After the much publicized fiasco on QA related delays, Blue Byte finally gives us the fourth rendition of the venerable Settlers franchise. The Settlers phenomenon, as a whole, has largely been confined to Europe. One of the principle reasons for this is immediately evident to anyone who is new to Settlers; especially those RTS aficionados. Let me make no ambiguity on this point, Settlers will humble those who are used to having to handle one resource, or more recently in titles like Myth or Force Commander, no resources. Thus, it is this facet of Settlers that rebukes current RTS trends and makes it more like a city-building game akin to Impressions' Zeus or Pharaoh.
The reason for this is the extensive amount of resources one must do to make a civilization work. For those who are not familiar with Settlers, I will give a brief overview of the unique features attached to this franchise. In this world, you are unable to control any peasants or peons directly. Along the lines of Majesty, you issue orders and set out sites for construction, for example, while the civilian mass assemble themselves to perform it. Not only do you have to worry about resources, you must manage the need for tools, for every facet of the Settlers game requires some tool to perform. A miner will need a pickaxe while a woodcutter will need an axe. Even at these low level extractions of raw material, tools are needed. But the tool workshop requires a long list of things including iron and coal. Iron is derived from coal and iron ore in the smelter's workshop. While the smelter depends on the iron mines, the iron mines do not work unless you supply it with food, preferably meat. Moreover, the meat needs to be cleaved, as the settlers cannot consume whole sheep, thus, making a slaughterhouse necessary. Furthermore, the sheep are grown in ranches but they require grain from a farm and finally, water, from a waterworks hut. In one instance during my game, many of my settlers sat idle and I had to wonder for quite some time why until I found out an ill-placed waterworks hut could not supply sufficient water to the ranch. Hence, I was not able to create iron so necessary for war production. This indeed boggles the initiate to Settlers but like most skills in life, constant practice will make one more acutely aware of the economic chain.
In fact, the tutorials and manual clump each category into "industries". For example, the apparatus needed to extract essential building materials, like wood and stone, are called the Construction Industry. This title also features an extensive tutorial, including a dozen tutorial missions to help ease you into the fold. RTS veterans will of course balk at such a long chain of tutorials but through a few hours of trial and error, I was able to feel my way through the game using just the popup labels. At almost every point in the game, the developers have inserted some sort of explanatory note to indicate how such a unit or building is to be used. There is also a brief quick start guide in the manual to get you started as well, but I found the manual a bit thrift considering the bulk of the game itself. I would have preferred a few more sections discussing tactics or how to handle certain situations, instead of having the player think through it during the game.
Unlike most strategy games though, you are given a set boundaries that must be extended by building a set of manned forts. Or you can elect to use specialized settlers, called pioneers, to help extend the boundary of your land. Only within this boundary can one actually build anything or use their resources, as normal settler workers cannot traverse beyond the civilization's borders. However, military units can and so do the aforementioned specialized civilians. In Settlers IV, you can select from the settler labour pool, certain individuals for training as: gardener, pioneer, thief and geologist. The gardener is like an early form of a terraformer, as he restores the landscape back to land suited for habitation. Thieves are able to steal resources from neighbouring nations. In traditional RTS games, places for minerals are well marked but in Settlers, one must deploy a geologist to survey the land before building any mines, as some rocky areas could be absolutely barren making any mines there completely useless. Military units also drain from the civilian pool, so it becomes essential to balance how militarized one's state has to be. Even though military units require no upkeep, a high level of recruitment or conscription will severely weaken the economic front. This is quite a novel idea and I am increasingly appreciative of RTS titles that are beginning to show the adverse effects of total war mentality, something not present in say Command and Conquer.
Military units are able to staff certain towers or even castles and this strengthens their defense against the enemy. There are elite units that cost more resources, namely gold, to recruit, and you can also recruit "squad leaders" who have various potent abilities but generally make your rabble of troops more effective. Combat is hardly tactical and without formations, more along the lines of storming each other's defenses. The dotted boundary of one's civilization gives a dramatic effect that I am not sure was intended. One cannot be but charmed at commanding Roman troops to repel Viking or Mayan assaults along the frontiers of civilization. Though there are three specific races, Roman, Viking or Mayan, I often wish the distinctions between them, both aesthetic and functional, would be more divergent. The Romans, for example, use copious amounts of stone and wood in their buildings; creating the illusion of something medieval rather than the marble we are all used to. There are even standards, archways and other extra adornments like Simcity 3000, to help spruce up the attractiveness of your lands. There are a total of four campaigns to be embarked on. Three missions for each specific side but there is also a much lengthier main campaign against a fourth tribe; The Dark Tribe led by a character known as Morbus. Morbus apparently descends on Earth and is sick of the greenery, so he commands his villains to sow seeds to defile the lands, making them unusable to normal settlers and enslaving settlers to do his bidding. Thus, the Settlers tribes must unite to overcome this threat.
The impetus for this story is painted in various pre-rendered cutscenes. However, I found the story rather lacking, considering the mission objectives given, which are greatly simplified from Settlers III. Most of them are merely masks for tasking the player to conquer such and such an enemy. It does not approach anywhere near AOE's scripted story nature, or Starcraft for that matter. There are several advances Settlers veterans might be keen on. For one, there are harbors that now extend the Settler franchise to the seas. Roads and pathways are built automatically, depending on how much traffic there is. For example, if there is a constant pathway between the mill and the farm, a road will eventually be built to speed things along. Moreover, donkey carts can speed things along and move beyond the nation's borders.
Overall, the technical aspects of Settlers are quite wonderful. There are copious amounts of animation and the game can afford to deal with large amounts of this on screen with no troubles at all. There is hardware acceleration for landscape and objects but software acceleration is provided as well. As a result, one has the ability to zoom in and out, although zooming too often presents a pixilated view of the world and I am unable to grasp the true value of this. The developers have chosen an incredibly vibrant palette that is both pleasing to the eye and gives the genre a slightly humorous treatment. Often there are animals running around next to your civilization as well. This goes beyond what was done in AOE, for there are all sorts of critters including rabbits, deer and birds. Of course, these can also be hunted down for food. Settlers is always environmentally friendly as it includes a forester, which is basically a tree planter, and you are able to create a sustainable forest in this fashion. The tragedy is, of course, your other supplies have a definite lifespan. There is a generous amount of sound cues but no speech in any form, since the developers have elected to remove things like unit acknowledgement. The audio in the cinematic sequences is done well, but not entirely spectacular, and the mission briefings are narrated in a slightly monotonous nature. If we recollect the now legendary narration in Myth, there simply is no comparison. Therefore, the technical side of Settlers is done well and better than the previous iterations but I provide one caveat emptor. Be sure to check whether your system is capable of running the title first as it is not entirely friendly with the now defunct 3dfx hardware and has slight problems with Nvidia hardware as well. Most of these are driver issues or in the case of a Voodoo 5500, one must change a specific setting.
This game does not betray its title; Settlers. You will undoubtedly be doing a lot of "settling". For much of the game, I was unable to use characters like the thief, principally because they were so far away from my nation's boundaries. This instigates players to have an inward look, like Zeus or Pharaoh, to build up one's civilization economically. Settlers provides a plethora of graphs and statistics to assess your performance. It even includes a percentage rating of your offensive and defensive capabilities. But even then, new players will make the mistake of playing too defensively and allow opponents to amass a huge army.
Blue Byte has recently expanded their offerings at their Blue Byte Game Channel, a proprietary service that works along the lines of Battle.net or Westwood's service. It allows people to be ranked and provides a common place to develop a clan-like sense of community. Moreover, it creates a water hole, basically to allow both co-operative and competitive styles of play online. You can also elect to play on LAN. Here, I must add another caveat emptor. Incorrect drivers for a very common 10mbit Ethernet card, the Realtek or RTL8029, will have an adverse effect on the performance during multiplayer. I particularly like the co-operative aspect of the game but the objectives created have the tendency to look pre-generated, rather than incorporate some form of narrative to justify playing together against the computer.
The AI in this game also exhibits some funny behaviour. The title provides aids to let you know if a woodcutter has run out of trees in his designated area but is unable to tell you specifically why there is a mass of settlers sitting around idle. As such, you must dive into micromanagement minutia in order to determine what is at fault. Of course, I could be asking for too much automation but I would think something along the lines of thought bubbles above settlers' heads would help me discern what is going on. Another thing I did not understand was a sudden stop in weapons or tool factories, despite the abundant supplies available. No amount of toggling auto/manual production or placing direct requisitions for items could spur these factories to produce again. Thus, in the end, I had to destroy these workshops and rebuild them. And this happened a few times in the most inopportune moments, like after I lost a half my army. Another thing I noticed is the negligible population growth. Building a large residence house affords you roughly fifty new settlers but once those settlers are killed, they seem unable to regenerate their numbers, unless you build another large residence. Hence, eventually, you will have far more housing available than people inhabiting them.
The civilian population is usually not killed in combat as the AI exerts a gentlemanly conduct when it comes to war. They often cleverly target the control centers of your towers or castles so as to preserve everything intact. That is not to say they will not demolish buildings later when they are on an imminent retreat. Once land is lost, your settlers will flee back into their own borders. However, the AI seems to like to amass large numbers of units and storm your defenses en masse. Though any good defense will repel one assault, it will not be long until they storm your defenses again. In games with multiple players, this strategy between two nations severely weakens them so much, that they are unable to defend themselves against a third party. It is akin to the Roman empire in the 7th century AD, when they and the Sassanian Persians escalated war so much that the Romans annihilated the Persians, eventually letting the Islamic Arabs conquer them both; not such a wise strategy on the part of the AI.
This title is quite delightful, despite its faults. But the casual gamer will ask, if it is so charming and interesting, why has it not debunked the ubiquitous AOE franchise yet? The reason, I believe, why this has yet to transfer 'across the pond', so to speak, to North America is explained by Sid Meier to his former colleague Bruce Shelley, incidentally the principle figure behind AOE. Meier said to Shelley that AOE succeeded so well because it succinctly catered to both hardcore and casual gamers with a near perfect learning curve that was not too complex but neither too benign. Settlers IV requires one to be patient enough to sit down and learn the process of the game. Any player uninitiated in RTS or Settlers will undoubtedly, as I was, be humbled by what initially looks like an insanely complex interface. Unlike most RTS games, it gives you the chance to access all levels of technology at once so the discipline rests on the player to determine what needs to be done. Settlers is essentially the antithesis of Red Alert 2, its style suits itself to a slower pace of play thus making multiplayer affairs less action-like and potentially longer in length. If one can get past all this, Settlers is quite charming and this facet alone explains why it has endured for four iterations and possibly more in the future.