Review: The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom (PC)
The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom (the random name generator for medieval games is clearly running on empty) is the latest entry in the Settlers series and seeks to expand the gameplay in some very interesting ways. Developer Blue Bytes went back to the drawing board and did an admirable job of updating their establish formula. Stylized cartoony presentation, intricate production chain management, fierce competition among scientific, economic and military fronts, and all of it brought down by one giant problem. That problem's name is Ubisoft.
It seems to me fairly obvious, that in order to pass judgment on a game, I must first be able to play it. Sadly, despite Ubisoft getting $60 for my copy of the gold edition, The Settlers 7 remained unplayable for the entire first day of “ownership” and at other random points for the next few days. You see, the new Ubisoft Digital Rights Management (DRM) requires you to log into their servers and keep a continuous connection while you play, regardless of whether you intend to play singleplayer or multiplayer. What happens when there is a bug in the system, or their servers go down, or your internet goes down, or you simply don't have the means to maintain a constant connection? Tough luck. You don't get access in any way shape or form. You are met with this screen:
Ubisoft wants to make one point very clear to you: You do not own this game. They do. You are paying them money to borrow it whenever they see fit. And why are you being screwed so hard? They would have you believe scary ghost stories about 10-foot tall pirates that can fell giant game publishers simply by gazing at them. Whatever threat online pirates actually pose, Ubisoft has elevated them to an almost “9/11 terrorist” level status and has used that bogeyman threat to exert draconian controls over the consumer. Let me make one thing clear: They neither trust nor respect you as a customer. They do not deserve your money and that's why I'm going to take the pre-emptive measure of giving this game a “Fry It” rating. After all, even if the game turns out to be the second coming of Christ, it doesn't matter in the slightest if you can't even play it. Ubisoft wants to spit on me while simultaneously taking my money and that is something I can't abide. And neither should you.
I'll be honest with you. Personally speaking, this review is over for me. Until and unless the DRM is removed or severely curtailed, no one should buy this game or any game published by Ubisoft. But in the interest of professionalism and posterity, it's still my duty to provide an accurate appraisal of the game. So while my entire experience has been completely soured by the DRM debacle, I'll soldier on and attempt an objective review, albeit through gritted teeth.
As briefly mentioned above, Blue Bytes built on their previous Settlers titles while adding and refining more than a few aspects. The main draw of these city builder games is to take an empty piece of land and slowly transform it into a bustling city utilizing a complex series of production chains to establish an economic equilibrium, and in doing so, conquer your opponents through economic or military means. Settlers 7 doesn't deviate from this established formula but it does add in a bunch of new twists and tweaks, while at the same time, simplifying an area that most city builder games falter on, namely the military aspect.
The first thing you will notice upon booting the game up (assuming Ubisoft deemed you worthy of access) is the wonderfully stylized cartoon personality that runs throughout the game world. Every character, building, cut scene and battle is charmingly infused with a fairytale, story book aesthetic.
The style itself is perfect for the game and gives it a definite sense of uniqueness. Likewise, the music in the game is outstanding, especially the main menu theme which sounds almost like a mix of celtic fantasy and The Cranberries. Other pieces have equally interesting operatic highlights. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about the writing in the campaign. Both the plot and the dialogue suffer heavily from poor execution, containing all of the flair and wit you would expect to find in a straight-to-DVD, 3D animation movie designed for four year olds. As in countless strategy games before it, the context to motivate you on from random map to random map is sorely lacking.
The tutorial is rigorous, lasting for about 6 missions (I say “about” because as I'm writing this, I once again can't actually log in to the game to recheck). But even though I'm not new to city building games, I needed this much time to learn all of the different production combinations and game mechanics. Trying to figure out just how many woodcutters you need to have in order to efficiently operate a book binder, an iron smelter, and a couple of coking plants, on top of producing wooden planks for construction is an example of the kind of complexity that can be both fun and maddening. Equally vital to master is the art of storehouse placement. Unlike in games such as Dawn of Discovery, there are no hard radii for how far away a warehouse can be from your other buildings. Instead, mismanagement has the far more realistic, and painful, effect of grinding your economy to a slow halt. You can always recover from this, but the game deserves credit for not holding the player's hand with hard boundaries.
Blue Bytes seems to be taking a page out of the Civilization playbook when they introduce the idea of victory points which now make science and trade equally capable of winning a map. Instead of making you dominate every opponent through military conquest or “gather more of X before everyone else” missions, you are all now in competition for victory points which span a whole range of goals, including researching the most technology, conquering special regions, having the most prestige, or even amassing the largest army (which may never even see much combat), most of which changes moment to moment throughout the match.
The back and forth battle for these victory points are what define Settlers 7, making direct conflict more of a tactical, surgical affair, rather than the brute force club that most other strategy games demand. Combat is simply one potential tool in the tool chest, and if you are better with science or trade, it's entirely possible to win a game and never even field an army. There is a palpable “oh shit” moment every time an opponent steals one of your victory points because, for instance, he suddenly has the most gold in the game, giving him the “Banker” star. He didn't invade your lands, and you may not have even noticed his presence until now, but he just cut you deep. And you are left either angered or demoralized.
Getting back to combat, however, it's worth mentioning that the military aspect is handled masterfully, better than any city builder I've ever played. The age-old problem with city building games is that while their economic model is usually pretty sound, their combat engine is pathetic. No one playing really expects Supreme Commander-level depth, but the combat is usually so bad, that it would have improved the game to leave it out. Settlers 7 introduces an elegant compromise to skirt the entire issue. Instead of treating combat like a watered down RTS, it simplifies the entire procedure by only letting you add units to a General's command, and then ordering that General to march on this or that sector. Once there, the combat engine takes care of the rest, firing your cannons and musketeers and rushing your pike men and cavalry for you; you just get to sit back and watch. It may sound boring, but it takes a huge burden off that particular aspect of gameplay and keep the focus where it should be, on your economy and attaining/holding victory points.
Another unique features of Settlers 7 is the castle forge, consisting of a Spore-style building editor that allows you to construct your own castle, which then becomes the center of your empire whenever you play a match. It's a neat little component and I spent a good couple of hours designing my perfect castle. Once you finish, however, there is little reason to go back. The shape of the castle is purely aesthetic and during the game, there is never even a reason to look at it, as your focus is constantly fixed on your roads, production chains, and overview maps. Needless to say, paying an extra $10 for the gold edition, consisting primarily of more castle pieces, is not worth the money.
The campaign, given its juvenile story, only serves to prepare you for the real meat of the game, namely skirmishes and multiplayer. Here, you have all the standard options of playing against AI bots and people online. Unfortunately, you will probably be sticking mostly with AI opponents, as the online player traffic is anemic. It might be unfair for me to attribute the low player count to the DRM, but for whatever reason, there is hardly anyone playing online, even after only three weeks, post-release. The various AIs are formidable opponents, however, and each has their own tactical preferences and temperaments. Depending on which AI personality you are pitted against, even the easy difficulty can be frighteningly dangerous to play against.
For all of the charm and innovation that was brought to the game, it started becoming stale around hour ten. Perhaps the reason lies in the idea of competition itself. City building, done well, is like calibrating an old pocket watch. Minor adjustments here and there lead to small, but important changes to the overall economic ecosystem. Tropico 3 handles city building perfectly in that the player is only ever competing with his budget, his own people's happiness and the occasional election opponent. You don't need to throw down houses and factory in some frenzied panic for fear of losing another victory point. Not only does that approach lead to a damn ugly city, it also leads to a severe lack of connection to your own creation. I simply didn't care about any of the people in my kingdom, as they were just pawns in my petty competitions with other kings. The city itself was just a tool so I could win this elaborate board game. It seemed like the only time I could slow down and actually admire what I had built, was when the game was over and I was allowed to “free roam”. Ten hours in, that lack of connection and pride in my cities is ultimately what drives me to other games.
Without the DRM, Settlers 7 would still only be a “Try It” level game. It has a good core of gameplay but the campaign is a joke, devolving into a series of random skirmish maps with little personality. Fighting in skirmish and multiplayer modes is fun, but the few maps are all pretty similar and once you've establish your play style, the game never really throws you a curve ball to force you to reconsider your strategy. Those worried that the DRM is keeping people from buying a great game can rest easy that they aren't missing out on anything special by avoiding the Ubisoft label. It's sure to please most city builder fans, but those who don't already enjoy the genre won't change their minds by playing this.
Finally, I want to leave you with the image that sums up the entire experience I've had with this game. Those of you that have been paying attention, will notice that I've gone out of my way to post this picture as often as possible when discussing the topic and there is a reason for that. When trying to play and review this game, the one single screen I saw more than any other was this one. For those interested in buying, you must understand that this isn't a fluke or something wrong with my computer. You will see the screen yourselves and you will see it often; as often as I have posted it, maybe more so. So if you have grown tired of seeing it in my postings, think about how you will feel when your computer mockingly displays it most times you want to play.
Ok, Ubisoft, you win. Like a passive-aggressive girlfriend that just can't muster up the courage to break up with me and instead gets bitchier and bitchier to drive me away, you've successfully convinced me that you want nothing to do with me. I'm sorry it came to this but now that I see you for who you really are, it's probably for the best anyway. And no, I don't want a rebound date with your lonely sister Assassin's Creed 2 or anyone else in your dysfunctional family. They are all just as awful as you. I'll be by next week to pick up my stuff.
This review is based off a retail copy of the game.