One thing you will learn from playing The Settlers II is what men will resort to when all their women disappear for some unknown reason. They work really, really hard. In the absence of the fairer sex, men will mine coal, smelt iron and even bake bread just to keep their minds occupied. At least that's what developer Blue Byte appears to believe. To prove a point it's remade the most beloved of the Settlers series to remind lazy men folk what we could achieve everyday if women are taken out of the equation. Personally, I'd rather keep the ladies and get less milling done but, hey, each to their own.
It seems impossible that 10 years have past since I first played The Settlers II back in 1996, but time has a nasty habit of creeping past and making you forget some of those gaming classics of yesteryear. When you boot up this lovingly crafted remake, though, prepare to feel a welcome wash of nostalgia for a time when finding a really good hunting spot or opening your first gold mine was a genuine cause for gaming celebration. The Settlers II is little more than a spruce up job on a strategy classic but, when the design was so sublime to begin with, why change anything drastic?
A pre-game intro sequence reminds players that the little men under your control once had women to help bake their bread and fill their beds (apparently these were the only tasks they fulfilled but we'll let this minor sexism slide) but, for mysterious reasons, they have all disappeared. To cap it all off, Biblical plagues and disasters have wreaked havoc on their land, forcing the male populace to head to pastures new. Now the Y chromosome blessed must embark on an epic journey to conquer and cultivate vast uncharted territory, sail stormy seas and battle rival races, all in the name of finding more good women of course.
Your settlement starts off small, with just a headquarters and an army of willing workers, but gradually you can build bigger and bigger towns that expand across each map. Resource management and careful planning are the keys to successful leadership, and your initial goal is to build up all the stocks of wood, food, stone and other essentials that your thriving populace will need. With basic buildings like a woodcutter's hut and a bakery in place, along with plenty of roads to allow goods and tools to be carried easily, it's time to start expanding your empire by putting barracks on the edges of the settlement and manning them with soldiers. Armour-clad warriors can then be ordered to invade enemy territory (with just one point and click) or defend your base from attacks. In the meantime, a geologist can be sent off to find better resources, like iron and gold, and you can happily construct more and more buildings to develop each industry's productivity, which is essential to further expansion. Plus, if you secure a beach and build a harbour then your tiny Settlers, who retain the original's caricature cute appeal, can sail off to find new areas to explore.
With the combat relying on little more than a Risk-style odds system (if you have more men then, chances are, you'll win), the resource collecting and building make up the main meat of the game. There are no complex tech trees to master, so anyone with a grasp of simple logic, or the patience to sit through the pleasingly brief tutorials, won't struggle with the game's mechanics. This might sound a tad uninvolving to veterans of other modern city builder titles but The Settlers II's barebones approach is what makes it so engaging. Just like it did a decade ago, the intricacies of fitting as many vital structures into your initially small home town is a real challenge and moving steadily across the map is still a satisfying experience, if not a particularly dramatic one. For the impatient, turning up the game speed can help you rattle through the levels at a less pedantic pace.
There is a lengthy main story campaign to progress through, with specific targets to achieve in each level, but arguably the most fun is to be had from setting a Freeplay game where you have to out build and outfight rival AI controlled Settlers. It might not set your pulse racing on a regular basis but it's easy to get caught up in a tantalising tussle or two over a mountain that's filled with gold to mine. You can also take the action online or over LAN, providing you have enough hours in your day to devote to getting yet another bakery up-and-running before your frontline soldiers run out of bread.
Although the idyllic visual style takes its cues from The Settlers II circa '96, Blue Byte has carefully used modern graphic effects to add more sway to the trees, more details in the environments and more animations on the characters, who you can now zoom in on and watch carry out their everyday tasks. The quasi-medieval score also adds another layer of charm to the bright and cheerful bustle of the pastoral game design, which makes newcomers like CivCity Rome look bland by comparison. It might not be up there with Black & White II but this game is no slouch in the presentation department and Blue Byte should be commended for faithfully recreating the solid gameplay of its beloved original and adding 21st century bells and whistles.
But, for all its undeniable charm and nostalgic worth, The Settlers II is never really more than a retro retread that will probably only appeal to those who remember the series fondly - before it went all 'realistic' with the disappointing Heritage of Kings. Perhaps a budget price would have given it a broader appeal, but as it stands this remake is unlikely to be remembered as anything more than a gaming curio. What a shame.