Back in the days of the fledgling RTS' there were a few games that really stood out from the crowd, one of those was developed by Blue Byte software and went by the name of: The Settlers. It was a fun and quirky little 'build your own empire' RTS with lots of micro management and I mean lots, you could lay down tracks and roads and control every little element of your colony - in some ways this game laid the foundations for every RTS that followed.
Now we're in 2005 and we've had several sequels since then, yet nothing had really changed from game to game and in my humble opinion it was probably a good thing. So this neatly brings me to the subject of my latest review: Settlers - Heritage of Kings.
We're back in the mists of time again folks with this latest instalment of the series, a king's empire has been shattered and broken by an evil ruler called Mordred (Arthurian influence there Ed?). King Keron's heir has vanished and the evil ruler's troops have been scouring the lands looking for him, but to no avail.
Now a dying woman confirms to a young man known as Thalgrund (Not Arthur then? Ed.) That he is indeed the last heir to the throne, he must go upon a great quest and reunite several fragments of something called The Orb.
It's not a terribly original plot and as far as fantasy goes seems to be the usual run of the mill, but that's not really what you care about in games of this kind. At least it does have a story albeit a bit clichéd.
We're back to the tried and tested methods of resource gathering and mining here with HoK. These staples have served us well over the years and the Settlers was one of the first games to really push the whole resource management to the limit. It's traditional RTS style gameplay all the way with this game and it doesn't really bring much new to the table in terms of GUI and control.
Serfs build things, they can be assigned to do various jobs around your massive areas and your settlement will expand at a frightening rate as you gain new buildings and technology from utilising your University building. You can upgrade almost every structure to gain new benefits and advantages and as you build a new kind of work-related structure you'll gain new workers to operate it.
This means that you'll need to build farms to support them with food and places for them to go to sleep when they're not working. It's always a good idea to place these buildings close to a primary location where the workers are doing their jobs so they don't have to wander too far to get some rest or chow.
There are a lot of building types in HoK and they're all useful for some reason or another, you'll have to experiment with how to construct the most effective settlement and you can also add certain 'eyecandy' features to your area, such as a fountain and a big clock, these things all add to your workers motivation and help them maintain a better work ethic.
HoK adds heroes and takes a leaf out of Warcraft in that respect when it comes to building armies and assigning warriors to various battle groups. These are all tried and tested methods when it comes to RTS games and the old adage rings true: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Inventions and technology is divided between military and economical/aesthetic types of structures. Farms, mills, mines, universities along with workshops and barracks, there seemed to be no option or help to rotate the buildings before they're placed however and that means you don't have as much control as you'd like about how you expand your settlement as there can be empty places perfect for a building if it's rotated.
The weather now plays an important role in your kingdom's growth as well as when it comes time for war, units that are based around fire such as cannons and so on will find it harder to function in heavy rain and winter. Your people will become more lethargic when the storm rages on and so forth. All well and good and it's nice to see some innovation there, but it comes as too little and too late.
They added far too much combat which I think transforms the game into another clone of previous RTS' and they took out the micro management, sure you can raise and lower, set taxes and so on. But the things that made the Settlers great are pretty much all gone.
I'm not saying it's a bad game because it's not, it's just not what I would have expected from the franchise that's all.
HoK is a good looking game but there was a certain charm and happy, safe feeling about the previous games with their cartoon and somewhat endearing graphics. I think personally that the makers should have kept that feel and look, it's another thing that made the games unique, now HoK while it looks like kind of reminds me of other RTS games out there and it's lost that feeling of wonder.
The new graphic and models are gorgeous there's no doubt about it but they just don't feel like they belong. The building models especially are brought to life with a really good eye for detail and they have done a nice job on the textures and individual character designs, models.
The lighting and shadow effects are very nice indeed and the way the seasons roll around and the weather changes is nearly seamless, these things make the game in the graphics department and transform the landscape in real time from winter to spring and so on through the cycle of time. They could have however implemented real time lighting and shadows and not relied on some static art effects, since this makes their texturing and detail a little bland in places.
A bit ropey at times and the pathfinding could have used considerably more work regarding the army movement. These are niggles that could be applied to the majority of RTS games out there though and I don't think we've yet seen the perfect AI in that respect, to be honest I hardly doubt we really will either.
What we get does the job well enough and doesn't advance the genre at all.
Music and sound
I found the music in the game to be somewhat jarring and repetitive along with the spot sounds and various ambient noises, they were quickly able to get on my nerves with the various reports and sudden warnings. There seemed to be a lot of blandness about the sound as well, as if it were thrown in with a sudden afterthought and not as meticulously crafted as one might expect.
They could have really increased the atmosphere here if they'd have created a nice set of flowing musical scores and gone to town on the sound.
The military units must be clones because apart from the odd one-liner they all sound the same as each other, the voice work in the game is sadly sub-par and lifeless as actors read their lines with more wood than a forest full of lumber-mills.
There's LAN and Online MP action for up to 6 people and you get to play various gametypes:
Conquest: Destroy the enemy team HQs.
Technology Race: You have to research all the technology from the College.
Point Game: The game lasts one hour and you must beat your opponents point score.
So as you can see here there's nothing really new to tempt you into the MP either, it's all been seen and done before. With a game heritage as rich as Settlers and a team as talented as Blue Byte I would have expected a lot more.
The map design is as bland as the actual voice acting and combining that with the frightfully slow pace of the game, there's no auto explore or other such features as one might expect from the RTS genre it can take an age to uncover things on the maps and that might be all right for some of the slower paced gamers out there, but even HoK redefines the term slow paced.
Add this to the awfully clichéd story and the way it's told through the game and you'll soon realise that it's a chore and not a joy to play through. I have seen some of the gamer's feedback not long after I wrote this review and I can see where they're coming from. Compared to the latest batch of RTS games to come out this one should have been the dog's dongles but it falls short due to the reasons outlined in the review. I couldn't in all honesty give it a higher score than it has and it only gets that because of the technical side of the game's graphics and GUI.
The battles are supposed to be fun and frenetic and I kept on feeling that I really should be making a cup of tea while playing the game, it pains me to have to say such things because I had a soft spot for all the previous games but there you have it, my two cents or what ever you want to call it.
In the end you really only need to get this if you're a fan of collecting every RTS under the sun, for it feels just like those that have come before it only not as polished in certain aspects of the game play.