It has been a while since our first impressions of Anno 1404 (also known as Dawn of Discovery in the US) in a pre-alpha version at last year’s Leipzig Games Convention in August, where we checked out the game’s new environments and campaigns. This time around, we got hands-on time with the first and second chapters to get a better idea of the gameplay and strategy element.
The 15th century is a good period for a strategy game. The time of Joan of Arc, Richard III, Leonardo da Vinci, Columbus, Vlad Tepes (aka Dracula), and the beginnings of the Portuguese empire, the longest-lived of all the modern European colonial empires, should put you in the right frame of mind when building a civilisation from scratch. But, as we found out, it can all go horribly wrong in the blink of an eye if you’re not on your game when it comes to being a good strategist.
We had hands-on time with the first two levels of the campaign mode, which, like in previous Anno games, begins with you and a ship. You will navigate using a small map on the bottom left corner of the screen, which will show you your position and your next destination via a glowing red signal. There is also an info bar on the left of the screen, which gives you status updates and lets you know your current quests and objectives. A menu on the bottom right of the screen lets you build and knock down structures and implement your current tools, while a window on the top right hand of the screen is where you’ll be given information, instructions, and quests from your guide, Lord Richard Northburg. Your ultimate goal will be to create a bustling metropolis that can run itself provided you’ve given it the right tools to do so. You’ll never be in doubt as to what you’ve done wrong or what you need to do--all you have to do is pay attention to your info bar.
Our first mission started after we were awarded a new island settlement by Lord Richard Northburg, along with some tips on how to make it work. The island is not big. It already boasts a marketplace, but you will have to fill in the rest. Following Northburg’s directions, you will build huts for lumberjacks and fishermen to get the production of wood and fish going, a warehouse to store the goods, and houses so your peasants have somewhere to live. All these structures must be connected by roads--street connections in this game are an absolute staple of a steady society.
While you’re getting your city up and running, there will be an increasing number of side quests that you must complete in order to achieve the overall quest of each chapter in the game. The first chapter’s main quest is building up your town in order to trade goods with Northburg’s town, which needs more wood and manpower to build a giant cathedral. You will be required to carry goods back and forth on the map in your ship, as well as run other errands for Northburg. These errands will earn you money, tools, and experience. The map will get bigger as you explore other cities and islands.
Back home, your peasants can advance to the next civilisation stage only if all four of their demands are met--food, drink, companionship, and faith. For food they’ll need fish, for drink they’ll need a cider farm, for companionship they’ll need proper roads connecting them to the marketplace and other houses, and for faith they’ll need a chapel. As your wood production increases, you’ll find yourself with enough materials to eventually build all these structures. Placement of the structures is crucial--your cider farm should be placed where there is enough room to include four growing fields, your chapel should be placed where it is near at least six peasant houses, and your warehouse has to be near the coast, where it can be easily accessed by ships. Although you’ll be given instructions and tips on how to do this, you can sometimes place these structures wherever you want, at your own risk. All we can tell you is that your city’s inhabitants are very picky, about everything.
To find out how happy, or unhappy, your inhabitants are, all you have to do is click on a peasant house in your town. This will bring up a meter in the top right-hand corner of the screen, which will measure your inhabitants' happiness on four levels: euphoric, happy, even-tempered, and the ominous "moving out." You also make money from your inhabitants by increasing or lowering taxes as you like (for instance, if you’re running low on funds). However, be aware that inhabitants who pay too many taxes will quickly turn unhappy.
When your inhabitants are satisfied in their four needs and all the correct buildings are in place, your town will progress to the next civilisation stage. You will now be able to build structures made of stone rather than wood, cobblestone streets rather than dirt tracks, hemp and spice farms, and a shipyard. Your inhabitants will now have new demands for things like clothes and spices--demands that you once again have to strive to meet by the correct placement of farms and structures. As you move through the game, you will encounter production chains that require more than just a farm and warehouse. Some chains will require you to cultivate a product, create an assembly line to manufacture it into another product, and then trade it to surrounding cities.
In the second chapter we were introduced to a new overall quest that required us to help another city get ready for war. This proved a lot more challenging than the first chapter in the game, with side missions and quests doubling in number and requiring us to travel further. We discovered how quickly things can disintegrate into chaos if we neglected our city between side quests--after planting a hemp farm and starting up a clothing production line, we returned to find that a riot had broken out. Unhappy inhabitants had taken to the streets with torches because their demands for food had not been met (due to an incorrectly laid road), while production had stopped at both the cider farm and the hemp farm (due to a full warehouse). By being away for a few minutes and neglecting our city, we had lost buildings, money, and precious resources.
After our first hands-on with Anno 1404 we were impressed with the game's realistic strategy system, which forces you to pay attention to detail and successfully manage a variety of increasingly difficult tasks. The game itself looks impressive, with carefully modeled realistic environments and more obscure geological formations that will make it harder to create and successfully run a city. This is looking like a promising strategy title, and we're looking forward to discovering more of it in the coming months.
Stay tuned to GameSpot for more updates on Anno 1404.