Yeah, I dropped the date thingy. If you’re really curious what day I posted this on, it’s in the Uniform Resource Locator.
Hah! Bet you didn’t know what URL stood for, did ya? (Disclaimer: I didn’t. All hail Google)
Anyway, the following will be a review of a video game, as I haven’t done one of those in a while. (Granted, I haven’t done one of anything on this blog in two months. Still). If gaming isn’t your thang, I’m not sure if you’ll find anything of interest here. In my eternal benevolence, I have chosen to not hate you if you choose not to read it if that would be the case.
For everyone else: Settlers.
The first Settlers game I have played was also one of the oldest games I remember owning: Settlers 4. I remember being so horrible at it I spent hours on end on so called ‘free-play maps’, with no opponents and no goals, so I could just build stuff. It was -as far as I remember- a well-balanced mix between RTS and the economy-centered ‘build your own village’ type game I loved from Cultures. It also came with the mini-game called Smack-a-Thief, which was every bit as amusing as it sounds.
About a year ago, I picked up its sequel: the then already aging ‘The Settlers: Heritage of Kings’. This game eschews much of the economy management of its predecesor, and focusses more on the military strategy aspect of the game. Enough so for me to call it a full RTS game. It was fun, but nothing too special.
About a week or so ago, I picked up the latest in the Settlers series: number 7, Path to a Kingdom
Plot (the massive spoiler section):
Don’t worry. It’s really, really not all that good.
The game’s story pleasantly surprised me right off the bat by introducing a female protagonist ~a rarity in, fuck, any game~ and then shortly after smacked my hopes into the ground by making her naive and stupid. The campaign puts you in the shoes of princess Zoe, the daughter of king Konraden, ruler of an unnamed kingdom somewhere in the late Middle Ages. Daddy summons her to his palace (apparently Zoe is a big girl living on her own, far enough away from her father that a visit warrants a top-speed ride on horse-back through the countryside) and tells her that her dearest wish, a crown of her own, can be fulfilled. The neighbouring kingdom of Tandria is in political disarray after the tyrant king Balderus has been overthrown by a lord Wolvering and his ‘Dark Knight Dracorian’. Zoe is tasked to colonise Tandria, after which her father promisses her to crown her as queen of the realm. Zoe accepts and struts off to meet with a contact of her father’s, a Tandrian innkeeper named Bors. The intro movie, however, shows the king as less than trustworthy, because, as his daughter marches off, he turns around, his back towards her, grinning evilly in the general direction of the camera, and mutters the words ‘desire, how wonderfully blinding you are.’
Zoe meets up with Bors, who happens to be very well versed in the art of statecraft, and teaches her the ropes during the course of the first few missions, where you ‘fight’ against several of Wolvering’s minions, until you face off against his right-hand man Dracorian, his sister Rovyn and finally the lord Wolvering himself. During these encounters Zoe enters in gut-wrenchingly awful dialogue with her opponents who all claim Wolvering is a hero and Balderus a tyrant, as well as with her mentor Bors, who is strangely fond of the disposed king, and knows a little bit too much about managing an empire than an innkeeper should. Yeah. Zoe’s not very smart.
She also frequently displays doubt and unease about executing some of the “ruthless” plans Bors suggests; doubt and unease he quickly talks her out of by saying ‘it’s the only way’. It made me want to yell at the screen “You’re the princess, bitch! You’re in bleeding command! Stop taking orders from an innkeeper!” more than once.
When she finally defeats Wolvering, and conquers Tandria’s capital, Zoe returns to her father to claim her crown, which is when the Big Reveal we never ever saw coming shows that her father never intended to crown her, and instead gives the crown back to the exiled king Balderus, who -you never guessed it- turns out to be none other than Bors, the guy who has been ‘guiding’ you (read: bossing you around) for the first three quarters of the game.
So Zoe feels bad about being used in her father’s political games, and she feels guilty about putting a known tyrant back on the throne, so she springs Dracorian from prison and asks him to help her fight back against her father and king Balderus (and not, say, the older, more experienced Wolvering, or any other of his henchmen. Nope. Only the hunk Dracorian, because this story really needs a love interest you saw coming from miles away).
And then they fight back and defeat her father and king Balderus, Dracorian crowns her Queen of Tandria and all is well. The end.
No, really. I could predict every single thing that would happen the moment the introduction scene ended. And so would the average reader (everyone, I would assume) of this blog.
The ‘important’ part
So in the introduction I already pointed out that one Settlers game does not equal another. So what kind of a game is Settlers 7? Based on the story, it would be safe to assume that Settlers 7 centers around army and combat and conquering your opponents through military force, what with the story being about conquering a foreign nation and whatnot. It would also be a very wrong thing to assume. Combat and warfare is a very minor, very optional part of the game. Apart from the first few tutorial missions, which railroad you along to a specific goal, the game offers you three ways to achieve victory -three paths to your kingdom, as it were- you can raise a military to conquer the shit out of everyone, you can play it economically and use trade to your advantage, or you can go the religious route of science (the game, while set on ‘Earth’ (judging by the world map) is entirely fictional, proven by the fact that religion and science are somehow related).
Every map you play on is divided into territories. Every territory has a ‘camp’ that marks the centre and roads connecting these camps. These roads are the only way for everything to move from territory to territory (henceforth referred to as ‘zone’, because it’s easier to type). Every player starts with a single starting-zone, with a castle instead of a camp, and must expand from there. You do this by getting your economy going. This game does something fun in that every economic building with the exception of the warehouse has three ‘plots’ around it that can be used for add-ons (called work yards). The Mountain Shelter building can have up to three stone quarries, gold/iron/coal mines, iron smelters or coking plants (turning wood into coal). The lodge has forester (plants trees), woodcutter (cuts trees), sawmill, hunter’s, fisherman’s, etcetera. Higher production work yards, like the mint, the toolmaker, the bakery, the weaver, etc are build around residences, which also supply you with the majority of your population. In true Settler-style, all resources need to be physically moved from the place they are produced to the place they are used and this is done most efficiently by a well-working network of warehouses (or, in other terms, build the damn things everywhere!). While building up your economy, it’s a good idea to start working on your path to victory. As mentioned above, there are three paths: military, trade and religion. In the beginning of a match you’ll have to rely on a small military force, supplemented by a group of outrageously expensive mercenaries to take the neutral zones connected to yours that you need, but once you unlock the necessary options in the tech tree (which you do by spending prestige points, which you get from conquering neutral zones and building pretty stuff) you can build a church, an export office and a stronghold. Here you respectively train clerics, traders and soldiers, which can give you certain benefits. All three can be used to capture neutral zones: the soldiers march in, fight the rabble located there and capture the zone after spending a while in the camp uncontended, the traders can bring cold coins to the zone to bribe the shit out of it, converting it to your side, and the clerics can simply march into the zone, wag their arms around and exclaim that God said you should rule this place (an act the game refers to as ‘proselytize’. I’ll happily admit I had to look that one up, though my hunch that it means ‘convert’ was, alarmingly enough, correct). That’s where the similarities between benefits ends.
A strong military is the only way to take zones captured by another player, as these zones can’t be bribed or converted -sorry, proselytized. Stress on the ‘strong’, though, as the odds will be stacked firmly in favour of the defender. You can upgrade a zone’s camp to reinfoce the zone with towers at each of the entrances. Every enemy army which enters the defended zone will have to fight one of these towers, which take at least 10 (trust me, it’s a huge number in this game) musketeers to take down, or the very expensive, hard-to-get cannons if the towers are furtherly upgraded into stone. You also lose most of these musketeers or cannons in the process, and all of that is before your army engages whatever troops are stationed within the zone. This means it’s very easy to make your territories untakeable until late in a game.
Traders can be used to, well, trade. There is a world map that has several trading posts on it, these posts are all connected to each other in a network that originates from a central post where everyone ‘begins’. You send the required amount of traders out to these posts, claming them. Most posts open up a certain trade route that let you exchange x of one resource for y of another (usually coins for other stuff). Some contain other goodies. Once a post is claimed, it’s yours. Other players may ‘travel there’ as a stepping stone on their own trading path, but they can’t make use of whatever benefits you gained by claiming it.
Clerics can be used for research, which is done on the research board: a board with research options branching out from three locations. Much like the trade posts on the world map, research options are unlocked by researching the ones that connect it to one of these three locations. To research something, you train the required amount of clerics, and send them to do research in one of the three monasteries on the map (corresponding with the research ‘start points’). Once a research is done, it’s locked. Only the player that has done it, reaps the benefits, and no other player can use that research as a stepping stone, though the board is set up in such a way that all researches can be reached from multiple directions.
Now, how does this lead to victory? The second half of the campaign, as well as every skirmish game has the players competing over a number of victory points. The first player who reaches a previously set amount of points (dependent on the map’s size and player count) will initiate a three minute countdown. If that player manages to hold on to their points for the full duration, they win the match. Victory points can be earned in any number of ways, and some are locked on their player, while others are fluid. The two furthest trading posts and the research in the middle of the board award a victory point each and are locked on. Other points like most zones, most soldiers, greatest worker population, biggest stockpile of unused coins, etc, go to the player who first reaches the minimum count for each, and then switch to another player when they overtake them by one or more (these points rest with their current owner in case of a tie). Which points you grab and how isn’t important. What is important is that you get enough before your opponents do, and manage to hold onto them long enough.
The whole setup made me feel like I was playing a more complicated, real-time version of Settlers of Catan, and ever since I really wanted to play THAT game again.
The game supports team play, which is interesting because the only thing team members share are victory points. Traders, workers and soldiers are also allowed to pass through zones controlled by an ally (clerics can move anywhere without restriction, regardless of who controls a zone), but allies don’t share resources, don’t share researches and don’t share trading options. This makes communications among allies vital which, given the fact I only played with AI players, proved difficult.
Graphics and shizz
As much as I would love to say the graphics look really nice, the colours very vibrant and the cartoony style are cute as hell, because of some reason the game kept crashing on me when I played on anything but the lowest graphics setting. So… yeah…
Based off of screenshots, though, the graphics look really nice, the colours very vibrant and the cartoony style is cute as hell.
The music is very good. With an orchestral soundtrack and an amazing titlesong written for the game, the music always managed to set the mood right for me.
While I think the story was awful, I must confess I didn’t expect much to begin with, as I usually don’t from these types of games. The campaign missions offer some unique challenges, but eventually revert to the ‘series of skirmishes’ trap many RTS’s do. Especially when the tutorial part is over, and you fight against the other characters over control of victory points, much like you would in skirmishes. The fact that most of these campaign maps have been adapted for skirmish play doesn’t help the case of ‘interesting campaign’ much. Even so, the campaign was entertaining. Don’t underestimate it, though. Despite the fact that the story and cartoony graphics might be more attractive to younger players, the difficulty will stomp your face in the later levels. Because most victory points are fluid, you can spend an hour or two on a map thinking you are set to victory, until one of the AI opponents swoops in, takes a bunch of your points and forces you to reload to a previous save or even the beginning.
The skirmishes against AI opponents got dull rather quickly. However, I think this game has great potential as a social game between friends who set their laptops in the same room. The fact that there’s no fog of war and you can watch what your opponents are up to anyway seems to work in favour of this argument.
What doesn’t is the DRM. It’s a Ubisoft game, meaning it requires an internet connection 100% of the time. Which sucks, but the game seemed stable enough with the crap connection in my flat, and when it did die, the game just paused with a message saying ‘connection lost. Please reconnect to continue’ rather than, you know, making you lose every bit of progress since your last save.
Other than that, the game really had me entertained. I can see myself coming back to it every now and again. It can be played on both PC and Mac, which is always an awesome bonus.
As for me, I’m well over the 2500-word mark, so I’m going to stop here. As always, please leave a comment, either here or through more private means. Feedback is, as always, appreciated.