In the past few months, three venerable empire-building series have all become trilogies. Impressions' Caesar, Bullfrog's Populous, and now Blue Byte's Settlers have seen the release of their third incarnation. Each has tried something different. The designers of Caesar III stayed true to the series' formula, adding a few new features and refining some areas. Populous: The Beginning shares some basic similarities to its two predecessors but is a completely new game at heart. Settlers III, on the other hand, tries to do a little of both. It adds many new features and expands the scope of the series. But while many problems of Settlers II are addressed, many still remain.
Settlers III, like its predecessors, combines city building and combat, focussing primarily on the former. It is a game of complex interdependencies. You must gather wood and stone to build structures. To do so, you must have woodcutters and stonecutters. With these basic building blocks, you then move on to mining minerals, such as coal, iron, and sulfur. With these minerals, you begin to build weapons to arm your military and tools to supply your ever-expanding workforce. Miners require food, though, and a variety of food at that. So you must build grain farms, mills, bakeries, fisheries, pig farms, and slaughterhouses. And all of these require carriers to lug supplies around, so you must make sure you have plenty of houses to keep the workforce plentiful. It's a good system, but it is basically the same as in Settlers II, with the major exception being that you no longer have to set roads for your workers. That in itself is an improvement, but some more changes would have been welcome.
Eventually, you'll be able to expand no more, and you'll have to resort to military might to push back the enemy borders. Settlers II suffered from its rudimentary combat, which simply required you to send as many forces as you could spare to an enemy fort and hope for the best. Settlers III doesn't improve this much. There's a slightly different interface, and the inclusion of new types of units (such as archers and spearmen), but these are surface changes and make only a moderate improvement.
Settlers III is broken into three campaigns to reflect the inclusion of new cultures. You can play as Romans, Asians, or Egyptians. Each culture features a unique building set and a few slight differences in supply needs and building types. But the new cultures and campaigns don't alleviate the major problem of Settlers III's mission structure: Each mission is almost exactly the same. You start off with some supplies and must expand until you encounter an enemy. Building up your city takes a great deal of time, and going through the rudimentary steps at the beginning of almost every mission becomes very repetitive. The missions do become harder, but difficulty is almost always determined by the scarcity of resources or the proximity and strength of your neighbors.
One area that is completely new to Settlers III is the inclusion of gods. You must build temples, which give you access to priests. Priests have access to a variety of divine intervention spells, such as creating resources or destroying the enemy. This area is interesting, but it isn't very well developed. Priests aren't integrated into the existing system, just placed on top of it. And more often than not, you won't even need them.
Multiplayer improves things a bit, as your opponent will likely be more aggressive and won't just surrender territory once you consume it. But the pacing of the game and the length of time it takes to build a decent infrastructure makes multiplayer games time-consuming affairs. On the upside, though, the multitude of options (including Blue Byte's own free Internet server) makes finding opponents easy.
Settlers III looks great and can be played in a variety of resolutions. The cartoonish graphics are colorful and detailed, with the only negatives being the blocky animated cutscenes and the crude interface menus. The interface itself is somewhat confusing as well, and the online-only manual - which details much about the game but does a poor job of actually explaining how to accomplish anything - leaves much to be desired. Luckily, the game is pretty straightforward and can be learned easily through playing. Settlers III features good, if repetitive, ambient sounds, though the clinking combat effects sound like silverware being tossed in a drawer.
The only real problem with Settlers III is that, despite all the additions, it doesn't really play much differently than Settlers II. With some innovative missions and some more integral changes (or at least better-integrated changes), Settlers III would have been a much better game. Those who love the Settlers formula will enjoy it, but those who are unfamiliar with it will likely find it to be a moderately fun multiplayer game and an immensely repetitive single-player game.