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The Settlers: New Allies review: a tedious blend of management sim and RTS that simply doesn't work

It's Anno from me

I was excited to play The Settlers: New Allies. Not so much because it's the first Settlers game in thirteen years, but because the last game by developer Ubisoft Blue Byte was Anno 1800, the best city-builder this side of Cities: Skylines. With an evocative depiction of its simulated industrial revolution, including some delightfully chewy production-line wrangling, Anno 1800 was a treat, and I was keen to see what the Dusseldorf-based studio would cook up next.

The answer, unfortunately, is a big bowl of strategy gruel. I'm not sure what has gone wrong in the last five years, but Blue Byte clearly left whatever magic Anno 1800 had in the nineteenth century. The Settlers: New Allies is a dismal strategy affair, confused, anaemic, and achingly dull.

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Now, to be clear, New Allies is not aiming to be a successor to Anno 1800. They share some DNA, with both revolving heavily around production chains that take base resources and transform them into useful items via multiple processes. But Anno 1800 is a contiguous city-builder, where you take one pre-industrial settlement and grow it into a modern metropolis. New Allies takes that core idea and tries to squeeze it into an Age of Empires mould, featuring a linear campaign and round-based skirmishes and multiplayer where you build a settlement, recruit an army, then use the latter to smash up your opponent's former.

I'll get to why New Allies fails in this momentarily, but first, let's talk about what it does well, because it isn't wholly devoid of merit. First off, it's a lovely-looking game. New Allies' setting is a timeless tropical archipelago that bursts with colour and cheery vibes. Its many islands are frocked by crystalline waters and cream-coloured beaches, while island interiors vary from lush grassland to rich ochre desert. One level in the campaign is called "Oasis", which made me laugh because so much of the game takes place in paradisial climes. Then I saw the titular oasis, and thought "Damn, that's a pretty good oasis."

A stone monument in The Settlers
Two characters from The Settlers talk about finding a peaceful place to live
An army bolsters it's forces on a bridge in The Settlers

Building settlements among this gorgeous scenery is fun to begin with. Laying down roads and placing buildings has an innate satisfaction to it, as does watching the game's intricate logistics simulation play out. Resources you collect are manifested in the world. Every log, every fish, every stone block must be carried by your settlers from its origin to storage, and from storage to whatever production building requires it. If you want to boost your coal mines' production rate by feeding your miners bread, for example, you can watch the grain be harvested, taken to the granary for milling, the bakers for baking, and then all the way to your coal mine, where it's dropped into a cauldron that your miners will eat from. It does seem slightly passive-aggressive to drop someone's freshly baked loaf into a big bowl of hot liquid, but still, the level of detail in New Allies' ant-colony is impressive.

Yet this detail only exists at a surface level. Construction opportunities in New Allies are far slimmer than those seen in Anno 1800 or, indeed, previous Settlers games, and the production chains much simpler. Food, for example, is no longer a fundamental requirement for your Settlers. Instead, they subsist purely on good vibes. Food itself is an optional extra used to boost production rates of certain buildings. Water has been eliminated from the production of bread, while ranches now produce both meat and donkeys, rather than having separate production chains for each.

A small village in The Settlers

As someone who plays Blue Byte's games specifically for those mechanics, New Allies' new direction is disappointing. The bigger problem, though, is that these dumbed-down production systems are attached to an even dumber RTS. With your management responsibilities substantially reduced, most of your efforts are focused on building your army. This is a laborious process. Soldiers are recruited and trained individually rather than in groups, which means you have to wait for every single unit to collect its chosen weapon from the warehouse (which first has to be forged) then trek over to the training ground to begin the recruitment process. It's interesting to watch happen once, but when you need to recruit a hundred units or more, it grows tiresome pretty fast.

Once you've got your army, you then move it en-masse to your objective, which again is a slow process due to the speed at which armies move. When your troops finally encounter the enemy, they'll engage in limp, perfunctory combat until one side is dead, and the other side is so decimated that it might as well be dead. Battles become a little more interesting once you unlock specialised units like shamans who are adept at destroying buildings, and many units come with an activatable ability that can help give you an edge in combat, (although fights will frequently be over before you can make meaningful use of them). But because every soldier is controlled individually, organising them into a coherent fighting force is extremely finicky. And since units auto-attack when they come into range of an enemy, it's hard to stop battles turning into a big blob of mutual death.

"In short, New Allies offers neither the complexity you'd expect from Blue Byte's games, nor the pace and spectacle you'd want from a modern RTS"

Compared to, say, Company of Heroes 3, New Allies is incredibly basic as an RTS. Normally I'd consider this an unfair comparison because Settlers has always been more about societal simulation than combat simulation. But therein lies the problem. New Allies isn't. Once you've laid the roads and constructed the buildings, there's little else to do other than recruit units. There are no additional layers to the production chains, and no depth to the economic simulation. Even Age of Empires, which is not exactly a complicated RTS, had the advancing civilizations gimmick to give players some meaningful sense of progression.

In short, New Allies offers neither the complexity you'd expect from Blue Byte's games, nor the pace and spectacle you'd want from a modern RTS. Pacing is a particular problem. So much of your time in New Allies is spent waiting. Waiting for your units to recruit. Waiting for your engineers to expand your territory. Waiting for your carriers to ferry resources from halfway across the map, because you can't prioritise their tasks.

A stone monument in The Settlers
A group of settlers investigate a temple in The Settlers
A group of settlers set fire to a hut with a straw roof in The Settlers

These problems exist at a fundamental level, meaning they occur regardless of whether you're playing the campaign, single-player skirmishes, or multiplayer. But there are issues with each of these elements as well. The campaign does a decent job of creating interesting scenarios, but the core game loop is so flawed that they always devolve into a tedious trudge to the finish line. It also has a terrible story, one that takes the delicate topic of colonialism and feeds it through a script that has the tone of a TV show for pre-schoolers. You can almost see the actors holding the script in front of them as they read out their lines. Multiplayer and skirmishes, meanwhile, only let you choose which faction you want to play as, and how many players you want involved. You can't select your map, or the type of objectives you want.

New Allies isn't for me, I'm afraid, and I couldn't speculate who it might be for either. But I don't want to end this review on a downer. Every creative biffs it once in a while. It's an unfortunate part of the process. So if you haven't already, I'd urge you to ignore this little stumble into the mud, and check out Blue Byte at their best by grabbing hold of the excellent Anno 1800.

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