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» Settlers: Rise Of An Empire (PC)

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Town/City building games were very popular back in the day with titles like SimCity, Caesar (and later Zeus and Pharaoh) getting a new sequel every year or two. Yes, those were really the times for us strategists who prefer to count the coins in our treasury and make tax cuts instead of sending troops into the fray. The Settlers have been a classic since the early days, combining a cartoonish look with a very deep, often mind-numbing resource system where entire chains of resources were needed for some of the final products. The new Settlers games left most with a sour taste in their mouths, so expectations weren’t too high. On the other hand Blue Byte promised to make a return to their roots, simplifying things in the process. The result, although not quite like the old Settlers games, might just be what it takes to bring the series back on the map.

Doing the settling thing

Focusing mainly on city building the game doesn’t offer much in terms of story. Or rather, the story doesn’t go beyond “We need to build a new settlement at point X so that travelers will have a refuge from bandits”. About halfway into the campaign another ruler decides he had enough of your expansion, so you start encountering his loyal knight Crimson Sabatt. But even the two of them are so shallow that there might as well be nameless bandits on the maps instead of their troops. Not that this is a bad thing – Settlers games were always more about the current mission than the big picture, so this “story” is mainly intended to connect the missions together, separating them from regular stand-alone scenarios.

The linear campaign slowly introduces you to new game features, as well as to several types of knights. These hero units are something you wouldn’t usually associate with a game like this, but oddly enough they work quite well with the new system. They can be directly controlled and are as such useful to clear some of the hostile wildlife in the earlier stages of expansion, but that is not their primary role. Depending on the type of knight you selected for the mission you will have access to two very specific abilities, one of the active and one passive. While the active ones range from rearming your troops (more on this in just a bit) with torches to healing the passive ones make a bigger difference. Most of them (such as lower upgrade costs) don’t seem like much at first, but considering a typical mission/scenario takes well over an hour to complete their cumulative effect on the long run can be quite immense. Your knight is also used to trade with other settlements on the map, which is a matter of sending him to their storage house.

Since I mentioned the storage house I might as well explain how town building works this time around. Like before the whole point is to set up a stable infrastructure, where bakeries have a constant supply of grain, butchers of meat, etc. But unlike before where making a loaf of bread for your populace meant having grain farms, mills and bakeries all operating at full capacity it only takes the farm and bakery now. Most long chains of production have been trimmed as well, so the longest remaining one consists of buying/finding cattle or sheep, having the settlers to their magic at farms and then processing the resulting wool and milk. This new simplified approach takes away a lot of the challenge of older Settlers games, but it in turn makes the game more accessible – something which the previous games weren’t really successful at.

Having a town where all of the basic needs are covered will let you promote your knight, giving you access to new buildings, but will also make new needs pop up. Whereas a small town only requires food and clothes, things get considerably more varied higher up on the development chain, where you need to ensure food diversity, provide entertainment and let the settlers keep the town clean with soap and brooms (if only it was this simple in real life). Having the current needs of settlers taken care of is not the only promotion condition however. Your castle (which is your central HQ and can create spies), church (used for sermons which generate money at expense of your work force) and storage house (where all of your basic resources such as stone and wood are kept) need to be upgraded to the necessary level as well. All of the other buildings can be upgraded as well, resulting in a higher yield of products, as well as lower necessities consumption (which is kind of ridiculous, seeing how more people work at the upgraded building). If you have played previous Settlers games you might be wondering what happened to housing buildings. They are no longer part of the picture, so all of the production buildings double as dwellings – a nice feature that lets you focus on the rest of the game instead of micromanaging every single aspect.

Sharpen your sword and raise your shield

As mentioned before some of the knights have militaristic abilities. Wouldn’t do you much good if there wasn’t an army to support your knight however, would it? As chance would have it you can build 3 (5 counting different siege machines) types of military units. So besides the 3 wall breaking machines the only units you can create are archers and swordsmen. This doesn’t give you much tactical options, especially since the units jumble up the second they come into contact with another group. This makes combat pretty chaotic, and the only surefire way of winning is by outnumbering the enemy considerably (since he has no trouble ordering his units around in the mess). For some reason the further you get in the campaign, the more you will have to rely on combat to win, so the choice to make combat so simplistic doesn’t pay off in the long run. There are similar problems in the multiplayer, where a well organized rush is usually enough to win a match.

Taking down a well fortified town with stone walls takes some work, but the moment you breach the front gate or break the walls things become a mess again, with dozens of soldiers facing off in what seems like just a meter or two wide space. And in the singleplayer campaign there are a few occasions where the game doesn’t give you any siege equipment, but fails to point out that wooden palisades are fair game for anyone wielding a torch. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the game didn’t lead you by your hand for every single task up until there, then suddenly just stop. There are a few other missions that have a similar problem – you’ll just end up waiting for the game to tell you what to do next while the game itself will be waiting for you to do the “obvious”. Perhaps the strangest part of the campaign is the fact that although the first half plays like a tutorial of sorts the second half becomes very suddenly extremely difficult, with timed objectives constantly forced upon you.

Problems, problems, problems…

If you glimpsed to the end of the page and saw the score you probably know by now that being simplified isn’t the only problem the new Settlers game has. There are some major bugs in the game, some of which make playing the game a pain. How would you feel if you were playing the game for well over an hour and wanted to take a break, only to discover you can’t save the game due to a bug? Fine, you probably won’t be able to play for more than an hour anyway due to some severe crashing that happens at seemingly random times. I was pretty lucky, as the game crashed only once or twice, but internet reports that certain hardware configurations cause crashes on 30 minute intervals or worse.

Performance can be spotty at time too, but at least the game has something to show for it. The foliage around the maps is some of the prettiest I have seen in strategy games, and a fully developed town looks like something straight out of a Pixar cartoon. The amount of detail found on buildings is amazing and seeing the scenery change as the seasons pass is surely one of the prettiest things I have seen in a while. The way the textures gradually change from grass to snow and how all of the foliage fades away, not to mention how the buildings have snow on their rooftops – it is all just amazing to look at. The animations of the hundred or so of your settlers are also nice to look at, thought you’ll rarely spend time zoomed in as you can’t really do any work from that perspective. The engine scalability is decent, thought the game loses a lot of its charm with reduced details. Audio is a mixed back as well. In the cutscenes the actors sound lifeless, sometimes almost bored, but it never becomes too bad and some of the music heard in the towns at various times makes up for that, as do the nice environmental effects heard around the maps.

Conclusion

If you were hoping for a building strategy renascence Settlers: Rise of an Empire is not what you were looking for. The game is very enjoyable on the short run, but anyone looking for some more depth will have to look elsewhere. Diplomacy is limited to buying scant resources from neighboring towns and selling any of your surplus resources for money (can’t trade goods directly!) and with almost a third of buildings and production chains removed you’ll quickly run out of new things to do. Most of the maps have plenty of resources, so you won’t have to juggle shortages trying to make the best of the situation except for a mission or two. And the combat which looks like it has been added as an afterthought is in the spotlight way too much! If you are hungry for some slow, relaxing town building and can look over these issues however, Settlers: RoaE could just help you wait for the next big thing!

 

Gameplay
74/100

A return to the roots helped, but losing half of the features on the way sure wasn’t the ideal way to resurrect the Settlers franchise.

Graphics
79/100
It looks good, with tons of details seen everywhere, but crashes and occasional stutters
Audio
72/100
Mediocre at best, but it won’t make you turn it off either.
Value
80/100
With tons of scenarios and a pretty lengthy campaign there is plenty to do here.
Multiplayer
67/100
It works most of the time, but the buggy lobby and broken gameplay cause several issues that most won’t be able (or want) to deal with.
Overall
(not an average)
74/100
Even though the game has its fair share of issues, you’ll find yourself playing it at 3am, wanting to finish just want more mission.




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