The Settlers: Fourth Edition is very similar to The Settlers III. And The Settlers II. And The Settlers. Unlike the similar city-building games from Impressions, The Settlers series hasn't evolved much over its many years. In the succession of Cleopatra, Zeus, and Poseidon, Impressions managed to retain the core formula of its city-building games while adding interesting new tasks and options. Perhaps Blue Byte should look to these games for inspiration for future installments of The Settlers. It's true that the fourth edition of the long-running series adds a few new features, but these aren't nearly enough to revitalize the series and also aren't enough to recommend the game over other games like it.
The fundamental formula of The Settlers remains the same: You must build a functional town. This is a complex process, because each building is dependent on others. The basic structures let you harvest the core resources that are the building blocks of your town: wood and stone. You then must build mines to gather other resources such as coal, iron, gold, and sulfur and also generate food to feed the miners. With the minerals, you can make tools and weapons. The former you can use to create more resource-providing buildings, and the latter you can use to strengthen your military. This town building has always been at the heart of The Settlers series and will be familiar to anyone who has played any of the previous editions. It's a good system, and one that has been, and continues to be, emulated in many games. Unfortunately, it hasn't changed significantly over the years. In The Settlers: Fourth Edition, building your town is essentially the same as it has been in every previous edition.
Though the manual states that military might is not the focus of the game, your actual goal in fact is to build a town that can support a functional military. Every campaign mission ultimately requires you to destroy your opponents. Yet as in previous entries in the series, combat in The Settlers: Fourth Edition is a strange affair. You build towers to control territory, and when you destroy an opponent's tower, his or her territory becomes yours. You can't directly attack anything except opposing forces and towers. Though the combat system has been improved slightly, there are still some problems. Primarily, combat is uninteresting because the only strategy available to you is making as many units as possible. It's never more complex than moving all of your units slowly through enemy territory, hoping you'll have some left after your opponent doesn't.
The Settlers: Fourth Edition attempts to change the mission objectives slightly by adding a fourth faction to the game. This evil faction is called the Dark Tribe and differs from the playable Mayas, Vikings, and Romans. The Dark Tribe does not have towers, and to destroy its territory, you must use gardeners to fertilize its corrupted land. Gardeners are weak, as you might imagine, so you'll still need a huge force to protect them when they venture into enemy territory. This attempt at adding new mission objectives is a good start, but in the end it doesn't change much. You'll still need to build a good-sized force, only you'll need some gardeners in there as well.
There are plenty of missions in the game. The Settlers: Fourth Edition includes four campaigns--one three-mission campaign for each race, and one longer campaign in which you alternately play each of the three races against the Dark Tribe. The game also includes several stand-alone scenarios (including a single map for open-ended play with no enemies) and multiplayer maps for use on the Blue Byte Game Channel.
Despite all the scenarios, what's most disheartening about The Settlers: Fourth Edition is just how little has been added to liven up the game, both from previous installments but also just from mission to mission. Invariably, the majority of your time will be spent building your town, and this process is always exactly the same. The only variants are the availability of resources and the area in which you can expand. Building your town is a lengthy process, and it gets repetitive after only a few missions. In fact, it will seem exponentially repetitive depending on how many previous editions of The Settlers you've played. Blue Byte has added the ability for you to skip a full minute of game time by hitting the F12 key. This works to speed up the slow building process, but effectively just makes it so that you're skipping through the whole game. At least the 1.10.908 patch improves upon this concept by giving you the ability to speed up the actual flow of the game--an option The Settlers games have needed all along.
The new features in The Settlers: Fourth Edition include the addition of warships, as well as a slight retooling of the magic system from The Settlers III. Neither of these is well integrated into the game, and most likely, you'll use them only when it is absolutely necessary. Ships are hardly ever needed and often aren't useful because the maps are designed so that ships can't get around very easily. The magic system is interesting, but generating enough manna to cast the more powerful spells often isn't worth your time or resources.
The Settlers: Fourth Edition looks at least as good as any game of its type, as it features a great amount of detail in the buildings and in the animations of your little settlers. You can zoom in and look at the tiles on your roofs. You can watch your bakers make bread and your smelters work the forge. The music is your typical epic game score, but it sounds great and is well suited to the game. The sound effects are good as well, and audio clues will help you keep track of your town's current situation. If only that much detail had been put into the mission design.
The fact that the basic formula of The Settlers is fun makes it all the more frustrating that, four games later, little has been done to keep the formula fresh. On one hand, this means that if, by chance, you're either new to the series or still can be entertained with how The Settlers plays after all this time, then you'll find plenty to like in the game. On the other hand, it means that most everyone else will find that The Settlers: Fourth Edition is really just the same old game with the same old problems.