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Friday, January 21, 2022

Finally played The Settlers: Not a good Settlers, not a good game

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After more than a year of complete radio silence, The Settlers are back. We were able to play in for hours – and are now asking ourselves more questions than before.

In times of need, I like to cling to the wisdom of Master Yoda. And Master Yoda once said, “Forget what you used to learn.”. That’s exactly what we should all do when it comes to The Settlers. That is, the eighth part of the series on paper (we’ll just exclude Champions of Anteria). Because actually a lot was already known about The Settlers.

The Settlers: After almost two years of radio silence, finally a new sign of life

This version of The Settlers was even playable in bits and pieces, and the team regularly published new information on the official website. Until a shadow settled over the development. Since the building game was postponed indefinitely on 3 July 2020 (that was a year and a half ago!), there hasn’t been a single new info. Complete blackout. Until the end of 2021, when Ubisoft sent the first signs of life through the net again with the announcement of a beta phase.

The release of Settlers awaits us on 17 March 2022. But it may not be what fans were expecting. As I said, it’s best to forget everything you think you know about this game.

What happened to The Settlers

For me, the new Settlers was a bright spot on the horizon for a very long time, becoming a little dimmer the longer the radio silence lasted. But still, The Settlers held out the prospect of a new building game from a major publisher to me. Incidentally, the same publisher that currently has the thickest building board in its repertoire: Anno 1800.

Building strategy is not dead, but it is a genre whose future we are currently mostly talking about promising indie projects that we don’t even know if they will ever be finished – let alone good. If we exclude rare exceptional games à la Frostpunk, Anno 1800 stands pretty much alone. It’s not for nothing that it will soon enter its fourth season.

The Settlers was for me, and many others I guess, the next prophet. But this hope already began to crumble when Ubisoft told me about the “new vision” for The Settlers at the revival presentation before the actual gameplay. There was no longer any talk of building strategy. Instead, Ubisoft now calls The Settlers an “economy-driven RTS”, an economy-based real-time strategy game. Moreover, now without Volker Wertich. The creator of the series had actually returned and was considered the face of the project. Since the reorientation, however, Wertich is no longer directly involved in the development.

All of this brings back dark memories of The Settlers 5, which already renounced its roots. After all, those responsible still emphasised that they are orienting themselves towards Settlers 3 and Settlers 4.

And this is perhaps good news in advance: the new part is indeed much more reminiscent of these two games. Settlers 5, 6 and also 7 had almost nothing in common with the original Settlers. At first glance, however, The Settlers could almost seem like a 3D remake.

The payment model

The Settlers, as the developers have revealed to us, will be a retail game. Meaning it will definitely have a purchase price and not Free2Play. The standard version will cost 60 euros. But it will not remain the only method of financing. The Settlers will also have an ingame shop. There are no playable advantages there, only cosmetic objects. For example:

  • New skins for your border stones
  • New skins for the units
  • New skins for buildings
  • New titles for your profile

The individual prices are still unknown, but you should be able to unlock many of these things.

There is one highlight: The graphics

And while we’re on the subject of visuals, let’s stick around. From a purely graphical point of view, The Settlers can’t be accused of anything. The Snowdrop Engine conjures up some really charming little houses and landscapes on the screen. A lot here still reminds us of what was originally planned for this game. Because graphically, hardly anything has changed compared to the game scenes before 2020.

As before, The Settlers shows us a medieval idyll in which the sun is always shining and the settlers scurry joyfully across the screen. The houses have a coherent style, and if you zoom in close, you can watch the inhabitants at work. Or even sunbathing and petting donkeys when there is no work to be done. The animations are beautiful to look at, there are little details to discover everywhere. On the ranch, pigs are kept and sadly led away before they end up as chops in the warehouse, and in the smithy the hearth is visibly lit with newly delivered coal.

It looks quite cuddly! Especially as there are three different peoples and each of them builds its villages in a different style. It is also nice how the settlers’ houses “grow together” visually. Sometimes this even creates atmospheric roof arches that span the streets.

When we build houses close to each other, they become better and create beautiful neighbourhoods.
When we build houses close to each other, they become better and create beautiful neighbourhoods.

Generally, The Settlers has a nice, very relaxing atmosphere. The music contributes to this, but it drifts almost too much into generic dalliance and immediately disappears from memory after the game ends. It is a similar story with the voice-over. As in Anno, the settlers talk discreetly in passing, so that a permanent background of voices wafts over larger settlements. The sayings, however, quickly become repetitive. How many times do I have to hear that the carrier is carrying something that is not heavy at all?

The disembodied voice of the counsellor also sounds completely lacklustre. Moreover, if there is a fight, she burbles a warning every minute. Yes, yes. I understood the first time that my units were being shot at! Unfortunately not the last time I’ll have to get annoyed with The Settlers.

How much building game is left in it?

The visuals still seem to be a relic of the building game that The Settlers was once supposed to be. Because there is actually nothing left of the originally ambitious goals. I’ll list a few elements here that the “old” The Settlers was supposed to have, all of which have now been deleted:

  • A central market where settlers pick up ingredients for their food
  • Houses where they cook meals and distribute them to surrounding craftsmen
  • New settlers dock at our island in boats
  • Different victory conditions
  • Training heroes for tournaments and to peacefully “flip” enemy civilians
  • Right city walls for sieges
  • Motivation points with which we can force porters to work extra shifts in production plants
  • A simulated animal world
  • The gradual upgrading of buildings, there should be a total of four technology levels
  • Procedurally generated maps

The Settlers has been mercilessly streamlined – one could also say trimmed – in the year and a half since it was delayed. The developers use the euphemistic term “streamlining” for this. But the fact is that what was originally a complex construction game with many chains of goods, buildings and interesting mechanics has become a superficial carrier simulation in which at most the planning of the transport of goods still requires a little brainwork. Oh, and manual road construction is still in there too.

Warehouses are central points of contact. If all of them are destroyed, the game is over.
Warehouses are central points of contact. If all of them are destroyed, the game is over.

Other than that, The Settlers is pretty unsuitable for fans of building strategy. The genre’s own urge to build something new and watch a small village become a living city does not exist. This is also due to the fact that the number of buildings and resources is very disappointing, the production chains are short and shallow. At first glance, The Settlers looks like part three or four, but unlike the originals, it is hollow on the inside.

To get meat, for example, all we need is a ranch. In Settlers 3, the animals also wanted grain and water before going to the butcher. In The Settlers, the ranch produces the end product directly and donkeys in parallel. Creative Director Christian Hagedorn explains this dilution thus:

“The main reason for streamlining was that we observed that no depth was added by the fullness. You can’t solve the problem in different ways, you have to do it this way. And we thought about whether this addition really has a benefit. Whether it benefits the player or opens up different options that solve the problem. So if we didn’t see any value in the building, we didn’t take it. Especially since it would have added complexity, especially for people who don’t know the series. ”

Of course, following this line of reasoning, you could steamroll down any building game. But that only really makes sense if the ultimate aim is not to have fun building up. In The Settlers, players should not spend too long thinking about building settlements. This is also evident in the fertility of farms, which we can carelessly simply place on sandy beaches or stony soils. Is this the origin of the marble cake?

Fertility doesn't matter for a farm. We could have put it in the sand.
Fertility doesn’t matter for a farm. We could have put it in the sand.

There are different peoples again

In the earlier settlers it was once a matter of course that I could choose different factions. These were usually the Romans plus optionally Vikings, Asians or Egyptians. The new Settlers also gives me the choice, but from three fantasy realms that only roughly resemble real peoples. The Elari are Central European, the Jorn are reminiscent of Vikings and the Maru of an African people.

Again: purely visually, this is great! The Elari have stone houses with red roofs, while the Maru build thatched clay houses. But in terms of gameplay, the differences are very shallow. Okay, the Maru can earn gold more easily, while the Elari have to build more houses. Special buildings, unique units or even technologies? Nada!

It cannot be ruled out that the few folk bonuses support other ways of playing. But if The Settlers wants to compete in the RTS segment, it’s too little. Look at Age of Empires 4, which stands out precisely because of its varied nations. Or even Starcraft 2.

This raises one of the most important questions: If Settlers isn’t a good building game, is it a good real-time strategy game?

The slowest RTS in the world

I tried very quickly to disengage myself from the thoughts of seeing a building game here in front of me. Instead, I dug into my large GlobalESportNews -editorial craft bag and tried to apply the RTS scale. And, well – it fits a little better, but only by the skin of my teeth.

It is noticeable that the game follows a basic RTS concept. I am supposed to squabble with other factions on the map primarily over land and resources. This is noticeable at every turn. A deforested forest, for example, cannot be reforested as it used to be. I have no choice but to expand my border and take the next forest. There are even some forests with regrowing trees that are bigger than the non-growing trees. Sure, we know that from the forest: only the big trees grow back. Um.

In addition, there are landmarks scattered across the playing cards, which are sometimes ruins, sometimes stranded ships. I can bring goods there and get a reward. There is also supposed to be bickering about this, but the rewards are pretty unspectacular. Sometimes some weapons or coins for five tools. It’s a good exchange, but not necessarily exciting or game-changing.

At such ruins we hand in tools and get another good in return. Everything has to be carried laboriously from A to B.
At such ruins we hand in tools and get another good in return. Everything has to be carried laboriously from A to B.

This scramble for resources might be kind of appealing if it didn’t all take so long. A new feature in The Settlers are engineers, who I can actively control. These settler types construct buildings, dig for resources and expand the border. They also have to be recruited at a building, while the normal carriers are automatically created at houses.

The only problem is: engineers can only be trained after some time because of the tools required, you never have enough of them and they run extremely slowly. Setting new border stones in particular takes what feels like decades. This makes the real-time strategy game incredibly sluggish. At least I can order the master builders to erect new buildings automatically so that I don’t have to assign them every project by hand. They like to shuffle to the other end of the settlement to help with the construction – which takes a long time. It’s also stupid that the auto-build function is switched off for newly recruited engineers, so I have to switch it on first – an unnecessary fumble.

Just like in the old days, boundary stones mark out our territory.
Just like in the old days, boundary stones mark out our territory.

And the war? Is it fun?

Military conflicts take time, because weapons have to be produced first. By the way, for crossbows, as for swords and halberds, we need both steel and coal, but no wood. But that’s just a side note. The units are also commanded directly and not, as in Settlers 7, assigned to a general who then leads them into battle. This makes micromanagement possible.

But since there is no cavalry (or other fast units), conflicts are similarly tough as the expansion of the borders. Units take their time marching, and reacting spontaneously to a dangerous situation is almost impossible. Towers are the only safeguard.

And, oh yes … there are still scarecrows. Not in the fields, but as a strategic option. Scarecrows. Or rather dummies. They distract enemy soldiers who can’t attack other targets until they do. And that works brilliantly! A few scarecrows as a distraction, and the attacking AI force can be calmly dismantled with turrets. This is as silly as it sounds. And not even charmingly silly, it comes across as clumsy.

Similar to the siege units. You’re thinking catapults or battering rams now. No, no. In The Settlers, your best siege unit is a bull that shoots magic missiles. I don’t make that up on the spur of the moment.

But in total there are only six unit types anyway, which we can still upgrade, at least in the academy: more damage, health points and so on. That’s as many unit types as there will be maps in the release version. Two for each mode. So two maps for 1 vs. 1, two for 2 vs. 2 and two for 4 vs. 4. The maps are always identical and therefore quick and easy to learn by heart. So after a few games you don’t have to explore anything more. Procedurally generated maps where you always have to adjust to new terrain and differently distributed resources? No way, they’re out!

Who is this game for?

It’s obvious that there was a lot going on behind the scenes with The Settlers. The long radio silence was already a red warning signal. What we are now seeing of the game could be a final rescue attempt or a complete rethink in the executive suite. It should be noted that the game has taken an absurd turn in the course of its development. Away from the construction game, towards a real-time strategy game that is at least functional to some extent.

These bulls shoot magic missiles and are the best means against towers.
These bulls shoot magic missiles and are the best means against towers.

Because even if I’ve grumbled a lot now: You can already play The Settlers. I wouldn’t call it thrilling, most of the time it’s rather idle, but it’s playable, looks nice, and especially in multiplayer you can pass the time a bit.

It would also be unfair to take the entire project apart now because of the beta version. I could complain a lot more about how brainlessly the AI opponents act, that some elementary functions are missing or that I can’t see anywhere how many buildings of a certain type I’ve already built. But these are things that can still be fixed.

Because I played an unfinished version, and at least with the AI the developers let it be known that something is still to happen. I’ll save the final verdict for the release version. Not to mention the single-player campaign, which is supposed to feature dialogues set to music and a real story, probably told over 16 missions. So one should not write off The Settlers as a total failure just yet.

But one thing is crystal clear: this game will not be Ubsioft’s next construction hit. This game will probably not satisfy Settlers fans either. At least, I can’t imagine it will. Just take a look at our own survey and what is at the top of the list of desired features?

  • New production chains
  • Complex economic system
  • New buildings

Autsch. All wishes that the new Settlers will not implement. Not even after the beta phase on 20 January. This in no way fits the new concept of this game. With a lot of effort it can still become a quite usable RTS, with a little Settlers charm and (maybe) an entertaining campaign. But if you were hoping for the great revival of the Settlers brand, you can stop now. Maybe forever.

Editorial conclusion

The best conclusion after the play session would actually be an embarrassed silence. But then you would just see an empty box with my name above it. I don’t think that would work too well. So I’ll try to say a few words.

Ahem: Oh my goodness! Yes, actually, in retrospect it was once again very, very naïve of me to have any hope at all. That I was really looking forward to this game. But there were already so many signs against it. When is a double postponement with years of radio silence ever a good sign? Never. Never, I tell you! And lo and behold – nothing is left of what I was actually looking forward to since 2018. The Settlers has long been my next build-up highlight and now it’s gone.

This has nothing in common with a building game anymore. It is currently, you have to give it that much, an acceptable RTS. One that, after a successful beta phase, a lot of fruitful feedback and a mad final spurt by the developers, may even become quite good. I think someone will be able to have fun with it. Damn

I suspect if the game was an unknown RTS from a small team we just happened to discover on Steam … the verdict would be considerably less harsh. I’m quite open about that. But it says The Settlers on the box and then the product (even if it’s still in beta) has to be measured against that. Moreover, it is simply noticeable that there should be so much more to it. We don’t need to fool ourselves. The Settlers has obviously picked up the pieces of a broken project and tried to put them together somehow. And he may even be succeeding quite well. Still, the disappointment is huge that it ever broke.

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