The Anno collection-of-numbers-adding-up-to-nine series is a bit of a genealogical throwback to the olden days. On one side of its parentage you have the old Settlers games, with their supply and manufacturing chains and opening up new colonies in distant lands to exploit new resources. On the other, there’s the Impressions series of city builders – Caesar, Pharoah and Zeus – where the citizenry must be pampered with ever more luxurious (not to mention difficult to produce) consumable goods and gewgaws in order to induce them to “evolve” into a higher class of citizen. Anno games mix elements of each plus a few bits and pieces of their own to create a decidedly modern take on both; this turned out to be a good thing since the Caesar and Settlers series conked out1 at around about the time Anno burst onto the scene, leaving it to cater to their target audience more-or-less singlehandedly. And to many people’s considerable surprise – not least my own – it actually does a pretty good job of it.
Anno 2070 is the most recent title in the series, and it’s one which breaks with tradition by eschewing the usual setting of the early modern period of Europe(i.e. 15th-18th centuries) in favour of shifting things into the not-so-distant future. Global warming has melted the ice caps and flooded vast stretches of the world’s coastlines, putting a strain on the available resources for the remaining human population. However, that same climate change has created new, fertile island chains that are ripe for colonisation, and so you’re sent out there to do just that: build housing for your workers, exploit the available resources and gradually build up the supply chains that allows your population to grow and evolve.
So the setting may be different but the premise is much the same, and besides the high-tech reskin I honestly can’t see a huge amount of difference between Anno 2070 and its immediate predecessor, Anno 1404. Since Anno 1404 is rightfully regarded as the best game in the series that’s not exactly a bad thing, but I must say I was hoping for the developers to make a little bit more out of their ecological science-fiction setting. As it is you can point to most of 2070’s features and match them up rough analogues from 1404; instead of planting date farms you manufacture communicators, and undersea plateaus have taken the place of desert islands, and the upper class of citizens is called Executives rather than Patricians, but by and large it’s the same game.
There is a campaign helpfully included with every Anno title that functions as an extended tutorial. Perhaps if they could figure out a way to condense teaching the game into something that didn’t take twenty hours to play through I’d actually use the things; as it is I did the same thing with Anno 2070 as I did with 1404 and jumped straight into the games’ Continuous mode. To the developer’s credit this also has a skeletal set of tutorial hints delivered by not-at-all-creepy AI Eve that at least get you pointed in the right direction, and the full refund of building resources you get for demolishing misplaced buildings on Easy allows you to make as many mistakes as you like without worrying about wastage.
The idea behind the Anno series is that you start out on a single island in an archipelago with only a ship, a set of docks and some basic construction materials to get you started, and from this you’re supposed to build things up into a sprawling multi-island empire populated by thousands of citizens. It’s a long trip, as evidenced by my Continuous game taking 13 hours for me to build things up to what I’m reasonably sure is the pinnacle of civilization, and it can get almost unbearably complex at times as you have to juggle eco-ratings, energy requirements, tax income and your citizen’s needs in order to keep everything running in tip-top shape.
The needs (I should probably capitalise that as Needs, actually), are probably the most important part of the game. When you start out you’re only dealing with the basic population class of Workers – Anno’s proles – who have only a very basic set of needs: they want food in the form of fish, drink in the form of tea, and entertainment in the form of a concert hall. Adequately fulfil all of these needs through the provision of the relevant goods and/or buildings and a segment of the Worker population will evolve into the next social tier of Employees. Employees are harder to please; not only do they want all the stuff the Workers have, but they also demand wasteful extravagances like health food, mobile phones and 24-hour cable channels. The third tier, Engineers, add pasta and bio-drinks to the mix, while the snooty upper-class Executives want 3D projectors (I think this is like a futuristic widescreen plasma television or something) and service robots to clean their apartments for them, the lazy sods.
Not that providing high-tech items like service robots is just a matter of building a service robot factory, oh no. Getting basic goods like fish and tea is easy; you just build fisheries and tea plantations and they’ll automatically gather and distribute the goods for you. The mobile phones are more difficult, since first you have to mine copper and sand and make them into microchips, and then make those into communicators. Finally the service robots not only require microchips, but also biopolymers made out of corn and algae gathered from underwater plateaus. The production chains are complicated further by each island only having a limited set of fertilities – for example, your starting island might be able to grow tea, rice and coffee, but if you want to grow vegetables to make health food you’ll have to set up a vegetable colony on another island and ship the cabbages over via an automated trading route. Some raw materials can only be obtained by building undersea colonies, which are rather expensive to build and maintain. Meanwhile you’re also trying to deal with the fact that each new building you construct uses up energy and (possibly) lowers the island’s ecology rating, with potentially awful consequences for both your population’s happiness and the productiveness of your plant-growing industries. The eco-rating can be improved by building weather controllers and ozone blimps, but these buildings are – again – expensive to build and maintain.
The good news is that each time the population levels up the new population class will pay progressively more tax, making Anno’s growth process a somewhat cyclical one: you build all these supply chains to upgrade your population so they’ll pay more tax, and you use the tax to build power plants and ecology buildings to both reduce the environmental impact of your existing buildings and give you the capacity to expand further. Eventually space becomes a consideration and it becomes desirable to move all of your non-essential industry to subsidiary islands to make more room for worker housing (industry in Anno is entirely automated and needs no population to function, so there’s no housing necessary on your industrial islands), producing this curiously capitalist empire model where you exploit the hell out of every island you can get your hands on in order to feed this rapacious megatropolis you’ve created and keep the Executives happy.
And once you’ve filled up the entire island with housing, what then? Well, I think that if you’re asking that question then Anno 2070 isn’t the game for you. I think I saw it mentioned somewhere that there were win conditions for the Continuous game mode, but I haven’t run across them yet, and if they do exist I think they’re only something you’d invoke once you were tired of playing a given archipelago. Anno isn’t a game where you build a city to fulfil some arbitrary goal. Instead the building is an end in and of itself. You build in order to build, and you build the best city you can while trying to keep all these different plates spinning on their sticks. Anno is essentially a more supply-oriented version of SimCity that shares its open-ended nature and the zen-like nature of its gameplay. It can take a while for things to happen in Anno – despite the game’s attempts to spruce things up with missions and research and whatnot – but I was never bored while playing it. Just watching the city run smoothly along the tracks you’ve spent a considerable amount of time greasing for it can be a pleasure in and of itself. Anno 2070’s visual design is a little too bland for my tastes but it’s aided greatly in terms of atmosphere by the music, which veers a little too far into over-reverent choral territory at times but which mostly fits the game like a glove. It does a great job of keeping the brain occupied on a subconscious level with more subtle and downbeat music while occasionally mixing in tracks that sound like they should be playing over some Hollywood action movie. Looking at a thriving futuristic metropolis has never felt so epic, especially when you know it was you who built it.
I can’t claim to have seen everything there is to offer in Anno 2070. Not even close, in fact; I’ve played one full game as the Eco faction and another, shorter one as the Tycoons (enough to convince me that the differences between the factions are superficial at best, and even they don’t matter when you get access to the opposing faction’s buildings once you hit a given level of developments), but there’s quite a lot of the game that I haven’t really tried to explore – I didn’t mess much with research, for example, and I didn’t even bother with warfare, considering it to be missing the point of the game somewhat. There’s also a whole bunch of metagame stuff that either seems ridiculous (career progression, elections) or else isn’t actually explained (ark upgrades) that barely seem to be adding anything to the game, and so I ignored them this time around. That’s okay, though. While I think I’ve had my fill of it for the time being I’m almost certainly going to return to Anno at some point in the future, because – like Civilization – it’s one of those games that lends itself very well to repeat play, and it seems wise to leave something new to learn later. I’m satisfied that the underlying mechanics of Anno are still incredibly solid, and I enjoyed the 15-20 hours I played it very much.
(Of course, since it is the same game as Anno 1404 that’s hardly a surprise, and if you prefer the early modern period over near-future science fiction you’re probably better off getting that instead. But that’s a matter of personal taste more than anything else, really.)
- I’m aware there have been games released in the Settlers series that had numbers attached which were larger than 2. I have yet to figure out who is buying them or why Blue Byte keeps bothering to make the bloody things. ↩