Back when the Amiga bridged the gap between PC and console, and god games like Populous and Sim City reaped the gains of mainstream success, The Settlers was a big hitter in its genre.
Though the quality of the series has fluctuated over the 14 years since the release of the masterful original, developer Blue Byte has never produced a substandard Settlers. The secret of the German-produced games has always been in the way they translate the intricacies of developing a city to the player.
While other god-sims rely heavily on pages of stats and numbers, Settlers has always focussed on the characters of your city's inhabitants, and a crystal clear, rational system of mutual support between the jobs those characters hold down. Though looking at any Settlers screen shot will always show a sea of quaint medieval buildings, all those structures really do is represent the personalities they house.
Let me make things a little clearer, by sighting an example of a typical piece of gameplay, which could refer to every game in the series including the wonderfully appealing Rise of an Empire. When you start out creating your own community, you are going to need foresters, stonemasons and miners to provide your raw building materials. Then of course you'll need the various professionals to process those raw materials. All these workers will also need food to fuel their toil, meaning you'll need to use some of that wood and stone to build farms. Of course, those farms will need windmills and bakeries to produce the food, and the bread ovens will need some of the coal from the mine, which will also go to the blacksmith who arms the soldiers and makes tools for the silversmith and farmer. And then there are the fishmongers, hunters, barkeepers, shipwrights and cleaners to think about, and on it goes.
'In Rise of an Empire, as ever, you can actually see every individual go about their work, exchanging goods and thriving off one another...'
Put more simply, in Settlers everybody needs everybody else. In Rise of an Empire, as ever, you can actually see every individual go about their work, exchanging goods and thriving off one another, and the appeal of delicately nurturing such a co-operative, self sufficient community lies at the very heart of the game's appeal. Everything is realised through visual animation in the game, making the city seem incredibly real and genuinely making you feel for your blossoming populous. You really see every item and person move from building to building, rather than just noticing the changes in statistics as is more typical to the genre.
So far the latest Settlers sounds great, but what does this new addition offer that previous games in the series have not? On the whole, there is a great deal more detail and depth, from the purely cosmetic to new gameplay devices. Tackling the former first, visually the game is gorgeous to look at. It may not have the hugest technical wow factor, but it has so much to take in on every screen, you won't know where to look first. Zooming in close, you notice how much activity and movement emanates from every property and its surrounding area. While machines chug and workers labour, even the ground is lavishly animated, with frogs and other animals slipping through the grass. Again, though photorealism is never the objective of Settlers, the sense of something full of life and depth is fantastic.
Moving onto the gameplay, at this early stage well over 150 different buildings exist, each of which houses a certain profession and serves a vital purpose. Everything from religion to entertainment is now covered, and as in real life, as your city expands in size so do the expectations of its residents. Strikes can occur when despondent settlers tire of a lack of food or suitable distractions from their daily grind, making you feel genuinely guilty for neglecting your once thriving community.
Seasons have been introduced, bringing some well needed variation to the ecosystem and food cycle, and new climates and conditions such as a frozen tundra and barren, dusty dessert, have far more impact and variation than ever before. Harsher climates bring new challenges to producing food and water, which often means turning to Rise of an Empire's trading system. Small, computer controlled villages, which act as non-player communities, pepper the far-flung corners of the map, effectively giving your city a wider reach to ecological assets. However, the trade routes you establish must be monitored and guarded, to avoid attacks from natives, and the troops from the competing cities that develop alongside your own.
Settlers is closer to charming than cute, but it still has a brilliant battle system in development, that again is highly visual and filled with character. Defensive and offensive options are available to your army, who are strengthened by your weapon production facilities and supply of gold. The nicest feature of the battles is that if your side is victorious you can return to the safety of you central castle with the spoils of war from your enemy's defeat, meaning each victory assures a new supply of catapults and other battlefield paraphernalia.
Though children do not feature in the game, women do for the first time, meaning you can encourage romance, host marriages and increase the wellbeing and efficiency of your community. Hero characters are also included in the newest Settlers game. These six personalities are best described as extraordinary settlers with fully-fledged personalities. Though I was only introduced to their abilities very briefly, it is clear they possess different talents that can be called on in times of need, from being ferocious warriors with the abilities of a whole squad of enemies, to glutinous old men with belting singing voices that can save you from crisis when your despondent townspeople grow weary of a town without a nightlife.
Of course, only an extended hands on will really prove the worth of the latest Settlers, but based on previous incarnations by the same team, the accessible rationality that underpins the whole game, and the glorious depth and lavish detail of Rise of an Empire, it is looking like PC gamers could be in for a huge nugget of easy going escapism.