The single player campaign has a story with cutscenes, but it's as predictable as it is forgettable.
Settlers 7's brilliance is in its pace. It is not a fast-paced, frantic affair, like so many RTS games. There is no tank or Zerg rush, no insanely skilled micro-management of units or need to input hundreds of commands a minute. Rather, Settlers 7 requires only that you make smart decisions when fine-tuning your production chain and transport system, not that you make them insanely quickly. It's almost lethargic, but it's brilliant all the same. And it's impressively challenging. Settlers 7 puts your little grey cells on overdrive from start to finish. If you have a beard, you should probably start stroking it right about now.
It's all quite pleasant, really. How many games are pleasant? Settlers 7 is pleasant in spades. When you've got your kingdom running along smoothly, with content settlers and buildings producing resources at maximum efficiency (they tell you, usefully) the feeling is one of stroking a purring cat. There's something wonderfully heart-warming about the game - arching back on your desk chair lapping up the cheery soundtrack and the gorgeous graphics is the video game equivalent of soaking up rays on a sun-drenched beach. It rekindles memories of, appropriately enough, FarmVille.
Settlers 7's problem is not that it's too complicated, but that it doesn't do a great job of helping you cope with its complication. The idea is that your economy works like a series of links in a chain. At the end of the chain is a product, one that helps you achieve victory, whether it's through war, technological advance, or trade. Either way, it's the chain, and your skill in constructing it, that determines success.
The thing is, the chain is huge, and there are more potential links than it seems possible to comprehend. Some products take three buildings, each one working on pumping out a different material, to produce. So much can go wrong. So many links can break, borking the chain and the smooth-running of your economy. Rome wasn't built in a day, so the saying goes. At times, it feels as if your Settlers 7 kingdom won't be built for months.
In the later campaign levels, and in multiplayer games against real players and the computer, your kingdom can grow huge, with multiple expansions and complicated transport networks on a massive scale. It's a lot to think about and care for. Unfortunately, the game doesn't do a good enough job of telling you when links are broken. When the stone, for example, runs out in a mine, a little exclamation mark pops up above the Mountain Shelter, but you only notice that if you happen to be looking at it. If you're zoomed out to the more strategic viewpoint, which you spend more and more time in as your kingdom expands, you'd never know. Or, say you're not getting enough wool to your Weaver. It won't be able to produce Cloth, and a little exclamation mark pops up above the Residence. It's the same problem: you would only know if you were looking at it. A simple pop up alert displayed at the bottom of the screen would have done wonders here.
Hardcore fans will be all about the multiplayer, but we prefer to spend hours clashing wits against the computer.
This problem is perhaps systemic of a general feeling that Settlers 7 doesn't really move the series forward in any significant way. Settlers 7 plays much like Settlers did 17 years ago. Sure, the lush graphics are loads better and there are fancy community-focused features like online leaderboards, two-player co-op and a snazzy "mentoring system", but when you get down to it, Settlers 7 is about chopping down trees and farming land. This is most evident in the glorified tutorial that is the single-player campaign, which feels like a lazy effort from Blue Byte. Perhaps our hope for a more innovative Settlers experience was unrealistic. Perhaps not. Either way, Settlers 7 will do nothing to convince the doubters to suddenly change tact.
While some new features are welcome, some aren't. The dreaded DRM issue rears its ugly head in Settlers 7, which demands an internet connection to work. If your internet drops, you can't play. If Ubisoft's servers go down, you can't play. This is as bad as it sounds, but we haven't docked the game review score points because of it. We'll leave it up to you to bear in mind.
Despite these issues, Settlers 7 is a fabulous game. It's unique, challenging, refreshing, and all sorts of beautiful. Being good at Settlers 7 requires a different set of skills than your typical hardcore gamer exhibits. It requires thoughtfulness, patience and an encyclopaedic knowledge of agriculture, construction, and all the kinds of things that sent you to sleep at school. But the satisfaction up for grabs here is worth the investment. If it all sounds a bit like hard work, well, that's because it is. No bother, you can always play FarmVille instead.