Anno 1404: Discovery Venice
As anyone whos ever been there will tell you, Venice is a beautiful place steeped in rich history. On the other hand it smells funny and the tourist prices are nothing short of banditry. In what I assume to be a grand act of homage to the floating city itself, Related Designs have released Anno 1404: Venice - visually splendid, generally well received, impressive, and distinctly overpriced. No noticeable odour though.
Venice is an add-on for last years latest instalment of the Anno (Aka Dawn of Discovery) series, a truly excellent run of games that are among the gold standard of the empire building genre. For those not familiar with the game series, Anno plays with a traditional zoomable god-eye view of a string of archipelago, upon which you and your potential opponent nations attempt to inhabit and thrive in a great colonial rush. This involves farming the best crop for each island, mining raw materials, and managing the processing and distribution of the end product. Keep your populace fed, entertained, and largely drunk, and you'll end up progressing from peasants' to citizens to 'merchants' and beyond, each bringing greater tax returns and more build options. Since the map is made up of islands, few providing everything a colony will want, the player must cultivate fleets of supply vessels whilst also providing the floating firepower to protect their investment from pirates or unfriendly nations.
What made the series truly great was the immaculately balanced learning curve and the simplicity of the interface belying the complicated political and financial interaction. The last page of the latest SimCity might as well have had 'Players are advised to graduate from LSE before continuing' given the game's maddening complexity and difficulty from the word go, whereas Anno was forgiving indeed, with danger of failure only slowly increasing with the player's progression.
Given the bright, slightly cartoonish graphics and interface it might initially seem like a dumbed down version of more serious empire builders. Instead, Related Designs realised some years ago that a game's complexity should come from a series of simple actions and movements interacting with each other in complex ways, rather than just a fiddly interface. An example of this is constructing your islands supply lines. The player needs only to construct a ship, and in a simple graphical menu select where it should stop, what it should pick up or offload. As many stops as the player wishes, only limited by the space in the hold, and if the relevant goods are available. With two inhabited islands producing different goods, it's a simple shuttle service back and forth. With three islands and a couple more ships, it is small network. By six islands it is a jungle of interdependence and vital delivery speeds, requiring a feat of memory and contingency planning. Even at its most complicated, the interface and command system still remain clear and friendly, requiring the player's tactical planning to carry the day, not his or her ability to interpret a pie chart.
The latest expansion disk adds to the mix the new faction of Venice, new multiplayer modes, new mechanics of subterfuge and economic warfare, and several new scenarios to play through. All are well made features but none feel sufficiently revelatory to merit their own expansion, instead feeling like they should have come as part of a really excellent update patch. For free.
A little disappointingly, you wont actually be able to sail up to St Marks Square and dump 800 metric tonnes of beer on it, forever freeing the beleaguered tourists from the clammy grip of criminal cafe owners and their verminous waiters/accomplices. In fact, you wont be visiting the Queen of the Adriatic at all, as rather than have Venice as a setting the game looks nearly exactly the same using largely the same locations, but now with a very pretty Venetian outpost with which to trade through the auspices of A.I character Giacomo. The Venetian outposts really do look the business, but its strictly look but dont touch, and unless you spend some time zooming around the settlements and panning around going ooh and ahh, you will mostly ignore these nice new models. Aside from a few new building types, the entire appearance of the game remains unchanged which makes it just as well it looked so good in the first place.
There are a series of new scenarios to play through, but no new single player campaign. To be fair, the campaign was simply a series of scenarios with a little narrative stringing them together, but it still helped the game hang together and gave you a greater sense of achievement after the many hours some levels would take to complete. However, the lack of a fresh campaign in which to flex your new subterfuge and economic warfare abilities seems a shortcoming, especially as the Campaign mode frequently also acted as a tutorial.
The addition of a Base of Operations to your building options now allows the issuing of spies and agents against your neighbouring cities. In the standard Anno no matter how well you farmed or managed, it would all inevitably end in Lebensraum! and cannon fire. This seemed a bit of a clumsy conclusion to what could otherwise be played as such a cerebral pleasure. Now your Lilly-white hands need not be dirtied with gunpowder, as you can disrupt the economy of your rival, engage in arson for fun and for profit , sponsor a false prophet, send a troupe of dancing girls to slow the easily distracted peasants, hide everyones left shoe, and generally spread civil unrest. Not only will this generally weaken your opponents without open hostilities, it will also devalue their settlements, giving you the chance to get more and more of their city elders in your pocket and eventually just buy the Key to the City and take it as your own. At that point its best to discontinue the arson, the spurious religions and the dancing girls. Well, the arson and the religions for sure.
These are good mechanics, and they fit so well into the regular body of the game its hard to think of why they werent in there in the first place, or at least offered as free DLC. Everyone has had a good old grump at the shrewd practices of major publishers regarding DLC releases, especially for console gamers, but at 20 GBP this still seems a little steep.
Related Designs seems to attribute more of your value for money to the addition of multi-player modes, and purely in terms of game hours they do have a point. A single player game of Anno could last for hours, but a multiplayer scenario can easily hit ten hours of play, especially as you no longer have the luxury of speeding up time in the slow bits.
The multiplayer is as richly featured as the single-player, with the host being able to finely set and tweak the environment under which everyone plays and the conditions for victory - such as target population sizes, reaching certain levels of prestige or affluence, and of course just being the last man standing when the gun smoke clears. There is support for up to eight players competitively, which assumedly can reach Byzantine (Venetian?) levels of complexity in terms of relationships, alliances and trading routes, as well as a vs. AI co-op mode. Multiplayer Anno requires some pretty sophisticated communication just to play competitively, but co-op requires an order of magnitude more as rather than control allied nations both players will have complete access and control over just one. Considering the potential length of the game and its intricacy, it is a much better prospect to play over your Office or Home LAN, as opposed to waiting around in the Lobby and then making a major time commitment to a complete stranger. The multiplayer, especially when played with the economic warfare options deactivated, plays precisely like regular Anno and therefore feels even more like it should have been incorporated into the regular game or delivered in a patch.
Venice delivers some genuinely excellent features in a game that was already a leader in its genre. It is arguable that Related Designs are a victim of their own success by creating new features that feel such a natural fit for the original that the player wonders why they were not there in the first place. The additional material in Venice gives the impression that it should have been part of really great enhancement patch, rather than a fully featured and fully priced expansion.