It would seem the Blue Byte developers took a leaf out of the Warcraft III book for this fifth chapter of the Settlers series. From the heroes leading your armies, the ingame storyline and several other little things, you can see they decided to forsake the calm slow-paced gameplay of the previous titles for the faster rhythm of the Blizzard beast. The change has left the game wanting in some aspects, if you are a Settlers fan you might be disappointed on the gameplay, but it might still be worth giving a try.
The graphics are pretty on par with the modern fantasy-based RTS. Up close the unit’s models are simple, but since you'll tend to stay far from the ground, the detail amount is satisfying. The landscape is filled with bushes, trees, small rivers, burned old buildings and all sort of small rubbish, giving a rich environment that really puts you in a mediaeval-fantasy mood. Some nice reflections and shading effects add something to the natural elements (falls, rivers and such) and give you some eye candy views upon the land. Season changes and weather also add up to a nice look and feel.
The buildings are alive, the lumber mills and mines are bustling with workers going about their works, and the whole city is animated with people scurrying to the farms to get food, and to their houses to sleep. There are several units that you won’t be able to select and move around, and that gives you the impression of a world living on its own, instead of a band of puppets laying about waiting for you to command them.
All in all, the passage to the third dimension from the previous two-dimensional Settlers games doesn’t leave you unsatisfied. The liveliness of the 2d world is translated prettily to a full 3d environment, even if you will rarely turn the camera around.
On a minor note, the look has shifted a bit from the cartoonish style of the first games to a more sober setup of characters and buildings, and the construction progress of the buildings has been reduced to the houses slowly coming up from the ground. Too bad for those of us who spent the idle time watching the buildings being built stone by stone, one wooden plank after another.
Funny enough, the maps seem flatter than in the previous Settlers games. The 3/4 perspective of the older games permitted high hills and mountains and lakes that we don’t find here: the hills are small, the mountains are impossible to climb upon, and the whole map doesn’t have big landmarks.
A nondescript medieval music that neither bothers nor entices particularly, it has the very good taste of not switching to an annoying drum beat during skirmish as most fantasy RTSes do, and even after several hours you wont feel the urge to turn it off. For those of you that loved the first Settlers games soundtracks (those nice midi tracks that stuck to your head for days and days) you'll be disappointed, you won’t be able to remember what the music sounded like as soon as you hit the exit button.
The text writers must have had the day off when they worked on the units replies, most of the sentences aren't very original and sometimes sound familiar. Didn’t I hear "consider it done" somewhere else? There are some attempts to humor, but the register is pretty standard.
The narrator does a good job in telling the story and the comments from the villagers are nice and to the point.
One of the best aspects of the previous Settlers game was the sound effects, when you moved the camera from one zone to another; you heard the noises from the stonemasons building or the windmill crunching the grains. Here we hear the sounds of chopping wood and the noises of construction, but less of the lively village sounds that sparkled in the first games. We see miners working the mines, and lumber mills in activity, but we hear nothing, it doest feel too right.
The management side, which was the main and most complex aspect of the Settlers series since the beginning, has been tuned down and is now somewhat limited to "build the structures necessary for upgrade x, then upgrade, now build the structures necessary for upgrade y, then do all the researches you need to build archers...". The game itself seems more oriented to exploring the map and fighting the enemy and complete the necessary tasks to finish the mission than to managing the city.
The geographical location of the buildings has far less effect on their efficiency than in the previous Settlers games where a lumberjack hut too far from the lumber mill might have meant the end of your kingdom. Now you just have to avoid putting food and bedding too far from the mines or mills.
There is a taxation/payday system that is nothing compared to the economic system of the older titles, and in any case, you seldom need to change anything from the default settings. In relation to the taxes, there's a happiness factor for all the settlers, which you can improve by lowering the taxes or by making enough houses, but in general it barely affects the game evolution. The resources in the game are limited to clay, wood, stone, iron and sulfur. Depending on the building or unit you want to build, you'll need one or more of those. If you were used to the earlier Settlers resource system with tons of by products for every basic resource, you'll find this system a bit simplistic.
The buildings in The Settlers - Heritage of Kings come always in upgradeable forms, when you create a new building, you'll try to upgrade it as soon as possible. When you are waiting for units to be trained, or for resources to be harvested, you'll often find yourself clicking on all the buildings to see which ones you can upgrade with current resources, or what researches you'll have to do in order to obtain an upgrade, the upgrades of mines or shacks will increase the number of people they can host or feed, thus improving the resources input, while upgrading the barracks will give you additional unit types. After a few missions, you'll easily discern the useful upgrades from the pointless, and those you wont touch ever again (such as the upgrades to make people happy).
There are mainly 4 kinds of units in The Settlers - Heritage of Kings: the serfs, which build and gather resources, the fighting units, the heroes and the other settlers. You have a population limit that depends on the upgrade level of your city center, and a population bedding quota, if there aren’t enough living spaces, the units will get unhappy, but you will be able to build other units until you get to the limit.
The settlers are the miners, the farmers and the workers of all your city buildings, you won’t be able to interact with them, but if you click on them you'll be able to hear their opinion on your performances as a sovereign, or to see where their bedding and nourishing sites are.
The heroes play a somewhat imprecise role in the game. They come with special abilities, which seem to have been designed for story purposes only, and which you will rarely need more than once.
In the first settlers games you selected an enemy building which contained a certain number of soldiers, attacked it with a given number of knights and battled them very Risk-style ("...I attack Madagascar with 3 units, you defend with 2...").
The Settlers - Heritage of Kings adopts the Warcraft style, you select your fighting units and send them to fight the enemy's. The troops move too fast to be precise about who should attack which units, so it basically sums up to clicking in the bulk of enemies. When a unit dies, a colored strip of light flares from the unit to the sky, so you can easily keep count of which units are getting beaten up.
A nice innovation is the structure of the fighting units. Each one comes with a captain and about four fighters, if some of the fighters die, the captain can always run back to the barracks and fill in the ranks at a reasonably low price in resources. This and a simple experience points system give you a fatherly concern for those captains that have followed you since the beginning of the mission. For every troop, there are strong and weak opponents, which allow a nice range of strategy in building the units. Sadly enough though, since being precise in the target selection requires a huge amount of control and time, the whole things ends up in having enough troops of the right type to beat the opposing forces.
The story itself seems to be a really short excerpt of a coming of age book, where a young lord thrives and battles to become king. It is told step by step during the game, and comes with some rendered cutscenes to fill in the gaps between missions. The missions tend to be a bit short, if you are used to long hours of city building and management, following the storyline tasks will end your missions in far less time than you might like to be satisfied with your kingdom. After the end of a mission though, you can keep on playing the map until you're satisfied.
The maps tend to be small. Once again, if you are used to the Settlers style, the maps are normally huge. In The Settlers - Heritage of Kings the maps are designed on a man scale, rather than a kingdom's. The whole map is not much more than a city and its neighboring grounds worth of land. On the other hand, the landscape is much more full and detailed and has you exploring for a nice while; in the older Settlers the exploration was important only to the extent of knowing where the enemy borders were.
Multiplay comes in 3 flavours: Conquest, Technology Race, and Point Game, which pretty much sum up what they're all about.
Conquest hardly needs explaining, the main flaw of this mode is the variety of races. Since there is only one, it doesn’t sum up to many choices. Imagine being limited to humans vs. humans games, after a while you might want some change.
Technology Race finishes when one of the player researches all technologies from the university. This mode might have more appealing to the management fans, since all the players tend to boost their defense and their productivity, and nobody really tries to attack one another, and it truly becomes a race for the fastest way to gain resources.
Point Game is kind of a combo. You have one hour to earn most points possible, which you can do either by researching or by building an army worthy of Sauron and smashing your enemy to pieces, assuming you have the time. It's pretty frustrating to build a huge army just to see the timer go out and have the opponent laughing at you because he won with research points, but I’d say this is a good point too.
The interest curve for the multiplayer mode risks being quite short because it offers a lack of variation. The older Settlers titles had a very complex management system, pretty hard to master, and very dependent on the location of your buildings and resources. Now the management side is far too stripped down to pose much of a challenge in the long run. Other games make up on this with a wide choice of races and cultures, and allowing to discover which one works best against the other, but that aspect is missing (for the moment?) in the Settlers games.
If you felt Warcraft III had lost some appeal due to the shift from city building to more direct fighting, then "The Settlers - Heritage of Kings" is the game for you. It is a tad more oriented to the management side and has a couple more upgrading and research options than the Blizzard title, so you might enjoy the base building and upgrading. Nevertheless, the game could really use an additional race, or a little step back into the management realm. The graphics have done a huge leap since Settlers IV, and the 3d landscapes are nicely filled and decorated. The story is not so bad, so it should do for some nice entertainment.
Settlers in 3D at last.
The environmental graphics.
The technology race, well, at least the first time you play it.
Why call it the Settlers? It offers nothing new and strips away all that made the Settlers unique.
Where are the little roads full of midgets gone?
Where are the Orcs?