The little workers that follow your orders in The Settlers 7 are a tireless lot. They mine for coal, shear sheep, chop wood, and smelt iron yet ask for so little in return. In fact, if you don't have anything for them to do, they might cry out for a little work to ease the burden of their own laziness. And when you play this economy-heavy strategy game, you'll be just as busy--and content--as these tiny computer people. The latest in the long-running Settlers franchise is as charming and enjoyable as past installments, though it's hard to escape on-again, off-again online troubles that have plagued the game since release. Even if you are only interested in The Settlers 7 for its single-player features, you have to be connected to the Internet and signed into Ubisoft's online portal to play. Unfortunately, server problems occasionally make the game inaccessible for hours at a time, which is an issue that does not appear to be improving as the weeks pass.
If you're the patient type, however, you'll probably want to put up with the ongoing connectivity issues simply because The Settlers 7 is fun to play. It isn't as complex or as varied as similar offerings--Dawn of Discovery, for example, or even previous Settlers games--but it has a mesmerizing flow that has a way of pulling you in. The game is all about setting up supply lines by building appropriate structures and abodes in the appropriate places, and then balancing the stream of resources that your settlers then automatically collect. Then you expand your realm across the map by taking over connected settlements, whether they be neutral or already taken by an opponent. The campaign starts you off slow, introducing you to concepts one by one, but in time, you discover just how complex the economic web can be. For instance, you need wood to make planks, which are in turn used as a basic building material for standard structures. Your armies require fancy food, which means you need to build lodges near forests teeming with wildlife or build piggery extensions onto your farms. Then, you need to make sure to attach a butcher annex onto a noble house--which itself requires regular food to operate.
This sounds complicated, but it's easy to get the hang of, and the game does a good job of pointing out gaps in your economic chain. If your mints aren't pumping enough gold into your coffers because you are low on the coal they need, a little icon will appear over the building in need to let you know. Matches can be challenging nonetheless, and resource imbalances may require you to approach things a little differently every time. For instance, you might need to gather wood on barren land. In that case, you need to add a forester annex to a lodge, and because main structures can only have three additions attached to them, space restrictions can become a concern. If you find there aren't many gold mines to empty, you can make beer to sell at your tavern, though then you are redirecting a resource used to attract clerics to your realm. You're constantly forced to make adjustments throughout the course of a single match, and failing to pay attention can have disastrous consequences.
There are times when you'll wish the game made it easier to keep track of things. In a typical match, you'll start expanding your kingdom quickly, and space restrictions might require you to place important structures in settlements other than your primary one. In time, it can become a burden to keep track of a stronghold (for creating troops), a church (for producing men of the cloth), and an export office (for hiring traders). Hotkeys or icons that let you quickly jump to these crucial buildings, along with your all-important tavern, would have been incredibly helpful. As it is, you need to remember where you placed such structures, and when you scroll to that settlement, you must be able to visually identify the structure in question so you can click on it. Other interface improvements would also have been welcome (being able to click on the icons in the build queue to jump directly to that structure, for example), but some flaws aside, it's easy to get around the map by scrolling or clicking on various nodes on the skeletal minimap. If you scroll all the way out, you'll switch to a helpful bird's-eye view that shows you where resources are located, the status of the opposition's expansion, and other helpful tidbits.
Armies provide the most straightforward way of expanding, and you'll easily crush the neutral armies that protect most unconquered settlements. There's nothing complex about combat; you just click on an army, click on a sector to attack, and off they go. Battles are an automated affair that comes down to sending enough of the right types of troops. Once you've gotten your economy going, you might have multiple armies moving about, each led by a different general, but military might doesn't mean easy triumph. You can win by vanquishing your enemies' primary hubs, but most of the time, you'll overcome your foes by earning a set number of victory points. You might earn a victory point by having more gold than your adversaries, earning more prestige (accumulated by placing prestige structures like statues), or capturing specially designated villages, for example. This system provides flexibility and a bit of unpredictability, and the resulting tug of war is tense and enjoyable.
You'll want to start with the campaign, which helps you get up to speed on all the economic intricacies. The straightforward story is buoyed by Princess Zoe--and her excruciating French accent--who must yank the land of Tandria from the clutches of some flamboyantly histrionic enemies. Missions begin with lovely pop-up storybook updates, occasionally punctuated by impressive and colorful cutscenes. These highlights help make up for the not-so-subtle plot development you'll see coming from the beginning, though the campaign is really just an extended tutorial for the more substantial multiplayer and skirmish modes. In skirmishes, the AI provides a decent challenge and does a good job of adapting, and while there aren't a whole lot of maps, you can edit them in various ways (change victory conditions, for instance), which keeps things somewhat fresh. If you want even more adaptive competition, you can head online, where both ladder (ranked) and unranked matches await. Online play is smooth and matches are of a goodly length (often over an hour), but you might have trouble finding games online.
Vibrant colors and a somewhat goofball art design make The Settlers 7's lush forests and ghost-ridden swamps leap right off the screen, and the animations make the game as fun to watch as it is to play. The exaggerated movements of your miners as they hop into a mining car are delightful; even constructors exude endless charm as they bound toward their destination. There is a distracting blur effect used on more distant objects, though it seems more noticeable at certain resolutions and can be hard to get used to. The wonderful soundtrack provides a nice complement to the sun-drenched visuals, featuring light orchestral fare, a bit of harp strumming, and even some Celtic-inspired vocal warbles.
Some of The Settlers 7's more interesting features are the peripheral ones. You can customize your castle with different ornaments, windows, flags and such. An integrated achievements system lets you post your accomplishments to your Facebook profile if you so wish, while you can call on another player for assistance with the click of a button. The flipside of this social friendliness, of course, is the inherent unfriendliness of an unstable online-only copy-protection scheme. That drawback and others aside, The Settlers 7 offers something for everyone, whether you're an experienced armchair economist or just like watching little virtual people run up and down the roadways carrying pails of water.