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.