January 12, 2012, Author: James Sheppard
Man has always loved to play God, and perhaps no video-games can better satisfy this desire than the city-building genre originating from the likes of SimCity. The well-established Anno series from Ubisoft has explored this category of simulation and strategy through multiple historic periods, giving the opportunity to establish and nurture civilisations in the classic eras of 1404, 1503, 1602 and 1701. Yet, what happens when you begin to run out of interesting centuries in the past? Why, you go to the future of course!
Developed by Related Designs and Ubisoft Blue Byte, Anno 2070 is a bold new step for the Anno series. After a long hiatus from games of its ilk, I was enthusiastic to indulge my megalomania and erect vast cities in my name (quite literally in fact; I semi-ironically renamed my populations to variations of Jamestown, James Island etc.). What remained to be seen was if they could stand the test of time.
Back to the future
If there’s one consistency throughout futuristic fiction, it’s that humanity is destined to screw things up in one way or another. Apparently, global warming is indeed a real threat, and we have failed to do anything about it. As a result, the polar ice caps have melted, the WWF is imaginably pissed about all of the poor polar bears having nowhere to live, and the only landmasses that remain on our flooded Earth are the peaks of former mountains.
Two distinctly different factions have stepped up to the plate to recolonise Earth: the Eden Initiative (Ecos) and the Global Trust (Tycoons). The former are your typical tree-hugging, green-friendly hippies that wish to expand with negligible impact on the environment, and the latter have evidently not learned their lesson from what dire state the planet is already in, choosing to spread their filthy industrial settlements around with little thought for the consequences.
The main campaign’s storyline also adds a further, typically dystopian cock-up to proceedings, with an omnipotent super-A.I. turning psycho and deciding to wreak havoc upon society. So far, so generic sci-fi plot, but it’s pleasant for gameplay to at least be able to hang on a thin semblance of story, considering that this genre is often completely devoid of one altogether.
As is alarmingly common with games these days, the main campaign is essentially one enormous, glorified tutorial. Anno 2070 is a reasonably complex title and thus this opportunity for learning and practice is welcome. Unfortunately, however, the mode is nonetheless rife with undeniable failings.
Tasks are dull and repetitive, with the majority of objectives comprising of fetch quests for various NPCs. These loosely guide you through an education of the game’s workings, and throughout the several acts of the campaign you’ll gradually progress to building large civilisations of top-tier inhabitants. This is a great structure in theory, but is ultimately so far from watertight, liable to sink right to the bottom of the world’s over-inflated oceans.
A helper A.I. called E.V.E. attempts to show you the ropes, but a disappointing lack of emphasis is spent on some of Anno’s most vital aspects, like the economy. Towards the end of one act, I was royally screwed because I’d been too busy carrying out the menial tasks at hand to notice that my monetary reserves had dwindled dramatically and I was spiralling into debt. The several missions of each act run into each other, and thus with money an essential resource to progress I was faced with the daunting decision of scrapping hours of game time and starting all over again, or attempting a miracle turnaround of my fortunes.
All I can say is that I have a newfound respect for the Government, as the next couple of hours I faced were probably comparable to the nightmare that they currently have to deal with. To get money often requires spending money in the first place, and this catch-22 meant I needed every ounce of shrewdness in my being to gradually reverse my heavy losses into eventual profits, just so I had enough funds to continue with the rubbish missions I was set.
On the plus side I now have a thorough understanding of the game’s economy, but I certainly had to learn this the hard way, unearthing options and little tricks that the game never even attempted to teach me. There’s a sizeable glossary at hand to flick through if you wish to learn more, but it’s arguably far from impressive that a mega-tutorial spanning umpteen hours still leaves you with homework to complete at the end of the day.
Become familiarised with the intricate game mechanics of Anno 2070 and you may come to appreciate its depth, however. As you build up your settlements you’ll need to keep a beady eye on your economy (for obvious reasons), your ecological impact represented by an ‘eco-balance’ which can affect crop growth for example, and (most absorbingly) your production of goods. There’s an enormous range of these and they’re absolutely vital to make any progress in the game.
You see, your people are incessantly needy. To advance into higher societal classes and bring the benefits of more taxes and new technology, they’ll demand ample supplies of certain consumables. The Ecos, for example, will first request a humble stock of fish and tea, but as things progress they’ll be crying out for fancy-pants electronics, gourmet health food, and nearby access to education and entertainment. Goods are also essential for construction of buildings and units, increasing in complexity of materials as technology advances.
The real kicker is that the needs of the citizens stack up, and several basic goods are often required to make more advanced ones, which in turn make even more advanced ones. If one supply is lacking then your entire progress screeches to a halt until you do something about it, and the result is a dizzying balancing act of keeping the goods flowing. To add further insult to brain injury, natural resources can only be obtained from certain locations, and no one island has fertility for every type of crop, so further colonisation is necessary to secure the missing links in your supply chains.
This approach to simulation is relentless and deeply involving; several times I found myself glancing at the clock and realising that I was still awake at an unhealthy number of hours past midnight. Nevertheless, I have my criticisms. It’s intensely strategic, mathematical and challenging, and admittedly does not come without its rewards. Yet, as a society-building simulation, I can’t help but wish for something less about meeting unrealistic, arbitrary statistics, and more of a natural and organic solution for advancement.
It was all too easy to be reminded of the similarly inane requirements for progress in Viva Piñata and Zoo Tycoon, where your animals would bitch and moan if there was one square too much of water and one too little of grass. Maybe I’m being picky here, but the inherent artificiality of the gameplay design in Anno 2070 leaves it feeling a little too soulless for my liking.
Regardless, there are a lot of interesting concepts added into the mix, and an awe-inducing amount of content and features. The campaign will keep you occupied for hours if you can stand to see it through to its end, and after that you’ll have the more pleasing selection of various mission scenarios, or a sandbox-style ‘Continuous Play’ mode that gives you the choice of map size and difficulty then leaves you to your own devices.
Choosing Ecos or Tycoons augments the game’s style in numerous subtle but noticeable ways. As well as the two factions possessing their own individual goods and buildings and having contrasting approaches to ecology, Tycoons are fast to expand but fizzle out towards the end, whereas the Ecos take longer to get going but thrive more in the end-game. A tertiary sub-faction is also available in the form of the Techs, who supplement your choice of the main two with their nerdy inventions and research, and even the ability to create small underwater settlements.
Another inspired touch is the internet-enabled features that actually influence solo play, including periodic challenges and the ability to vote in elections for your favourite faction and gain bonuses accordingly. The main issue with this is that not only does the concept of the Tycoons make them sound like arrogant douchebags, but their portrayal in the single-player confirms that they are indeed arrogant douchebags. As a result there appears to be double as many Eco players, because they claim a landslide victory almost every time. That’ll teach the immoral bastards!
Some other aspects of Anno 2070 with good intentions also fall on their face, like the combat system. The means with which to blast each other to bits are inevitable in a strategy game; after all, the only thing better than building your own civilisation is levelling someone else’s to the ground. Sadly, the basic, clunky mechanics and peashooter weapons leave battles feeling decidedly insipid.
The future looks bright (thanks, bloom lighting!)
Visually, on the other hand, Anno 2070 is nothing short of spectacular. The Ecos, Techs and Tycoons each have their own distinctive futuristic sci-fi flavour, set against sumptuous natural backdrops. Zooming into your metropolis reveals intricately animated buildings and streets, with civilians and hovercars going about their daily business.
Best of all is the unashamedly over-indulgent lighting that gleams from every surface like a dishwasher tablet advert. For a game that is so slow-paced by design, it’s welcome to have eye-candy in droves to admire whilst you manage your empire. As a matter of fact, I’d claim that this is the best-looking strategy game I’ve ever seen.
No surprises, then, that all of this beauty comes at a price. My humble machine wasn’t too chuffed with having the game thrown at it, and that handles Skyrim effortlessly. If you have to turn down graphics settings there’s no need to fret though, because it still looks fantastic even on ‘low’.
A dystopian din?
Similarly stunning is the majestic soundtrack, which captures the ambience of the game flawlessly. Atmospheric and grandiose in nature, it periodically swells into stirring climaxes that cover the skin in goosebumps. With such an epic accompaniment, the significance of your role as re-coloniser of Earth is highlighted all the more. The only disappointment is the actual substance of what’s on offer, which is limited and leads to regular repetition as a consequence. Quality wins over quantity any day if you ask me, though.
The voice-acting doesn’t quite reach such heights of excellence, unfortunately, but it’s mostly passable even at the worst of times. The quality of script-writing in the game is a large culprit, which reeks of a half-baked translation from Related Design’s native German tongue. It could be worse; when I played the closed beta, several German words and sentences were still left in! Oh, scheiße…
This planet ain’t big enough for the both of us
Personally, the typical game length of city-builders and Civilization-alikes has always completely and utterly put me off playing multiplayer. I’d rather take my online fix in short bursts of deathmatches and 3-lap races, for example, than invest myself in lengthy marathons liable to remain unfinished due to connection blips and time constraints.
Nonetheless, far be it from me to stop you enjoying a strategic multiplayer saga with a friend (or stranger) in Anno 2070. As with the single-player mode you’re free to customise difficulty, map size and computer participants, then twiddle your thumbs in anticipation for challengers to join your lobby.
A glimpse of things to come
I have distinctly mixed feelings about Anno 2070. In one respect, it provides an incredibly deep, engrossing experience that captivates and devours the player. Yet, quests and combat on the whole feel like languid afterthoughts, and the instructional campaign frustrates more than it entertains or educates.
If I’m honest, after playing the game for many hours and writing over 2,000 words of this review, I’m still unsure of which verdict to bestow upon it. Eeny meeny miny moe…
Instead of phoning a friend or asking the audience, I’m going to listen to my gut instinct, which, thanks to the depth of content and overall magnificence of the audiovisual spectacle, is letting Anno 2070 sway in favour of a:
Platforms: PC | Tagged 1404, 1503, 1602, 1701, Anno 2070, Ark, city builder, civilisation, civilization, dystopian, economy, eve, fiction, Future, megalomania, Metropolis, PC, related designs, Sci-Fi, simcity, Simulation, Strategy, trading, ubisoft blue byte