by Nathan Rowland
reviewed on PC
A Plan of Action
Anno, the real-time, city-building strategy series is something of an enigma, to me at least, for reasons that will become apparent.
Firstly, let me preface this review by saying that strategy games have become my favourite genre to spend my time with ever since reaching a semblance of maturity. Their structured and refined systems of progression have provided many, many hours of relaxing and engaging gameplay. On one side of the coin, action titles take a bit more of a mental effort for me to play these days, which is something that cannot be said for a good strategy title which will draw me into months if not sometimes years of interaction. As a result, I have been slowly making my way through the back-catalogue of titles that I missed during my formative gaming years when I was mostly enamoured by James Bond PS2 spin-offs. Games like Alpha Centauri and the original Starcraft are where I have found the most joy, amongst the entire catalogue of Total War games.
Yet, in all this time, Anno has never stood out to me as a series that I would reach anytime soon. This feeling is evoked by the middling reviews and lacklustre appraisals recent titles in the series have received. I even remember feeling quite excited for the release of Anno 2025 back in 2015 after seeing its promotional footage. Yet when the game released, it was a shallower experience than I was looking for and I consequently didn’t take the plunge of purchasing. Afterwards, I shelved any notions of interest for the series at large, believing them to be shallower imitations of greater and grander strategy series like Sid Meier’s Civilisation.
Yet with last month’s re-packaging and re-publishing of Ubisoft’s earliest Anno titles in the Anno History Collection, I reserved my judgement for two main reasons. One, I generally enjoy playing through older titles in strategy game series, something about the design methodology developers had during those times resonate with me more as a player. Secondly, these titles were being released for modern platforms (Steam and Uplay) and would hopefully require as little set-up as possible, a minor foible for playing older games but one I nevertheless appreciate avoiding in remastered editions. So, with this knowledge going, I had decent hopes. And for the most part, those hopes were met.
Years and years.
The history collection is comprised of four titles from the Anno catalogue: Anno 1602, Anno 1503, Anno 1701 and Anno 1404. While not chronological, this is the order in which the titles were originally released. The collection’s advertised improvements cover two main areas: optimisation and stabilisation. Supporting up to 4k resolution, multi-screen support, improved networking for multiplayer sessions as well as including all the bonus content from each game’s DLC collections. The collection delivers upon these improvements but does not address all of the issues one might have covered in a remaster. Now, I cannot speak to the changes from their original condition into these remastered formats, having not played the originals. Yet, I can talk with experience of what I find enjoyable in ‘old’ and ‘new’ strategy games alike.
In essence, Anno 1602 and Anno 1503 are simple experiences of city-building and island expansion without too many peripheral systems on the macro-level of play. Simply build your cities in increasingly harder environments (sparser resources) and repeat. Their visuals, while dated, invoke a great nostalgic appeal and I find this more engaging on a 4k display than I do with the more modern 3D visuals from 1701 and 1404. Notably, their UI has not changed from the original designs, which are outdated in the ease of control and quality of life improvements. To some, this might be an enjoyable scale of authenticity, to me however, it lacks polish. 1503 also includes a horrendous piece of sound design where animals have extremely loud and intrusive audio cues which persist when you hover of them. Upon researching this feature, it was a much disliked quality in that game, so it seems unusual that it was not addressed here in a remaster. Other than that, these games have an extremely engaging gameplay loop, informative tutorials and a pleasing scaling of difficulty in both their campaigns and free-play scenarios. Whilst lacking the bells and whistles of 1701 and 1404, their appeal is solid.
Anno 1701 and Anno 1404 depart from this minimalist strategy routine to provide more of a narrative experience accompanied by its gameplay. Whilst holding onto the core tenants of gameplay established in the previous two titles, they develop upon their foundation by including variable crops, technology trees and greater depth to diplomatic relations and combat. Both are also told with a bit more a historical plot, including cut-scenes and visuals to support the progression of the cities you build as you expand your civilisations. Crusades and adventures to find hidden Aztec treasure give a semblance of momentum to your progression.
And yet, I cannot help feeling a deeper appreciation for Anno 1602 and Anno 1503. They are helped more by the optimisation and stabilisation of supporting my native resolution in a modern system, lending these games a sense of novelty that I enjoy. Yet with, 1701 and 1404, these games do not boast a greater margin of improvements for not being as ‘outdated’. I cannot help feeling that this collection was not all that necessary and a greater product could have been achieved had say Anno 1503 been solely remastered or remade, where quality of life changes would have made for a truly unique experience amongst the genre of strategy titles. I don’t regret having played any of these games, after all I’ve discovered another strategy title that I do like from a series I had already written off. But will it keep me interested for months hereon or even years?
4K resolution, multiplayer campaign improvements, solid gameplay loop
Outdated UI, obtrusive sound-design