Finally making its way to North American shores is 1701 A.D. Gold Edition, a repackaging of the original city builder from 2006 and its Sunken Dragon expansion pack, which was originally released in Europe at the end of last year. This add-on was worth the wait, though, given that the new campaign adds swashbuckling fantasy to the nuts-and-bolts Caribbean economics of the game's previous incarnation. A lively story and characters, along with wide-ranging (if not exactly earth-shattering) mission goals, pack real personality into this revamp and make it a colorful trip back to the age of exploration.
Just don't expect a reinvention of the wheel. The original game came with only a sandbox mode of play and one-off missions, so adding a campaign with a scripted story about searching for an ancient artifact called the Eye of the Dragon lends a sense of purpose to all of your city-building endeavors in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, the actual game design isn't all that different from the non-golden 1701 A.D. The basics stick pretty closely to the standard city-building formula. Gameplay revolves around the management of island colonies and the goal of leading them to prosperity. The twin bottom lines are the financial balance sheet and colonist happiness, which are satisfied by erecting houses, churches, sheep farms, schools, and the like, as well as establishing trade routes and diplomatic relations with neighbors. Economics are pretty simple to follow. You identify an island resource such as ore or gold, or set up a structure such as a cattle farm or a tobacco plantation to create a resource, and then construct the businesses that turn these raw materials into usable goods for your citizens. If you do everything just right--and remember to link all of your buildings together with the roads needed to transport goods from one location to another--you'll end up having happy citizens who love their lives in a tropical paradise. Run short on a few key items such as clothing and food, however, and you'll wind up with disgruntled thugs.
So it's just like real life. But the Sunken Dragon campaign doesn't feel all that fresh when you get beyond the Indiana Jones-in-pantaloons hunt for a MacGuffin. Mission goals are pretty been-there, done-that. Old chestnuts such as reaching a set population total, hitting economic benchmarks, and setting up a trade route are all present and accounted for, and at times the gameplay feels a little too paint-by-numbers. But with that said, it's hard to imagine how you could jazz up a city builder like this with wildly out-there objectives, considering that most of the concerns addressed here are the same ones that had to be addressed by colonists in the real 18th-century Caribbean. And at least the campaign really mixes up goals so you don't feel like you're on a treadmill, and it ladles out fantastical derring-do to give the bean-counting colony-management stuff a whiff of high adventure.
Aside from the new campaign, the other additions are fairly modest. Four new computer-player profiles seen in the campaign are also available for use in sandbox games. A handful of new buildings and other items have been tossed in for the beautification of settlements, although they don't result in changes to gameplay. These accoutrements don't even alter the look of the game all that much, unless you're a flower fan really into the new, arching rosebushes, or a bird watcher grooving on attracting parrots and doves to the new aviaries. A meteor strike has been added to the hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters waiting to happen. It looks great and is suitably apocalyptic in scope, but it's so destructive that it pretty much ends your game immediately. As cool as this death-from-above disaster looks when it hits, it's not exactly welcome considering that the original game already had plenty of full-scale cataclysms that tore settlements to shreds. Having to take on yet another instant doomsday is unnecessarily frustrating. Finally, the expansion includes a new editor that lets you custom-craft maps and swap them for play online and off. It's very easy to use, and there is enough of a hardcore 1701 A.D. crowd out there (albeit mostly in Germany, from the looks of things online, so you might need to spreche das Deutsch to really get into it) that this might cause a mod community to grow around the game.
A lot of 1701's charm is due to the attractive visuals. Caribbean islands seem like veritable slices of heaven, with lush green fields, bright sandy beaches, and rolling blue water. It even looks great when you pull the camera so far back that you're looking down on your island kingdom through clouds. Only one technical glitch messed things up. Activating certain graphics options caused a great deal of instability on our test machine, resulting in visual corruption and extreme cursor lag that made the game unplayable. Thankfully, leaving these options turned off doesn't noticeably change the quality of the visuals, and also comes with the side benefit of considerably speeding up map scrolling. The audio isn't as evocative of the tropics; everything except the perfectly cheesy voice samples seems somewhat muted. A more pounding surf would have been much appreciated.
The main drawback of 1701 A.D. Gold Edition is that buyers of the original game are stuck having to repurchase it to get the Sunken Dragon content. Nevertheless, if you liked the original game, you should enjoy the new story-driven campaign.