There are two ways to look at this game, and essentially two entirely different reviews to be had. First, comparisons to its immediate franchise predecessor — 1701 A.D. — are largely unavoidable, in part because it came out less than two years before Dawn of Discovery, and because I also played and reviewed that title. The other is to consider the title on its own, and how it stands up to the competition beyond just its roots.
First, the biggest complaints about its predecessor were the relative tedium and lack of excitement that burdened the proceedings, an aggravating DRM scheme, and unclear ways of figuring out how to accomplish some objectives, unless you pored over the ANNOpedia extensively. In Dawn of Discovery, a near-constant stream of objectives in the campaign keeps things interesting, though it's still not a game of conquest and combat. Typically your tasks range from recruiting knights and delivering them someplace to rescuing deserters floundering in the ocean and hauling them off to prison, to more ordinary fare like producing X number of goods or bringing your citizenry up to a certain population total or stature. While this hasn't changed a whole lot from the last game, the pacing seems much less demanding, allowing you to usually get to the quests when you're good and ready, rather than pressing you to constantly interrupt attempts at building up your colony for some idiotic fetch quest that doesn't help you. It's still not edge-of-your-seat excitement, but the relaxed approach allows you to explore more and enjoy your time with the game.
The DRM aspect seems to have been toned down, as well. While it still uses Tages (no secret, from the TagesClient.exe in the install folder), aside from an initial CD key I had to enter, it never came between me and playing the game again. The game features an auto-updater that starts when you use the standard desktop shortcut to kick things off, but if you simply point it to Anno4.exe, you needn't worry about being online, having the disc in, or having to update ever again. It just works, and this is a step forward in the world of DRM, thank goodness.
It looks like things have improved overall since the last game, no? Well, that's partially true. There are still some vague objectives and requests made of you, and while the HUD does its best to clear things up with popup tool tip windows, constant reminders from well-voiced NPCs, accessible and well-organized menus, and blips on the minimap when you hover over a quest, there are still some things that I had to turn to the Internet to get answers for, as the seven-page manual is zero help at all.
For example, at one point, my peasants stopped advancing to citizens. In trying to figure out why, it didn't take long to pull up the graph showing that their food needs weren't being fully met; they weren't starving, but the upper crust snobs insisted I start providing spice before they let anyone else upgrade to their status. OK, I need to get some spice. It seems an easy enough thing to sort out. I checked all the islands on the map, and none of them were suitable for growing this sort of thing. I checked warehouses of other AI players to see if someone had it to trade, but that was a dead end, too. This game completely abandons the ANNOpedia from previous editions. I remember scoffing a little at the ANNOpedia when I first saw it in 1701, thinking it was a little nuts to have to refer to this extensive documentation simply to figure out how to do basic things in a game. Now I miss it and ended up using our old pal Google to figure it out. It turns out I needed the Asian colonies — new to this iteration of the franchise — to produce spice and trade it to me. Fine, but there weren't any on this map and no suitable soil for growing it … so I was stuck, barring a bout of divine intervention. Let there be spice?
Trading is also a little vague, as you set a number of each item you want to, but that is still less clear than stating plainly, "Keep X amount on hand and sell the rest." I wasn't crazy about this in the last game, and I'm no crazier about it here.
There are two other fairly significant considerations to take into account when debating whether to buy this or a previous title in the series: The map builder and any sort of multiplayer are gone.
Let that sink in, and if either of those features is important to your buying decision, take note. I was never huge on the multiplayer before, but the lack of a map builder is a rather large oversight to me, especially since the game looks and plays very, very much like 1701, and it had both of these features. Granted, Dawn seems geared at a slightly more casual audience, but it'll be a lonely one.
The only consolation offered by Ubisoft for this omission is called "Gateway to the World," where you can share save games, screenshots, statistics and achievements online to compare against other players'. I'm not sure how this is supposed to make up for what's missing, but there you have it.
On the upside, Continuous mode, the non-campaign, free-play skirmish sort of thing, now features even more options, including more natural disasters, frequency of quests, starting situations (warehouse, ship with armada, etc.), and varied winning conditions (wealth, quests complete, number of inhabitants, diplomacy, etc.). Don't let that Create Map button fool you, though; it simply randomizes the number of the map in the Random Map field. There are several NPCs to play with, each with distinct personality and solidly thorough voice-over work. Along with all the other ambient sounds and voices throughout the game, the NPCs greatly add to the atmosphere and make participation that much more enjoyable. Zoom in over your town square, and you can hear settlers milling about, commending you on your relaxed tax structure or how well you provide for them. Little things like this exemplify the overall level of polish on the aesthetics you can expect.
Despite that, it ran quite acceptably on my laptop's Geforce 7400, though I had to turn down several graphical flourishes to achieve a workable frame rate. On any card higher than that, expect lush forests, glistening ocean waves, and detailed buildings and people everywhere you look. I wouldn't mind the camera being a bit more flexible with its viewpoints, though; pre-set zoom settings don't always show me what I need to see. Still, it does look every bit as good as 1701, which is to say, quite good.
It's the little touches — trees swaying in the breeze, waves rolling up onto the shore, and a waypoint buoy making a splash when placed in the water — that demonstrate a great deal of care went into the production values.
From a campaign story standpoint, it's 1404, and King George has sent you forth into unsettled areas to seek food and trade goods to compensate for the famine and general shortages within his kingdom. You will eventually encounter Asian cultures during your exploits, and how you choose to deal with them will determine whether you establish a profitable trading system or simply take everything by force. With an emphasis on economics in the game, the former is clearly encouraged over the latter. Combat is boiled down to simply who has the bigger army wins. There aren't any special classes or tactics to learn; you simply build units, assign them something to attack, and the rest is out of your hands. It feels like something they could have done more with, especially with the fourth entry in the franchise, but it's clearly not what they wanted to do. If you want tactics and violence, check elsewhere.
The scenarios on offer are essentially Continuous mode games with predefined variables and difficulty. This can be great for taking on challenges defined by the developers, and having something to get your feet wet with quickly. Creating your own challenges to be swapped online has some promise, though there are only a finite amount of options, and could probably be created yourself with a little tinkering. Again, it's nice but lacks the larger flexibility of a full map and campaign editor.
With accessibility its central focus, Related Designs has done an admirable job with Dawn of Discovery to allow the player to tackle things when he wants to rather than making unforgiving demands with unclear deadlines or obstacles. While it's largely the same game as 1701, there are enough tweaks and elements of polish here to make it stand on its own, and in many ways excel. However, the loss of the ANNOpedia, multiplayer, and a custom map editor are big steps backward, and likely will cost the ANNO series some fans. In the end, though, Related Designs has accomplished its mission in making something the masses can have a good time with, and the level of polish of what's on offer here is preferable to half-heartedly tacking on other features and diluting the entire experience. This works, and while it may not be for everyone (and definitely not those seeking to play together), its solo offering is more fun than my last experience in the series.
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