Anno 1701 is the latest in the Anno series of games and takes you back to the golden age of exploration. It kicks off with some nice cinematic footage and some very stirring music, these two things combine to immediately draw the eye and pull you into the world that's presented.
Once you've picked a profile and sorted out your options you can choose from a campaign style game, where you get to fulfil a number of objectives or a free play game where you can set up the victory conditions, choose your opponents and even toggle on and off the Non Player Characters such as the Native Americans and Pirates.
The game has a very useful tutorial that teaches you the basics of building up a thriving colony and managing said colony. You can see right from the start that the developers want you to spend time playing the game, not watching a myriad of buildings build. So there's no build time on your structures, they appear as you place them down.
You have to admire any game that takes a leaf from the old Dungeon Keeper series and pops a little warning up after a couple of hours of play, akin to the: you've been playing for two hours now, isn't it time you took a break? Or the classic: It's beyond midnight now, shouldn't you be in bed?
During this time I'd gotten to grips with the building part of the game and I can report it uses the same tried a tested resource management, buildings and road linking of other city and civilisation building games. As the old saying goes, if it's not broken don't try and fix it.
Building up your colony is surprisingly easy, getting a working colony that is satisfied in terms of needs and wants is however trickier. The good news here is that there are numerous tools that allow the player to keep an eye on their people. You can get detailed information from the town centre to help you plan what you need to do next and the citizens homes will reveal what the population wants.
At Pioneer level this can be as simple as a bit of food and some clothes, but as you begin to evolve your folk through the socio-economic ladder you'll need to satisfy several requirements, like that of religion and the most important for a Caribbean setting: RUM!
Each island supports a few basic commodities, such as sugar cane or hops. No one island usually has the commodities to allow your civilisation to grow right from the start. You can either trade with other colonies, the free trader or the NPCs such as the Native Americans, or expand your colony to another island and colonise that.
Once you have a new colony you can begin to set up trade routes and ensure that your people have enough of the things they need to grow. It all seems extremely effortless and to be frank is quite a joy to play. It does get a little complex in the way things are done initially but if you pay attention to the tutorials then you will find things go a lot smoother.
Where the game falls down is when you go to war, there's not a lot of strategic planning here, it's a 'mine is bigger than yours' scenario and leads ultimately to frustration as the player with the most advanced of anything is likely to win the battles. War usually happens when there's a scarce commodity and things get fractious between the so-called allies and other nations, you can play the game however you want and if you want to play a peaceful style game, pick opponents that are likely to be pushovers.
The AI is on a whole a fairly decent one; it concentrates on building up its own colonies, exploration and even engages in trade and diplomacy with you and the other opponents. It can make some pretty good decisions in terms of creating a thriving colony and very often expands quicker than you. It has various settings and when it comes to war, the AI often knows its strengths and weaknesses.
With such robust gameplay and a really great GUI the game has a mild learning curve; it's also a nice looking game. The graphics are excellent in Anno 1701 and the game has some of the nicest water effects in any game of this type. The models and animations are all top notch and the game's style shines through there with special events like a brass band, all animated with a great deal of heart.
The camera is fully 3d and you can tilt/pan/rotate to your heart's content, there's even a special mode for taking screens where it gives you a panoramic view - a nice touch there. The light and shade effects in the game really add to the overall look and the building models are suitably rendered with a great deal of detail, it's nice to see the individual tiles on the rooftops and the cobbles
The sound and music are likewise top notch, the voice acting as you might expect is a little OTT in places but it fits with the larger than life feel of the game. The music is a dramatic and often sweeping score. There's a lot of life in the actual gameworld thanks to a good use of ambient and spot sound effects, the various buildings all have their own audio cues.
You can play the game with a mix of human and AI opponents/allies in multiplayer and there's online and network play enabled. I foresee a lot of alliances made and broken between friends and enemies in the multiplayer, if the games go anywhere the same direction as ours.
So there you have it. I think Anno 1701 has a great deal of potential, there's nothing absolutely mind-blowing about the game. The product is solid and it's presented in a package that brings out the fun in the game, from the excellent tutorials to the superb GUI it's a joy to play and never feels like a slog. It is let down by a poor strategic battle element and war should have been given the same amount of polish as the other elements in the game - it feels a little tacked on otherwise.
The sheer level of detail that Anno provides in terms of characters and structures on screen at any time is excellent and it's a game that you really can sit back and have hours of relaxing fun with. Play it at your own pace or with friends, but play it non-the-less.