It might seem unusual to think of deep space exploration when you get your first hands-on with a medieval themed city-building game, but playing The Settlers: Rise of an Empire, I'm immediately reminded of the epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The reason is because of a famous myth about the production of the film, which leads us to believe that notorious director Stanley Kubrick insisted that every screw head on the film's set be changed to look more fitting. I don't know about you, but I don't remember noticing any screw heads in Space Odyssey.
In fact it was not noticing that was the point. Kubrick wanted such depth of detail because he was apparently driven by the idea that the viewer should never be reminded that the world they were seeing wasn't real. See a screw head that doesn't match with a futuristic world and you might just remember you're not actually there.
It seems the same obsessive approach has been applied to the latest Settlers. From the opening moments of the game, the level of detail and activity is wonderfully overwhelming. Peer at a screen only filled with a small pond and empty field and you'll get the idea. The water shimmers and glints in the sun as fish dart below its surface. Frogs peer from behind rocks while tiny rabbits slip past below the grass, which sways in different directions as insects and birds hover above.
Move to an aerial view of a town and the sheer volume of activity is astounding, but the real magic in the case of a community is that everything happening is filled with reason. Each person rushing through the streets is pursuing a task that is a direct result of your governing of your blossoming city. The upshot is an engrossing game world so rich it is easy to forget you aren't there.
The game's enthusiastic producer Benedikt Grindel has often said Rise of an Empire can easily be enjoyed as much by sitting back and watching, as by earnestly playing. This may sound nonsensical, but never before has a hands-on preview day been so filled with press happily watching the results of their play. Whether peering into the busily animated buildings or spying on a crafty butcher's dog cocking a leg on a fair maiden's skirt, Settlers is now filled with a vast amount of charming detail.
However, with time spent hands-on, there is plenty to explore in terms of actually playing. Last time I saw Rise of an Empire was in Paris, when the gameplay seemed enthralling and innovative, but played in the hands of the man who is creating the game, it is bound to look outstandingly user friendly.
The basic goal in Settlers is to build a vast and prosperous city, and like many of the god games, this involves a great amount of depth, with a plethora of options and adjustments available to the player. At Settlers' core is the fact that every single action you take affects every pixel of the city. This is not a game where you command whole swathes of city with a single click. Instead you must concentrate on the microscopic details of everyday life.
You must feed and clothe your settlers, keeping them happy and their houses clean. To bake a loaf of bread you must maintain fertile land, fields of wheat, happy farmers, a well-maintained mill and a thoroughly stocked baker. In making that loaf you must also assure workable transport routes between the buildings involved, and make sure those involved have entertainment, gold, protection and tools. Of course the tool is as intricate as the loaf, and on it goes, with every tiny aspect of the game relying on every other detail.
This would all be very complex if it weren't for the aforementioned bastion of the game's aesthetics; the visible detail. In Rise of an Empire you can check stats and graphs, but if, for example, a mill isn't working, you will see as much. The machines will stop moving, the workers will look desperate and the flour will stop flowing down the paths in wheelbarrows to the baker. An instinctive symbol-based interface does bolster the visual gameplay mechanic that is the game's life, but watching your city seems the secret to success.
Each new version of Settlers has swung the game's focus, either towards building or combat, and here we return to the former, which has always been the series' strong point. The combat this time around is presented as a relatively simple strategic game of offence and defence, both of cities and of trading routes that link with outlying villages who repay your protection with goods. A simple point-and-click interface lets you command sword and bow units, who will seize large weapons such as catapults and siege engines.
The building itself involves the proven process of assuring you have the correct materials before placing structures one by one. Upon setting a building's foundations an eager settler will rush out, triggering a delightful high-speed animation as the construction is completed. The most significant update to building is that each property has two upgrades available, increasing the size and output, but raising its demands for resources.
Again, Settlers is multiplayer over LAN and online, allowing for both one-on-one and two-vs-two battles, where cooperating cities can trade, but the developments in the one-player mission-based campaign are where the most apparent new gameplay mechanics have been introduced. Though Settlers has always experimented in introducing characters into the game, never before have they fulfilled the role they do in Rise of an Empire. Though they are not avatars as such, each does give you a personality to interact with, and each has special abilities and talents that can help you, such as entertaining disillusioned crowds or leading conflicts.
They are also the characters that bring life to the various campaign missions, which start out as disguised tutorials and turn into extensive missions that give you more guided objectives than the simple 'build a whopping great city' goal of early editions of Settlers. In each case, choosing one of the game's personalities will affect how you go about the mission, based on the advantages they provide.
Any city-building game takes hours to really dig into, but after a spending an afternoon in the company of the game, it was hard to put down and difficult to forget. Though it will offer little to many action gaming fans, and may struggle to secure fully fledged mainstream success, there is no doubt that Rise of an Empire is shaping up to be one of the most charming and engrossing god games in some time.