1701 A.D. (also known as ANNO 1701)
Developers: Sunflower/Related Design
Remember when you were a kid and built forts and castles out of blocks? Or carved elaborate structures out of sand at the beach? It seems that we humans have a strong urge to build, to use our imaginations to make something new, better, or different. Games that allow the player to build something--thrill rides, castles, cities, entire civilizations--have been one of the most popular genres ever since the original SIM CITY and even before. We love to play God, to sit at the top of the social and economic food chain dispensing rewards and punishments.
There has been a plethora of city/civilization building games in the past couple of years, including the standouts City Life (distinguished by an intriguing social/class system), Tycoon City: New York, Caesar IV, Civilization IV, and of course Age of Empires III, which is primarily a real-time warfare strategy game that focuses more on combat and conflict than commerce. What unites all of these games--including Related Design's 1701 A.D.--are the twin gameplay challenges of managing an economy while growing a prosperous city or colony. Balancing these two elements is a challenge for game developers as well, and most games tend to emphasize one more than another. Additionally, there is the problem of creating an interface that allows the player access to all of the options available without becoming unwieldy, confusing, or taking up too much screen real estate.
The first thing I noticed about 1701 A.D. is that it is gorgeous, easily the prettiest game of its type around. I remember how disappointed I was when I realized that the incredible 18th century capital cities that graced Age of Empires III weren't really possible in game, but only prerendered scenes. Well, the cities in 1701 A.D. are every bit as detailed, artistically rendered, and teeming with life as one could wish for. The camera zooms effortlessly from cloud's-eye level to near the ground, and the 3D engine performs amazingly well. The water lapping at the shore looks great, as does the vegetation and animal life. In short, 1701 A.D. looks fantastic.
1701 A.D. is set not in 18th century Europe, but a tropical paradise that suggests the Caribbean or the South Pacific, albeit one with elephants and other exotic, improbable wildlife. You are tasked by the Queen with founding an island colony, and building it into a thriving city, while establishing trade routes with other cities, sending settlers to other islands, and doing battle with more aggressive neighbors, not to mention occasionally quelling a revolt by unhappy citizens.
So far, this describes--except for the setting--more than a few city building and civ games. What makes 1701 A.D. more than just a clone of The Settlers or Age of Empires--in addition to standout graphics--is an interesting, deep, yet easy-to-understand system of trade and economic growth. Whichever island you select as your starting point, it will be rich in some resources and lacking in others. Yet, in order to develop your city and create a thriving economy and a happy citizenry you will need many raw materials that can only be obtained through trade, colonization, or battle.
Managing trade and diplomatic relations between up to a dozen rulers, harvesting raw materials, creating new businesses, entertainments, and social outlets for your citizens are tasks that are at the core of most city builders, and they are made either possible or frustratingly difficult depending on the interface. 1701 A.D.'s interface is one of the strongest elements of the game; it never burdens the player with too many options and choices, yet the critical information is there and accessible. Verbal reminders cue the player about important decisions or situations without becoming overbearing. Visually, the interface is easy to manage and takes up minimal screen space.
The single player game consists of a number of stand-alone scenarios, a continuous play mode--sort of like an MMO in that there is a constant back and forth between your colony and the other, computer-controlled islands, and there is no clear ending--and a sandbox mode which is really a economically simplified way of playing around with the various building and unit types. A four-stage tutorial does an excellent job of training the player in the basics. There are multiplayer modes--both co-op and adversarial--as well.
Unfortunately, there is no map or scenario editor, which is a shame, given the game's visually stunning toolset. Let's hope that one is forthcoming.
Graphics and Sound
As mentioned, the visuals in 1701 A.D. are incredibly good, from the design of the buildings to the animations of the populace as they go about their daily lives. Framerates are smooth, even with all the details maxed out. As your populace increases and economic milestones are reached, the buildings automatically update themselves to the next stage of design, and so by the end, your city rivals the great 18th century metropolises of Europe, with magnificent cathedrals, great public halls, and richly decorated homes.
There is no day and night cycle, which is a shame, as in most other ways the graphics are beautifully realistic. There are some weather and disaster effects, such as hurricanes and fires, that figure in the gameplay and have economic consequences.
Sound design and music are quite good as well. Zoom in close and you can hear the surf and the cries of gulls, sawing of timber, cathedral bells ringing, and the populace chattering as it congregates in the town square. Voice acting is credible--if a little cliche--and the musical score is melodic and well scored. There are many great little audio touches, too, like the polka band that marches through the town center serenading the populace. Get down and close and you can watch the little oom-pah musicians march in time to the music.
And the downside....always a downside
City builders and civilization games--at least good ones--are always complex balancing acts that require a lot of micromanagement. 1701 A.D. is no exception, and even though the interface is elegant and the tasks presented clearly, paying close attention to diplomacy, trade routes, building progress, and citizen happiness can become somewhat overwhelming. There is a lot of combat in the game as you clash with aggressive neighbors, pirates, and attempt to expand your influence by force, and unfortunately the combat isn't particularly satisfying or easily managed. That is, there aren't a lot of tactics or options, especially at sea. 1701 A.D. isn't a real-time strategy warfare game, after all, but considering that warfare plays a prominent role, this aspect seems a little undercooked. Although 1701 A.D. is a stable and generally glitch-free game, there are occasional crashes to the desktop.
I really enjoy city builders, but I've always been slightly disappointed by the lack of visual richness and detail, especially in the historical games. The cities in 1701 A.D. really feel alive and teem with people going about their routines. The scale and detail of buildings, the lush environments, and the attention to authenticity make this a really fun sandbox to play in. The economic game that drives the title is, understandably, complex and demanding, but not impossible. The game moves at a leisurely pace, and anyone too intimidated by the demands of the scenarios or the continuous play mode can opt to try the simplified sandbox game. 1701 A.D. feels very polished, runs well, and is simply a must-buy for fans of the city builder genre.