by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
Big in… Germany
I have been a long time fan of the Anno franchise. The historic city builder series is huge in Germany, so big in fact that it doesn’t need to be sold outside of Germany in order to make it financially viable. I am not sure how successful the game is outside of Germany, but I for one sure appreciate that the games have also been published in the English language. What I do know is that we either missed the English presentation of Anno 1404, or that there was no English presentation in the first place. My German isn’t perfect, but I understand enough to follow a conversation without too much difficulty. So I sat in on a German-spoken presentation that, unsurprisingly, had very few surprises but was worth watching regardless.
Anno games are about colonizing islands and turning small struggling settlements into thriving cities, teeming with filthy rich and happily grinning inhabitants. The games follow the same familiar style as any other city builder. You start with a shack, provide food and work and then slowly increase your people’s living conditions. As more luxurious goods become available, your populace will pay more tax money which you spend on building industries that provide even more luxurious goods. The key to any successful settlement is trade, either with other nations or with settlements that you control. What sets Anno apart from other city builders is that the map is made up of islands and that each island has its own climate and resources. No island has all the available resources to produce every possible luxury good and you will need -every- available luxury good to take your island to the highest level of sophistication.
Rendering the splendor
Anno 1404 won’t bring any changes to the existing formula. No surprises there because the formula has been the same since it was first launched a decade ago. New Anno games tend to improve rather than innovate, and 1404 is no different. So what is being improved this time around?
For starters, the maps will be considerably larger than before. This is necessary because islands will be up to four times larger too, allowing for really epic sized cities. The random map generator has been improved. It will now produce islands that have a more natural shape than the blocky ones from the previous games. The terrain on these islands is more varied with lush trees, hills, mountains and other features. On arid islands, it is even possible to transform the terrain. With the help of watermills, desert lands can be irrigated, turning the immediate area surrounding it so green that you will be wondering where to put your T.
One of the things that hit me most is how well the engine deals with all the graphical splendor that it pushes onto the screen. I am sure that the demo PC was one beast of a machine but that did not take away from the great achievement of the engine team. The city that we were shown was larger than any I have ever seen in an Anno game. And yet it possessed more detail than many of today’s shooters. Hundreds of settlers could be seen going about their daily lives and all sorts of buildings had a stunning amount of cute little animations. A small breeze stirred some pieces of cloth that were hanging to dry at the textile mill, their movement eerily realistic and never twice the same.
Teeming with life
The settlers were building a huge new cathedral that was truly a sight to behold. Heavy loads needed to be pulled up to where workers needed the building materials and new loads were brought in continuously. With (deserved) pride, Anno 1404 executive producer Christopher Schmitz told us that there were more people working on the cathedral alone than you would normally find on an entire island in Anno 1701. A fun aspect to the graphical improvements is the way that houses start to blend together as they are upgraded. True to the real life cities of old, streets are long uninterrupted rows of houses that are joined at the edges.
Besides the incredible improvements in graphics, several gameplay mechanics are being overhauled. The most important of these is in the military aspect of the game. While the game was not far along enough in development to demonstrate the strategic side of the game, we were promised that combat would be far more challenging than in previous games. While I don’t expect to see 1404 turn into Command & Conquer any time soon, I am certain that these improvements will be welcomed by Anno fans.
A new playable Middle Eastern nation is being introduced. Its upgrade path will be slightly different, adding to the games’ longevity. When you are done playing, you can upload your game to ubi.com to show off your accomplishments and compare them against players from all over the world.
Anno 1404 will most definitely raise the bar for the genre in terms of graphics. Seriously, the screenshots don’t do it justice. The other changes and additions may not be groundbreaking but they certainly whet my appetite for more. I can’t wait to try my hand at the game, I already felt it twitch during the presentation.