The Settlers series from Blue Byte has been a fairly successful franchise for the company, especially in Europe. Although neither of the two previous installments broke any new ground in the strategy genre, they were decent games that provided gamers with some of the most highly detailed economic systems available in any strategy game. So, with the release of Settlers III, I was expecting about the same ... and that's just what I got. Like the others, Settlers III is a good game, but there's nothing really new or innovative here.
Settlers III opens with a cartoonish animation of three gods from completely different mythoi who should obviously never be seen together: Jupiter (leader of the Roman Pantheon), Horus (the falcon-headed Egyptian sun god), and Ch'ih-Yu (the legendary Chinese dragon). They're all sitting around on a luxurious floating marble city getting fat, bloated and smashed off of the food and alcohol offerings from their worshippers. A messenger sent by the head cheese (bet you never knew there was one guy who ran the whole show for every religion, did ya'?) visits the gods and tells them of the boss' displeasure in their laziness and lack of effectiveness as deities. HE (as the head god is referred to in the game) brings Jupiter, Horus, and Ch'ih-Yu before HIM and explains that they must find one among their followers who has the talent, ambition, and far-sightedness to lead their people, otherwise HE will destroy the universe and begin anew with a different set of deities. That's where you come in. You'll take the role of either Septimus Marius (a Roman boat captain), Tsu-Tang (an Asian rice farmer), or Ramadamses (an Egyptian sculptor). It is your job to lead your people to glory by conquering other civilizations and capturing as many territories as possible.
When the game begins, you can opt to play an entire campaign or a quick single map scenario. The campaign mode is split into three difficulty levels, with each corresponding to the three different civilizations ¿ the Roman campaign is easy, the Asian campaign is moderately difficult, and the Egyptian campaign is hard. Like most other RTS games, you're presented with a briefing screen in the beginning of each mission which outlines your objectives (usually to claim the entire land mass and destroy every other living being in the vicinity) and a map showing the area of contention. You can also choose to play a multiplayer game with up to 19 other players or, if you've never played any of the previous games and you're not familiar with Settlers' control system, you can jump into the included tutorial and learn the basics of the game. Unfortunately the tutorial only teaches you the basics of the game and you must figure out the advanced functions on your own ... and this game is all about advanced functions and micro-management of resources.
The basic formula that guides RTS games on the PC involves holding a territory, constructing buildings, gathering resources, raising an army, and beating the crap out of your opponents. Well, Settlers III isn't one to stray far from the formula. Like Settlers and Settlers II, the most important task in the early part of Settlers III is to expand you territory so you can have first pick of the resources available on each map. You can either build defensive structures to mark your presence or send a group of pioneers to claim the land as your own. After you have enough land, you can begin to harvest trees to create lumber, cut stone for buildings, mine and smelt iron for weapons, etc. As your ultimate goal is to wipe out the other civilization (or civilizations) in the mission area, you'll also want to build an army comprised of swordsmen, spearmen, and bowmen. As I said earlier, it doesn't stray too far from the RTS formula.
Settlers III does try to mix it up a bit by offering players the choice between three different civilizations. Each of the civilizations plays the same and each has the same basic buildings, but there are a few specialized buildings for each. For example, the Romans can build charcoal manufacturers instead of relying on coal mines. So, as long as the Romans have a good supply of wood to make charcoal, they'll have plenty of fuel. The Asians can mine sulfur. This allows the production of gunpowder which in turn allows the construction of cannons, making the Asians formidable foes. The Egyptians, on the other hand, are expert stone cutters and miners. Unlike the Romans or the Asians, the Egyptians can mine gems which raise the morale of their soldiers when they are fighting outside of their borders.
In addition to building and unit specializations, each civilization has specific Divine Interventions they can call upon from their respective deities. You gain mana by sacrificing alcohol and your priests can convert this mana into favors from the gods. These vary by race and include such things as tuning iron to gold for the Romans, starting raging forest fires in enemy lands for the Egyptians, and creating super-fast Samurai warriors in the Asian campaigns.
Unfortunately, as good as this all sounds, Settlers III has a slew of glaring problems which mar an otherwise brilliant game. For starters, you can't load a saved game while you are in a campaign. You have to quit the game you're playing, exit to the menu screen and load your game from there. What the hell is that all about? Did the designers think that this would encourage people not to reload their game when something went horribly wrong? All it serves to do is waste time. The quirky disc swaps make this problem even worse as you are often prompted to insert a different disc when you go back to the main menu from the campaign you are playing. Also, like so many other games in this genre, Settlers III basically comes down to micro-management of resources. Instead of offering up a really unique playing experience, Settlers III thrusts you in the role of 'Slider King' as you are constantly changing resource allocation to get the perfect mix of efficiency and speed. You don't have any real control over your individual units and you can't physically direct settlers from one building to another. It reminds me a lot of Colonization. It's a great game, but you spend most of your time cycling through each and every building to check production. I also ran into some problems with the AI, both with my units and the enemy units. Often times enemy soldiers will wait at your border and not enter your territory, so you can take them out with bowmen from afar. And your own troops will wander off to conquer enemy buildings if you don't continually tell them to hold their positions when you're in enemy territory. Plus, half the group will often totally ignore your orders and attack an enemy tower that you didn't want them to get anywhere near. This often causes you to lose a number of units to sheer interface stupidity. Perhaps my biggest problem with Settlers III, though, is the lack of a decent printed manual. The online guide is fantastic and outlines every feature of the game, but you can't access it when you're playing the game and it's nice to have a reference that will tell you what every resource affects when you're playing a game this complex.
Overall, Settlers III is an entertaining and brain-heavy game that is unfortunately hampered by a number of problems. It's not much different from Settlers or Settlers II, but that's not really a bad thing since the other two were solid games. It does have a high learning curve, though, so don't expect to jump right into this one unless you've played the previous versions.
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