we played anno 1701 trough the whole night we found that out when we looked outside the window to find it was already daylight.
    And we were playing 1 game the WHOLE time, it can be strangely addictive and time just flies by.

    (And you can be such a dirty scum bag in the game hehe… )

  42. Vinraith says:

    @ulix

    Thanks for that detailed break down. It sounds like they made several of the improvements I would have specifically asked for, actually. I’ll probably pick this up off of Gamersgate once I get some birthday cash…

  43. Serondal says:

    Was on mininova a few nights ago Anno 1701 had about 1000 seeders so yah, it nees DRM :P

  44. Vinraith says:

    @Serondal

    1701 had Tages DRM, same as 1404, the difference is that 1404 included activation limits for some baffling reason.

  45. Serondal says:

    I know Vinraith I was just responding to the pirating audience thing that Clovus was talking about. In fact there is a large number of people pirating the previous version of this game (and maybe the curent by now who knows these things)

  46. Serondal says:

    I actually ran into an activation limit recently when I spent a TON of time downloading the first Brothers in Arms game which was the first game I got on direct 2 drive back in the day. They won’t give me any more activations on it either, really quiet pissing offish.

  47. Mark says:

    Ah, I saw this the other day. It looks terribly interesting! I am sad that I can’t play it.

  48. Heliocentric says:

    Gamers gate will hook you up with more activations i mean.

  49. Clovus says:

    On a lighter DRM note…

    This sounds like a game that should include Piracy; the swashbuckling kind. It sounds like there is a research tree. Is DRM on it??

  50. Serondal says:

    It does have a pirate actually. I don’t know that you can actaully partake in piracy yourself but it is in there.