Review: Anno 180030 Apr 2019 0
Review: Anno 1800
Released 16 Apr 2019
At last, the sacred Anno series returns to history – and what better period to get the treatment than the 1800s? The Industrial Revolution is positively crying out for the deluxe city builder treatment, and these days Anno is the pick of the litter when it comes to city builders. It’s priced that way too. As such, I’m not so much reviewing whether Anno is a good game or not. There is no doubt about that the formula holds true.
With what seems like AAA game production values (what passes for AAA with strategy games the days anyway), watching your city develop and all manner of people and vehicles go around your city, Anno in all its glory is truly a sight to behold. What I’m going to try instead is to answer the question: “Is Anno 1800 worth that AAA game price tag?”
I can say only one thing for certain – if you’re interested in an engrossing and lengthy story campaign – Anno 1800 isn’t for you. As is depressingly common these days, campaigns are for teaching you the game, rather than actually telling an interesting story. Anno 1800 thus treats us to a story campaign suspiciously reminiscent of Anno 1404. Half the story is done in two hours and (at least for this series veteran) is relatively untaxing. Apart from the occasional cutscene and increasingly irritating chatter from the story’s characters acting a veneer of character development, it might as well be a standard sandbox game.
So ultimately, all that’s left IS that sandbox. It’s a good sandbox, with lots of options for the kind of game you want to play. Victory conditions, opponents… if you can name it, you can customise it. The ability to change the map into a variety of island chains is a particular plus. The only thing really missing (something absent in all Anno games I have played) is a solid map editor to create maps precisely to your taste.
I’ve mentioned that Anno nears the apex of “AAA” strategy these days. Nowhere can that be more clearly seen than in the sheer amount of “stuff” you can do as a player. In between the standard actions – building a city, developing infrastructure, satisfying the wants of your people – there is a cornucopia of other little odd jobs and tasks available. Expeditions, zoos, museums, tourism, quests, warfare, photography, newspapers. There truly is a beguiling number of things to do. Whilst some of them can approach busy work, the game backs it up meaning. Zoo enclosures change to suit the animals they house and all the little things you’re ordered to seek out match the quest given. For those who enjoy laying out the perfect city, there are options galore. Some of the creations already appearing on Anno’s Reddit page are works of art. Sadly, for me, style comes second to the endless need for more factories.
Talking of factories, it is clear that someone decided to pull out all the stops this time around. Anno 1404’s production trees could on occasion get a little squiggly, but, fittingly, 1800 takes things to a whole new level. I am envious of anyone playing it for the first time like I did – where every new citizen level brings forth vast new realms of industrial enterprise. You thought making spectacles was hard? Not to worry, I’ve got a power station for you to run. Don’t be afraid, you’ll only need oil, oil wells, a railway(!), a whole different kind of harbour to store it, and I hope you have oil on your main island – you don’t? Well, that’ll mean you have to build one of those shiny new (and expensive) oil tankers to lug all that oil to where it can be used.
All that effort makes for interesting management gymnastics and the feeling of getting the system right is most pleasing, but is it worth it? There things become a bit hazier. True, you’re generally closer to your objectives and your citizens and you can get better stuff. But as you progress, keeping the increasingly epic apparatus of your cities (expanding is not only recommended but mandatory) paid for becomes a herculean effort. Such an effort requires you to make tough choices – and often times I tend to find myself leaning toward keeping things old school rather than pushing through that whole “Industrial Revolution” thing.
If there was one single thing, I was excited about in 1800, it was naval combat. At last, I cried, an RTS which gets the whole point of sailing combat right and makes wind matter. It was exhilarating when I launched my first sailing ships and watched them careen downwind. I couldn’t wait, as the beta became a full release, to see what those fancy steam ships that you’ve spent many hundreds of tons of wood, steel and concrete building the industry to support such modern marvels had to offer. Surely the game could take advantage of the difference coal fired ships made to shipping and warfare, rather than them being a simple stats upgrade? After all that effort, I was left disappointed.
I could accept them being expensive and slow - this is the early days of steam engines after all. I couldn’t accept them being simply not that good. For the price, a fleet of sailing ships-of-the-line would’ve been better value for money than even a single steam warship. Whilst it’s reasonable to curtail players running away with the game as their fleets of impenetrable dreadnoughts run over the map destroying everything; the alternative that we have now leaves us in the unenviable position of ignoring most of the fancy late game hardware because the early game stuff is simply more efficient for its cost. For a game about industrial revolutions, this poses a bit of a problem.
My grumblings about a significant proportion of late game hardware feeling useless might’ve been assuaged had I been able to trade significant portions of it away. I have many a happy memory in Anno 1404 of walking away from a deal with a ridiculous amount of cash in my pocket. No such joy in 1800. When you eventually find the “trade history” button in the user interface (hidden away because it knows how irrelevant it is), you will see a long list of rather sad trades that amount, when it is all said and done, to chicken feed. It’s more than a bit of a disappointment. The game’s new system – where tax is derived from the products you’re selling – doesn’t feel all that satisfying, particularly when you have a large number of steam engines from a very expensive factory that you need to flog and there’s no one buying.
It’s a great shame because the game really shines in the way your islands evolve as you progress through the game. Dirt roads are paved, then sprout electricity poles. Trains begin to run and wagons are replaced by trucks. You can chart your city’s progress over the course of a game. It’s a truly satisfying thing. Similarly, things threaten to get out of control as your industry develops. Once electricity is switched on and your factories work at double efficiency – you really know you’ve come a long way. You can feel the world speeding up.
On the other hand, the “New World” is a bit of a let-down. In the 1404, building a big city in the Orient (the New World’s equivalent) was a challenge. Occasionally frustrating, it was ultimately a big achievement. Now the best that can be said about the New World is “shrug”. It’s alright – but rather than being its own self-contained world developing alongside your Old World possessions, it exists only to provide workers to create exotic goods and nothing more. Whilst perhaps a particularly clever comment of colonialism, it comes off as a missed opportunity.
At least the AI has something to offer. The personalities I have encountered so far are relatively unique and seem to play the game different – at least on the surface. Conflict, of some kind, is also guaranteed by the ever-increasing variety for luxuries demanded by your people. Some AI players will focus their efforts on building a strong military, others on building the prettiest and most symmetrical city possible (I kid you not). This is very important in a sandbox game which you will be spending many hours with.
On that note, whilst the game clearly is designed to played for many hours (at least that was my style), its budget doesn’t seem to have been stretched to making those hours not all feel the same. Whilst it’s probably beyond any game not to sound the same after a while, you do begin to have a problem when the same music plays again and again in the same region at the same time. Even the “special event” music gets tiresome quickly. Equally tiresome is Anno’s flexible relationship with the English language. Amusing at first, the peculiar expression and occasional outright innuendo gets old fast. Someone should’ve rung up the team who did Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate for tips – whilst that was by no means perfect, it was a damn sight closer than this.
Anno is a game that will live and die by its sandbox. You probably (unless you’re very, very, lucky) are not going to play it with other people and you are probably going to spend a lot of time on each game. The basics work well, the progression is satisfying and the end product is beautiful. At the same time though, flaws can emerge quickly. After so many fast and furious games that demand constant attention, Anno for me has been a relaxing change of pace. Taking it easy, building a gorgeous looking city – life is good. But I’d have to play for a lot longer than I have so far to say that it is $60 worth of gameplay.