If all-conquering internet phenomenon FarmVille is the natural evolution of anything, it is Settlers. Settlers, as any PC gamer with a penchant for chopping down virtual trees and sheering digital sheep knows, kicked off our love-affair with computerised harvesting. The pedestrian village sim, which began life aeons ago in 1993, proved a refreshing tonic to the murder and chaos found in most other games. What would German developer Blue Byte Software have said had they been told then that in 2010 more people than live in Germany would play a game that was, essentially, Settlers, except more basic? Well, they'd probably have said, "Danke schön! We'll use that idea!".
Settlers will never enjoy FarmVille's gargantuan popularity, of course. Why? Because it's complicated. Complicated in a proper, mega, epic way. Settlers was complicated back on the Amiga, and it's complicated now on the modern day PC, with its seventh incarnation. Actually, it's probably more complicated now than it's ever been.
Settlers 7 is a real-time strategy game, but unlike no other. This is not Starcraft II, or Dawn of War II, or Supreme Commander II. In those games, you defeat your opponent by killing them. In Settlers, war is only one way of achieving victory.
In Settlers you build and manage an early Renaissance era kingdom in real-time. Everything from making sure your citizens have enough food to providing fancy clothes for traders to wear has to be taken care of. This is your responsibility: the godlike being with a mouse and a scroll wheel. To win, you need to score a certain number of victory points, gained from walking down one of three different development paths: Military, Science, or Trade. Each is valid. Each is very, very different.
Whatever decision you make, and whether you're playing the tutorial-focused campaign or a multiplayer match against a real-life opponent, all Settlers 7 comes down to is smart economy management. And when we say economy management, we're not just talking about GSCE level stuff here. Settlers 7's economy is so, well, economic, that it's guaranteed to give economists a great big hard on.
Construction costs cash, as well as the required raw materials. That's fine; that makes sense. The thing is no building in Settlers 7 is designed to sit there and look pretty. Everything does something. Everything has a purpose. Some buildings even have multiple purposes. The Lodge, for example, requires three planks and one settler to construct. It's best placed near some trees or water, because it produces the basic resources required to get your kingdom going. The Lodge has three slots, used to construct huts, if you will, and dedicated to harvesting a specific resource. If your Lodge is next to a river or lake, a Fisher will... you guessed it, fish. If it's next to some trees, a Woodcutter will chop them down. A Sawmill will take that wood and turn it into planks, used to construct more buildings. If there are deer running about, a Hunter will gather in hunter gatherer fashion and produce meat.
That's four sub-buildings from one building. And the Lodge is just one of many buildings available in Settlers 7. There are Mountain Shelters, Farms, Churches, Export Offices and more. All need to be used as and when, linked by roads, and maintained and managed with the resources they require to do their jobs. Efficiency is everything. Gathered resources need to be transported from storehouses - smart placement of which is key - to other parts of your kingdom. The bigger your kingdom, the more settlers you need. The more settlers you have, the more food you need to produce. The more settlers you have, the more residences and noble residences, both of which raise the population cap as well as produce goods of their own, you need to build. Then there are prestige buildings - required to produce Clerics, which research new technologies, a technology tree, which upgrades your units, a separate upgrade system, and probably loads more we can't possibly list here for fear of turning this review into a FAQ.
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.
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.