Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Settlers: Rise of an Empire

End of this month The Settlers: Rise of an Empire will be released. The German name for it is "Die Siedler 6", but if you count the anniversary edition of Settlers 2 as a separate game, this is actually already the 7th game of the series. But far from getting old and tired, surprisingly this could turn out to be the best and most successful one. There is a demo available online (I got mine from Fileplanet, but not everybody likes them), and had the opportunity to test the demo over the weekend.

The Settlers: Rise of an Empire (TSRE) is a real-time empire-building game, with a strong focus on the economic build-up, and a smaller real-time strategy part. In fact the series started with such an economic focus, but after the very successful second game the series drifted into more and more RTS, and less and less sales. Finally the developers got the hint and went back to their roots, making a very cuddly, cute, and accessible game. Huge spike on my wifeometer, but maybe not the perfect game for the hardcore strategist. TSRE is not a very hectic game, which gives you plenty of time to observe what your citizens are doing. Often you are building up a medieval city from scratch, and that city feels very much alive. And it is alive not with just some random animations, but you can actually follow the life of your citizens, how the get resources from the storehouse, produce goods from them, go to fulfill their needs of food, clothing, entertainment etc.

The game starts very simple, but the more you build up your city and promote your knight, the more complex the game gets. At the start your citizens just need food, so you build for example a hunter's lodge and a butcher. You'll also need a woodcutter to get wood to build further buildings. But for your first promotion you will need to provide a certain number of clothes, which you can either make out of leather (competing for the same game animal resource as your food), or by setting up a sheep farm and turning the wool into clothes. You can produce different kinds of foods, like grain for bread, or fish for smoked fish. And the type of map you are on has an influence on your production: In the desert you have problems finding trees and green spots for pastures, while in a northern climate during the winter no grain grows and you can't fish in frozen rivers.

Some resources you can't find everywhere, for example you need to find a stone quarry to produce stone, or an iron deposit to mine iron. These resources might not be found in the province where you start, so you'll go out to explore other provinces. If the other provinces are empty, you can take control of them by building an outpost there. If they are already taken, you would need to conquer the enemy outpost. There are only two types of soldiers, melee and archers, and producing them requires only iron and money. But as iron mines tend to run out after some time, you better have conquered and secured the next iron mine before your enemies do. The strategy part isn't very complex, you can select all your military with one button, and then click on the enemy troops or outpost to attack. As you can see, the focus is very different than other empire-building games, like Age of Empires, who tend to have a much simpler economic part, and more complex strategy part.

I had fun with the demo, and I will buy The Settlers: Rise of an Empire, although probably my wife will play it more than I will. Blue Byte, the developers, made a conscious effort to make this game accessible for people who haven't played similar games. This might be the ideal introductory city-building game for new gamers. The downside of that is that it is less complex than previous games of the series, and thus maybe a bit too easy for the experienced settler. But in the demo I only saw the tutorial and one open-ended single-player map, while the real game will have a campaign mode adding a bit more story to the game.

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