As your boat sails into an unknown stretch of water, you begin to see islands dotting the horizon. In 1701 A.D., a time of exploration and expansion, you are invited to colonize one of these islands and begin your creation of a medieval metropolis. Set in the 18th century, the single-player "continuous gameplay" mode focuses on a time when pirates and plundering are at their peak. Your job is to grow your new civilization among such threats by creating armies and navies to protect your people and your lands.
Unfortunately, bad buccaneers and enemy nations are not the only menace you face, as volcanoes and tornadoes do occur on the islands. Civilians rely on you to make sure they have the things they need, and if they are not happy they will let you know by throwing rocks, starting riots, and picketing. Your townsfolk are skilled in collecting food and manufacturing goods, provided they have access to the necessary buildings needed for each product. For example, to catch fish you need a fisherman's hut and roads connecting the business to a warehouse. Your citizens can create many items and objects including weapons, clothing, chocolate, perfume, tobacco, and wool.
To expand your colony to other islands, you might have to overcome indigenous people, or other nations who are unwilling of "share" their property. You may negotiate terms, or play dirty by engaging in sabotage and spying. If you prefer a non-violent society, a "Playground" is available where competition is just an option. The "Scenario" mode features a variety of missions and objectives to accomplish. Cooperative or competitive multiplayer action is available through a LAN or Internet connection.
1701 A.D. is the third iteration of the strategy game series that started with 1602 A.D. and continued with 1503 A.D. While this series has enjoyed enormous popularity in Europe, it's never reached more than cult status in the North American market. Hopefully that will change with this iteration because despite a few missteps, this is easily one of the most enjoyable city-builders I've played this year.
1701 A.D. takes place in... well... A.D. 1701. The location is a heavily fictionalized version of the Caribbean. The player takes the role of an explorer on a ship in the middle of a blank map. He or she's been charged by the queen to colonize this new world, building up a network of colonies on various islands that can exploit its vast wealth. Naturally, players aren't alone here. There can be up to four other computer-controlled or human players also jockeying for supremacy along with a group of lesser civilizations that the player can trade and ally with.
Colonies are constructed using the now-standard conventions of the city-builder. Players place down resource-gathering, production and residential buildings on a piece of land and wait for their simulated citizens to move in. Each citizen has a hierarchy of needs the player must satisfy in order to keep their populace happy. Fulfilling their needs allows them to climb up the socioeconomic ladder. As citizens move up in the world, their needs get more sophisticated, ranging from raw pioneers who are satisfied with a full stomach and comfortable clothing to an aristocracy with a raft of needs ranging from chocolate and tobacco to access to a government building.
Despite a fairly straight-line economic model, putting together these economic daisy-chains is easily 1701 A.D.'s strongest suit. Citizens have a very clear socioeconomic progression that allows players to focus on one type of economic expansion at a time. If the majority of the player's residents are at pioneer level, it doesn't make sense to monkey around with tobacco plantations until the rum or beer supply that they need to evolve into settlers is assured. While this might have had the effect of simplifying the game's strategy, the developers made up for it by making sure that no one island can grow everything needed by a colony. If the player's initial island can grow cacao, grain and hops, for example, it means that they'll eventually have to start up splinter colonies on islands that can grow other commodities such as tobacco or honey, or trade for them with other civilizations.
Trading resources and shepherding materials is the key to this game. Trade improves the player's reputation with the game's seven "minor civilizations" and the computer players. Each of these civilizations offers special commodities that only that culture can produce. The end result is that whatever strategic depth is lost from making the production economy fairly simple is more than made up for by the challenge of running these trade routes, getting resources where they need to be and manipulating commodities for personal gain. In later stages of the single-player and most multiplayer games, fighting for control of resources and managing, protecting and cutting off other players' trade routes can get pretty vicious.
Fortunately, the game's user interface is more than up to the challenge. In fact, I've rarely seen a user interface as well designed as the one in 1701 A.D. Unlike most city-builders or economic simulators, 1701 A.D. doesn't have a boatload of statistics or summary screens that players need to wade through in order to get a sense of the health of their empire. Every button or informational display comes with a pop-up tool tip that gives players exactly what they need to know.
In just one example, clicking on the town center shows the disposition of every social class on the islands by displaying an animated face. A laughing pioneer or settler is a good thing. A crying or yelling one means that social class is angry and may be on the verge of rioting. The commodities underneath the image let the player know what each class's needs are and mousing over the need tells the player how well he or she is doing in fulfilling them, along with a solution. The mouse tip for cloth says, "Settlers need cloth. Can be produced by a Weaver's hut or acquired through trade. There are currently 21 tons of cloth in stock." There were a few summary screens the game could have used (a master trade route and production list would have been nice) but by and large, any piece of information a player needs is sensibly placed within the UI.
The bad news is that commodity scarcity can lead to war, and (as is so often the case in city-builders) this is where the game falls down. Players produce military units and fighting ships from buildings in the same manner as any other commodity. Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot of strategy involved in actually going to war. It's basically a numbers game where the player with the most advanced pikemen wins the day. The thing is, the amount of resources and time required to produce troops and the high casualty rate make every military victory Pyrrhic. Every time one of my Pikemen bit the dust, all I could see was that the "victory" had cost me a lot of iron and cloth that I really couldn't replace. It's not as bad as the military portions of games like Caesar IV (at least troops stick together and don't seem to get lost), but if a city-builder's military strategy can't be as deep and rich as its economic game, it'd probably be best to just find a way to abstract it.
Graphically, the game is a winner. 1701 A.D. takes a cartoony approach to representing life in the 18th century Caribbean and this light-hearted sensibility is enormously appealing. The island worlds are richly detailed and filled with all sorts of ambient fluff that really makes them come to life. Each island, for example, has different sorts of wildlife running around, ranging from elephants to giraffes to crocodiles. Zoom in a little closer and the player may catch sight of bears ambling through the trees or foxes scurrying through the underbrush. This level of detail extends to the player's cities as well. Every building and citizen is loaded with delightful little animations that are only visible when the camera pulls in close. My particular favorites include a heavy-set doctor from the clinic building who wobbles from house to house on a tiny bicycle and a brass "oompah" band that marches through the streets when the citizens are very happy.
One thing the game is really lacking is a dedicated campaign mode. The game comes with 10 single-player scenarios, each with its own amusing storyline and challenges. I particularly enjoyed "The Curse of the Monkey God" scenario which has the player stealing a lost treasure only to be menaced by a gigantic ape that can only be appeased with fish from a particular lake and cooked over trees from a particular forest. The downside of these challenges is that, while fun, they're not very long, nor particularly challenging. Even the "3-star" scenarios, which are supposed to be the toughest, can be completed by a dedicated player in a weekend. The game has a terrific Continuous mode that's loaded with player-controlled victory conditions and settings that make every game a different experience -- enough for a lifetime of challenges. It would still have been nice to get the type of overarching progressive goal provided by a campaign.
In the end, 1701 A.D. seems to have struck a nice balance between strategic depth and user friendliness. The game's challenging mix of building management and trading presents a truly enjoyable challenge, while the cartoon-style Caribbean graphics make the process of developing a mighty metropolis a treat for the eyes as well as the cerebral cortex. Despite a few missteps, city-building fans will definitely get their money's worth out of 1701 A.D.
People who downloaded 1701 A.D. have also downloaded:
Anno 1503: The New World, ANNO 1602: Creation of a new world, Age of Empires III, A*M*E*R*I*C*A, Age of Mythology, Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings, Axis & Allies, Caesar IV
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