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Mark Buckingham is many things: freelance writer and editor, gamer, tech-head, reader, significant other, movie watcher, pianist, and hockey player.

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PC Review - '1701 A.D. Gold Edition'

by Mark Buckingham on Nov. 16, 2008 @ 12:41 a.m. PST

1701 A.D. Gold Edition includes the original empire building strategy game and introduces for the first time in North America The Sunken Dragon expansion, adding an 11-mission, story-driven campaign, a new world editor, new AI profiles, buildings, subquests and an empire-shattering new natural disaster.

Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Aspyr
Developer: Related Designs/Sunflowers Interactive
Release Date: July 24, 2008

Not-so-hot on the heels of its European release in late 2007, German-developed 1701 A.D. Gold Edition has finally arrived stateside, offering new content and challenges to fans of the original title, as well as new AI opposition and a powerful world creation suite. Colonizing the Caribbean (and now Asiatic territories) has rarely been so attractive and engaging ... or time-consuming.

Let's face it: You really can't get much done in this game without sinking about four or five hours per sitting. More time is lost trying to make sense of some of the objectives or unclarities, like why your citizenry won't progress despite having all of their needs met ages ago. An extensive reference tool has been built into the game, the ANNOpedia, which will answer many of your questions, but it really is a lot to get your head around.

1701 A.D. was tough to review. It has as much going for it as it has working against it, and while it brings some substantial gameplay and interaction to the table, the interface and objectives can range from fairly straightforward to completely illogical.

It's billed as being as simple or complex as you want it to be. I didn't really find the former to be true. For example, you can't simply opt out of certain "needs" for your citizens to simplify gameplay. They're always going to need things like tobacco and alcohol, lamp oil and education. Having to meet these needs forces you to engage in and make sense of virtually everything the game has to offer, from establishing (and often micromanaging) trade routes and maintaining diplomatic relations with your competitors, to setting out and creating new settlements on islands with more forgiving fertility in terms of what can be grown and produced there.

The base game is still as lovely to look at as it was a year ago, with its nice shading, normal mapping, lighting effects, and detailed building and ship models. It comes at a price, though. On my Geforce 7950GT, I experienced frame rate shifts from 60fps over the open sea to 30fps over undeveloped land, but once your city gets up to a reasonable heft, frames dropped into the teens or below, no matter how many effects or details I turned off. One of the Sunken Dragon campaign missions has you running around a large city with the fire brigade putting out blazes, and despite turning off every effect, I never got it above 12fps unless I zoomed all the way in or moved the camera outside of the city.

The camera itself could stand to be a bit more loose. The zooming in and out is always at pre-set steps and angles, much like Sunflowers' sister RTS, ParaWorld. They do an amazing job at building these gorgeous worlds, then don't give you a camera cooperative enough to really see it how you'd like. They did incorporate a "screenshot" camera toggle that allows you to remove the HUD and get a nice low-angle view, showing much more in the distance and turning on some spiffy depth-of-field effects, blurring the background and highlighting the foreground.

The music and sound effects (voice acting included) are uniformly excellent. I scoped the installation directory, hoping to find the soundtrack available as MP3s the way ParaWorld's was, but to no avail. It's a shame, as I'd be listening to the music as I write this, but I don't want the game hogging resources in the background.

The HUD generally gives you most of what you need, and a quick-access menu can be mapped to the right mouse button. I found that very handy, but many of the menus and info screens hog an awful lot of screen real estate, even at high resolutions. Everything happens here in real time (and can be manually accelerated if you like), meaning you might need to react to something in a hurry, and having tons of menus obscuring your view is no help at all. In a turn-based game, this would have been much more forgivable. You also have no option to run the game in a window, though it can be done by changing the value of "ScreenFormat" from 0 to 1 in the Engine.ini file. However, doing so disables the ability to scroll the map just by moving the mouse to the edge of it. Still, it doesn't "trap" the mouse (you can move right out of the game window's borders into others), so it's a handy interface tweak for multitaskers.

There are some inconsistencies in the HUD, though, and with a few changes, 1701 A.D. Gold Edition could have been much more accessible and less confusing. For instance, there are often criteria that must be met before you can build a new tier of structures, research a new ability, or progress your people to a higher level of stature. Sometimes, the game tells you why something is or isn't working or available. Other times, it doesn't. Or sometimes, it will give you a list of a few possible reasons a building has halted production but won't tell you which one, leaving you to check and re-check your work to figure out what it is. Again, having this all happen in real time, it wastes a good deal of time when you could be progressing rather than idling.

Similarly, trade routes between other players allow you to set how much of a particular good you want to keep on hand, offering the rest up for trading and profit. However, trading between your own settlements only lets you tell the ship how much of something to pick up and drop off. Several times, I ran out of something completely because I set the ship to keep running a route and then had to micromanage whether or not it kept bringing bricks or tools from one port to another to the point of exhausting my supplies. Ugh.

One more example of irritating linearity comes when I had to find a cure for plague for some isolated members of the population. I had some undefined time limit to produce 10 tons of hops to trade for the cure. It wasn't clear to me when this time limit would expire, and it did before I got the hops to the warehouse (apparently the road I built to the plantation wasn't close enough, by the game's standards) and that secondary objective was failed. However, about a half-hour later, I was able to build a doctor's office where people could be cured. Inspired, I sent a ship with building materials to plant a doc on the island of the sickly, but they wouldn't let me unload the supplies or build anything there. The island's representative kept telling me over and over how nice it was to trade with me, even though he wouldn't actually do anything with me. So much for non-linear solutions to problems. You'd better color inside the lines.

Particular to the expansion content are a few new AI characters to play with or against. Their motivations are explained in the campaign, but they're available alignment-free in the game's sandbox mode, referred to as Continuous Play. The campaign brings some appreciated focus to the game, as sandbox mode really leaves too much up to the player to figure out on his own. The campaign gives you specific goals, like hitting a population cap, reaching a certain amount of wealth, putting out fires (literally), diving for artifacts in stormy seas, purging enemies from your gates, rearranging an established city to be more efficient, and more.

The variety keeps it from getting old, though these objectives certainly aren't outlandish or fantastic in any way. The focus on goals also limits some flexibility in terms of how to reach them. For instance, in the city that needs rearranged and optimized, the governing body will allow you to destroy and rebuild production facilities, but not populace dwellings. It's not even a construction option to be constructed on your menu for this round. So you're essentially railroaded into destroying a few key structures and rebuilding them where you're instructed, then filling in those spaces with required buildings that coincidentally will only fit in the amount of space you freed up. There's not a lot of freedom there, and it plays out pretty much the same way each time.

Still, the overriding story of searching for lost mystical artifacts adds some high adventure to the game, which otherwise feels a little too much like reading a textbook. It's odd, too, because for all the simulation of economy and city design, the settings are entirely fictional. It seems like a missed opportunity, since I learned much of what I know today about the layout of the Caribbean from playing Sid Meier's original and geographically accurate Pirates!

In fact, I made the mistake of thinking about Pirates! when I started 1701. It's not even safe to play it like other typical RTS games, which focus on gathering resources and going off to war. My first time playing 1701, I grew my city too quickly, built too much with a focus on gathering resources, and nearly ran out of money. You really have to wait for your population to grow in concordance with the rest of your society, as their taxes and demeanor keep the entire show going. As their numbers gradually increase, so do their demands, and before I knew it, not only did I have a remarkably large deficit (though trade profits aren't tallied into in your balance sheet, sadly), but my people also started consuming more than I could produce. Before long, they were rioting in the streets and starting fires. There's a lot to balance here, and it can take several attempts to get the hang of it. Getting back to the sentiment earlier that you can play it as simple or complicated as you like, all I found was complicated. There's no "Lite" version of the gameplay here.

Another facet that makes it feel more like an economic sim than a traditional RTS is that combat is such a hands-off affair. Coming from Dawn of War, I was hoping for unique abilities and really involved combat, but instead, it boils down to picking a unit and telling them to attack something. You'll know who's going to win before each skirmish even begins, as it's determined primarily by stats, not so much by player ingenuity or resourcefulness.

The expansion also packs a powerful world creator that lets you determine everything from who's playing in the world, what fertilities the islands have, how large they are, what the economic conditions are like, and what cataclysmic disasters may befall you. In addition to the base game's plagues, volcanoes and tornadoes, Sunken Dragon ups the ante with the Meteor Strike, which essentially wipes the slate clean. It's epic in execution, though it really does end the game for all practical purposes so it seems a bit overpowered. The world builder also lets you drag and drop islands, resize them on the fly by dragging edges, and perhaps most important, allows you to share your maps online and with friends.

Now a word on DRM, since it's such a hot-button issue these days. Forget StarForce and SecuROM; this package uses Tages, a new and supposedly harder-to-circumvent form of DRM that works a lot like those others mentioned. In short, there's not much chance of finding a way to play without having to put the disc(s) in, though I haven't noticed any particular system problems or conflicts since it installed (and to their credit, at least they were honest about what installed, unlike EA with SecuROM). However, uninstalling 1701 prompts you to remove Tages, and warns that removing it will cause other games using Tages to stop working as well, though you may not know which ones those are (it'd be nice if it told you). What a pain in the neck. Uninstalling it is a multistage process as well. People who don't like putting DRM schemes on their PCs might be deterred from buying this product.

Further, this package is the only way to get the Sunken Dragon content, so if you already bought 1701 A.D. on its own, be prepared to pay for it all over again if you want the new goodies.

In the end, 1701 A.D. Gold Edition still relies on quite a bit of trial and error for newcomers. Fans of the series will likely feel right at home in the base game and the expansion. It's certainly a product you could drop a ton of hours on, though the tedium started getting to me after a while. At no point does it become terribly exciting, though the new expansion campaign content helps spice things up a bit. The world editor is a great addition as well, giving the game some legs, especially for multiplayer. 1701 A.D. is not a bad RTS, but it's not the best either. However, between this and ParaWorld, I'd choose the latter for its streamlined and more combative play style, outlandish settings and characters, and lack of frustrating DRM.

Score: 7.8/10

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