In a similar vein to the Settlers franchise: Anno 1404 is a cute, real-time city-building game. Set in 1404 it does not reference real historic events but uses a period of great exploratory activity as a backdrop for a story around British crusades to the 'Orient'. Despite the deceptively dull title, the game is light-hearted, accessible and well-presented.
One of the first things that strikes you is how lush Anno 1404 looks. Menu and loading screens look like watercolour paintings, an art direction that has been carried over to the in-game graphics with style. Zooming in close reveals character and charm to every building and worker and an impressive level of detail. A rotation of the centre mouse button quickly and seamlessly reverts to a more distant perspective where the ocean below shimmers in the sun – still very easy on the eye.
As in other city building titles your aim is to establish market places, peasant homes, wood cutters, stone masons and a huge number of other functional buildings to have a fully operational community working away. The ultimate goal being to create a military strong enough to defeat your opponent, the emphasis firmly on creating efficient production lines rather than the combat itself, which bar a few special items that some units can carry is essentially a numbers game.
Story mode tutors you through the mechanics of the game at a pedestrian pace. Cartoon talking heads pop-up to guide your progress, outline new quests and gradually introduce the new building options. Anno never takes itself too seriously and both the plot characters and inhabitants are voice acted well and don't impose themselves on the player too frequently. Those unfamiliar with the genre would do well to start on an easier difficulty level where punishments for having to demolish and rebuild are less severe.
By comprising of a series of islands, maps ensure that ship building, naval combat, nautical trading and the inevitable extra screens are important in succeeding. Islands differ in their natural resources and fertility so occupying and trading between several islands is necessary for victory and represent a challenge in itself. Thankfully the trading-route management is made easy due to the simple and well-organised interface. A couple of minor, forgivable bugs have made themselves apparent, such as the pop-up box for trading closing itself prematurely and quest announcements butting-in on each other. There is room to include more user feedback such as graphs and map-overlays but all-in-all the control scheme, tutorial and tips do well to make the game user friendly.
Building homes and satisfying the residents' need for clothing, faith, entertainment and the like will upgrade peasants to citizens then in turn, patricians. This will unlock new building options and generate more tax, but advanced settlements will desire more varied goods from leather jerkins to glass - the production of which relies on several other goods and takes careful planning, in particular on small islands where space is at a premium.
Throw in the nomad set of building types, which will allow production of dates, silk and yes – carpets! There really is an almost bewildering number of structures that can be built. Tiresome to some, but the variety will appeal to the genre enthusiast. Having so many construction options ensures there are several ways to approach each map.
A consequence of the high detail and impressive scale of events in Anno 1404 is that the immediate visual feedback of more simplistic games such as The Settlers is not there. Seeing weapon numbers at warehouse increase in your favour is not as satisfying as seeing the finely tuned production line spewing out more swords than the cart-men can cope with. To get progress or efficiency of production defined you will have to click on individual buildings to view their stats. An uncomplicated system that works perfectly well other than (particularly in larger towns) different building types are not immediately distinguishable from each other.
No multiplayer is available, but the calculated, slow burning gameplay can see single levels take hours to conclude so it simply wouldn't work. Anno 1404 does not pander to modern multiplayer requirements, and why should it? Continuous game mode has high levels of customisation offering something of a sandbox mode with no rules, deadlines or if you chose: opposition. In-game achievements mean even when there are no opposing forces to compete with there are still goals to aim for and added replay value.
Breaking new ground is not something Anno 1404 has aimed to do. By learning from previous releases, and thanks to presumably a wealth of experience in the Blue Byte team, the product is a well-balanced, solid city-building game and the best in the Anno series. Lack of combat depth and multiplayer might deter some but this brilliantly presented package should appeal to strategy fans.