The third entry in Blue Byte's Settlers series promises to be more than just a logical extension of its predecessors. The game will incorporate many new features and options, including expanded multiplayer support and more extensive combat. In addition, many of the most notable problems from Settlers II have been rectified.
The basic mechanics of Settlers III remain the same as in the first two games. Starting with a small group of followers, you begin to build a city. The city-building aspect of the Settlers series is a complex web of dependencies and production lines. You begin with a small area under your control, where you can build the basic foundation of your settlement, such as stonecutters, woodcutters, and sawmills that provide the building blocks for more advanced structures. To expand the territory under your control, you must build guard towers, which give you more land on which to build. Once you deplete your initial stock of tools and weapons, you'll need to produce more in order to keep expanding and building. These require minerals such as coal, gold, and ore. But miners require food, such as fish, meat, and bread. So you must build farms, fisheries, slaughterhouses, and bakeries. The interdependence of your various production facilities is really the key to the game, and balancing the different needs of your burgeoning settlement becomes more and more complex. Adding to the complexity is the new need to build housing to attract more settlers.
Settlers III omits one of the most frustrating aspects of Settlers II: the need to build roads. In the previous game, you needed to set up the paths for your workers to follow. Production lines in Settlers II followed a bucket-brigade philosophy: Workers stood along the road, carrying items until they came to the next worker's territory, at which point they would lay down their loads and go back to pick up whatever was waiting. This Settlers will have neither roads nor bucket brigades. A single worker will pick up whatever is needed, such as a weapon, and take it to its logical end point, such as a barracks. Thankfully, this doesn't remove one of the game's best aspects: watching your workers scuttle around performing their duties. In fact, in Settlers III, watching your little minion is more fun than ever, thanks to detailed animation that retains but updates the series' colorful, cartoonish graphics.
Unlike previous Settlers games, Settlers III now has different civilizations: Egyptian, Roman, and Asian. Each has slightly different needs and structures. For instance, Egyptians require more stone for their buildings than other civilizations. Asians must build rice farms to make alcohol (required to keep all military morale high), while Romans and Egyptians simply make it from the more common wheat. Each civilization also has its own god, which it must placate with temples, priests, and sacrifices. Making your gods happy is an important strategic goal, as they will punish your enemies with plagues and the like if you pay them proper respect.
During your expansion, you'll eventually come across other civilizations. This is where combat comes into play. To expand into territory occupied by others, you must destroy the structures that allow them to possess that land. But whereas the previous Settlers games' combat was simply a process of sending any available soldiers into enemy territory, Settlers III features a more robust system of battle. You have more control over your troops and their positions, and they gain experience and promotions with time. The game also incorporates sea battles, with a variety of warships at your disposal.
Settlers III also incorporates new multiplayer options. Unlike Settlers II (which only allowed you to play with others on a single computer), Settlers III has full LAN support and Internet support over Blue Byte's server. Multiplayer battles will allow for up to 20 players, in teams or in free-for-all battles for territory.
The Settlers series has always been a unique combination of elements found in like-minded games such as Populous, Caesar, and SimCity. The new version promises to get rid of some of the past versions' weak points and add some welcome new complexities. You'll be able to judge for yourself whether it lives up to its promise when it releases this fall.