Generally, empire-building games tend to operate on a global or even galactic scale. The assumption is that production continues even if gamers don't see work being done -- they must be content knowing that the denizens of a "sim city" already have the materials on hand to erect buildings. For players concerned with matters on a more local level, Blue Byte's The Settlers series is based on building a thriving society, one plank at a time. The series continues to improve with each release and the fourth installment is no exception. If God is truly in the details, then The Settlers: Fourth Edition is a micro-manager's heaven.
You are once again called upon to help three races to prosper: the Romans, Mayans, and Vikings. A fourth race, the mysterious Dark Tribe, adds a fourth campaign. Through judicious allotment of resources, the fledgling settlement can grow into a town that produces tools, weapons, and foodstuffs. Townsfolk can be trained in over 40 jobs in the fields of production, military, or religion. It takes a bean counter's abacus and a general's sword to lead the chosen people to the prosperity in the land of promise.
At first glance, this iteration seems very similar to The Nations. Although not nearly as funny as its brethren, both games are graphical treats and not shy about having the camera at full zoom, with buildings highly detailed and largely distinctive. The Settlers: Fourth Edition prides itself on showing each step of the process: pigsties need water and grain to raise pigs, with each raw material carried by hand to the sty's front door. This step-by-step process is also similar to Stronghold, but more cartoon-like. Still, spending the first few games just watching the villagers march like ants to their destinations is fun.
Though not nearly as refined as the graphics, the sounds are still enjoyable, with a pleasant soundtrack serving as a backdrop for the day-to-day activities of the hamlet. Focusing on a workshop brings out the hammer blows of new weapons honed on the forge and the hiss of red hot metal being thrust into a water bucket. Nature sounds, like the gurgle of brooks and pounding ocean surf, enhance the feeling of taming a wild land. Oddly enough, voices are nearly absent from the game, barring the occasionally shout of glee by prospectors finding good ore deposits. Mission narration is also bland, read in a sterile voice not at all indicative of the race about to be played.
Religion and military are interesting aspects to spice up the game. Priests are the spiritual links between the gods and the people, calling forth miracles to sustain followers. Miracles take the form of spells that provide more materials, bestow benefits on settlers and soldiers, or wreak havoc upon heretic nations opposing the player. Sacrificing alcoholic beverages generates mana, the currency of miracles: Roman wine, Viking mead, or Mayan tequila -- a neat and satisfying idea that works well.
Military, the strong arm of service, works on both a realistic and idealistic level. Soldiers require training at a facility, as well as weapons made by a smith. Since supplies are generally limited, large companies of warriors cannot be built up to swarm over enemies. Buying time to amass armies requires a defensive stance using towers and castles. Fighting, however, is unrealistic. Towers, castles, and soldiers are the only objects that can be attacked; civilians and non-military structures are off limits. Removing a tower removes the area of control and any structure outside of the newly redefined boundaries is destroyed. The defender gets an unusually high advantage, since towers are cheap and easy to defend. Expect long and drawn out military campaigns to loosen the enemy's grip while defending your own turf.
One of the biggest flaws of gameplay concerns the passage of time. While the animations are initially cute, waiting for a house to go up during a period of scarce workers or a dearth of materials is physically painful. Thankfully, the F12 key will advance the game a real-time minute, moving characters to where they will be 60 seconds from now and advancing production as well. However, hitting F12 to finish a tower just as the enemy enters the city is disastrous. There's no chance to muster forces for defense and, since the computer rarely attacks until it is good and ready, the next minute usually reveals a desolate area where workshops once stood. Why Blue Byte elected to advance time rather than simply speed it up like nearly any other game in the genre is unfathomable. Perhaps the fifth edition of the game will resolve this design faux pas.
Is the game enjoyable to play? For those rulers who want to escape the tedium of life's minutiae, the game will represent nothing but boundless frustration. They'll resent the game for forcing the growth of a technology tree with no allowable deviations: wood and stone production, food growing, ore mining, and finally, military actions. There simply aren't enough resources available at the beginning of a given level to vary the order of development. The opposite also holds true for gamers who value dependable gameplay focused on growing a society, rather than war-based action. Clearly, gamers should find a demo of the game to help determine which camp they favor.
Even so, those who enjoy this style of gameplay may be unsatisfied with the number of single-player missions. Each race has three fairly short missions, with 12 more in the Dark Tribe's campaign. The extra difficult missions against the Dark Tribe require a finely tuned building formula, and, most likely, multiple tries. The balance for newcomers to the series has not been struck; novices should stick to the front nine before venturing into the Dark Tribe territory. Multiplayer options and a Free Settling mode will help satiate series' veterans who speed through the 21 levels with ease.
The game inspires a sense of order and purpose, with careful planning paying off in visual rewards. Brains that revel in unraveling problems by systematically assigning tasks to peons will appreciate the title's nuances. Gamers who think globally but don't want to act locally need not apply. However, when it comes to the little things, few games do it better than The Settlers: Fourth Edition.
Graphics: Meticulous and charming, the game leads you down the path of village building one step at a time. Later on, though, the game drags somewhat while waiting for the charming animations to hurry up.
Sound: Each industry has its own cadence, with a pleasant soundtrack tying it all together. Voice acting is sorely missed.
Enjoyment: Take a look at your computer desk; if it's neat and tidy, you'll probably enjoy the game. Love it or hate it, there's no middle ground -- personal preference is the key.
Replay Value: While the three race's campaigns are somewhat short, the dozen Dark Tribes missions test your skills. Sandbox mode and multiplayer should keep gamers settled long after the single-player levels are finished.
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Settlers 3, The, Settlers II, The: 10th Anniversary, Settlers II Gold Edition, The, Pharaoh and Cleopatra, Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings, Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, Rise of Nations, Sid Meier's Civilization 3
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