Let's get the obvious out of the way and address the elephant in the room. Settlers 7 is an Ubisoft title featuring the much-maligned DRM system that requires you to be connected to their server to play their games. It's every bit as dreadful as you've heard. More than half of the times I've launched the game I've been greeted by an error message telling me the server isn't available.
In my day job I'm a Community Manager and this review process has actually been a fascinating blurring of my two working lives. Yesterday I had intended to dedicate much of the day to seeing a little more of the game and finishing the review but instead I ended up refreshing a forum thread for the best part of eight and half hours. That's eight and a half hours in which the DRM server was down, meaning no-one was able to play the game they'd paid for, and the only official communication was from the Forum Manager who couldn't get any response from head office and was just as frustrated as the rest of us. I was tempted to look for a crack in order to review a game that had been supplied to Game Debate directly by the publisher. That's a bad state of affairs.
The reason I'm trying to get this part of the review out of the way as soon as possible is that it should be a non-issue. An awful lot of people are slinging messages around the internet urging people not to buy Settlers 7 in protest against Ubisoft but that would be extremely unfair to Blue Byte, the developer, as they've made a great game.
In many ways the Settlers series and the Command & Conquer series are two sides of the same coin. They're both successful, long-running RTS games but while The Settlers moved away from its original design with each sequel, C&C stayed pretty much the same. That is until the most recent iteration of each IP. C&C4 was a radical departure from what fans were used to and it was a jarring end to the "Tiberium" arc. The Settlers 7: Paths To A Kingdom has done the opposite and moved back towards its original style after a few versions that had shed some of the character and uniqueness in order to fit in with typical RTSes.
Though I'm fully aware that I may well be wearing the rose-tinted nostalgia goggles, my lasting notion of what Settlers was, is, and forever should be is encompassed in The Settlers 2. It was somewhere between a real-time strategy war game and a peaceful city builder. Placement of roads and storehouses was just as important as battle strategy and that appeals to me, as the kind of person who can happily go through a 6050 year Civ game without declaring war on anyone. The other thing that made that game special to me was the level of autonomy your workers and soldiers had. Once you'd set up your economy you could just leave your little guys to keep it running. Until your mines were exhausted at least; then the whole thing swiftly fell apart.
It all went wrong for me with Settlers 3 when they removed the road system - arguably the most important strategic element of the first two games - and gave you direct control of the army. Everything that made The Settlers unique was gone. It all went a bit vanilla and I fell out of love with the series. Settlers 6, the last version, suckered me in and I enjoyed it for what it was, but it wasn't the Settlers I remembered. I'm delighted to be able to say that Settlers 7 is!
Establishing your settlement is all about managing production chains. You'll build farms to grow grain, which you'll grind into flour at a windmill, and then turn it into food for your settlers at the bakery. Each building will be connected by a road network, dotted with storehouses, and you'll try to get your transporters moving goods as quickly and as efficiently as possible from point to point.
From there you can expand out into other sectors of the map using military force, religious conversion, or cold, hard cash. You build your army by spending resources to recruit units and they will hang out at your stronghold until you decide to send them along the roads to a neighbouring sector. That's the full extent of your combat control as they'll resolve battles on their own. Religious and trade expansions amount to producing a set number of clerics or gold coins to take over a sector but their main uses lie elsewhere in the game.
The church is the hub of your technological research. Your tech screen outlines set upgrades that can be offered by neutral forces around the map in exchange for sending them some of your religious and presumably literate staff to help them out. Trade works similarly with neutral ports or markets offering to swap specific resources for you. This can be vital because some of your resources are non-renewable and some missions deliberately give you the challenge of making the most of scarce starting resources until the path to a port opens up.
The game plods along at a glacial pace as you wait for your minions to schlep gold nuggets back and forth but it's nice to have a game that gives you plenty of time to set up and often waits until you've given the nod before any combat happens. Missions strongly encourage you to accomplish set tasks and work towards specific goals but you're always free to disregard them until you decide it's time to target the victory conditions.
I was really impressed by the presentation of the tutorial system. New features are rolled out as the campaign progresses so you're not immediately overwhelmed and with each addition you're given the option of watching a brief cut scene focused on it. You can choose to ignore them if you wish and instead see a text and diagram explanation, or if you're too cool for school you're welcome to ignore all instruction and just play. The amount of hand-holding the game gives is entirely up to the player but if you find yourself struggling the information is right there for you.
Aesthetically the game does all that's required of it. I feared for the game when the first audio it threw at me was the overly serious wordless wailing you'll be familiar with from Dragon Age or any recent orcs and elves film but beyond the intro the in-game audio is absolutely fine. The art style is of the cartoony World Of Warcraft ilk and that suits this game perfectly. The animations also give your little guys real character and inject humour. Cut scenes are presented in a variety of ways but I particularly enjoyed the pop-up book segments.
Settlers 7 ran well at maximum settings on my rig but there are more than enough settings to help you to balance your graphics and performance needs on any modern hardware. Stability-wise I ran into a crash on completion of one particular mission - a major frustration when missions can take over an hour to beat - but from what I've read it's quite possible my problem was caused by losing connection to the DRM server. I've also heard about some people seeing glitches in the game on dual core machines but it was pretty smooth sailing on my quad.
I've enjoyed the time the Ubisoft hardware has allowed me with Settlers 7: Paths To A Kingdom and it gets the "I'll keep playing even after the review is published" seal of approval. I'll say it again: please don't punish the developer for their publisher's mistakes.