Real-time strategy games aren’t for the mentally lazy. Winning them takes patience, skill, a talent for relating causes and effects, and the ability to recognize the interconnectivity of multiple complex systems. Since 1993, German developer Blue Byte has been combining RTS mechanics with elements of city-building sim games in its series The Settlers, and the results have been uneven. The studio’s current offering, The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom, though working hard to create an RTS that’s both accessible and complex, arrives at equally uneven results.
RTS games are notorious for having steep learning curves and most of them approach the issue of teaching their mechanics via a single-player campaign mode. The Settlers 7′s campaign follows the exploits of the brave Princess Zoe as she fights off Lord Wolvering, would-be usurper of the kingdom of Tandarin. Being somewhat new to the war business, Zoe leans on a friend of her father’s—gray-haired, tubby Sir Bors who provides her (and you) with mission objectives that demonstrate the game’s systems a manageable few at a time. Things roll along well enough until about midway through and then the problems start.
It’s then you realize that The Settlers 7 is a game about disconnects; the disconnect between box art (dreary and serious) and game art (colorful and humorous), and that between graphics and gameplay. The game’s cartoonish art and light-hearted script suggest the game is accessible to everyone but the truth is, many people will be excluded by its Everest-like learning curve.
As in most RTS games, if you want to win a battle or build an empire you have to first determine the best use of your resources. You then collect said resources, like food and raw materials (stone, wood, valuable metals) and use them to build structures, grow your economy and support your growing civilian population. If things are working right, next you learn to defend people and property by recruiting soldiers and building fortifications. All the while, you also have to make sure your subjects have a place to live, enough tools to work with and enough food to eat. The Settlers 7 single player campaign does a fair job of teaching you all these things and then halfway through, hits you with a difficulty spike that more or less brings the learning process—and the fun—to a screeching halt.
You’re asked to defeat a formidable enemy by building a bigger army than his. You’re also told you have to beat him by earning Victory Points, which are gained by doing things like conquering camps, building your population, recruiting the most soldiers, etc. The thing is, the hints you’re given regarding how to achieve your objective are misleading. Ultimately you can’t win the map by military means because resources are sparse (and finite) so it’s impossible to gain the money needed to build a large army. If you’re like me, you’ll play this mission over and over again, trying to win by using the game’s mechanics and in the end you’ll give up and win by ignoring them. If this mission represented only one problematic area of the game, it would hardly deserve mention. Sadly, as you play on you come to realize this mission represents all of the game’s problems in microcosm, whatever the mode. In addition to the single player campaign, The Settlers 7 also has a multiplayer mode and a skirmish mode, both of which play out much the same way as the campaign. Honestly, the only real difference between single player and multiplayer is whether you struggle alone or share your pain with another player.
The Settlers 7′s promo patter claims that you can achieve victory in three ways: by building a strong army, establishing trade, or researching technology. What’s not made clear is how often the cards are stacked against you, both in terms of game mechanics and map design. When entering a map, you’re given a scant handful of resources to start your society. Not a problem if there are plenty of natural resources to draw upon. The thing is, starting areas generally have few resources which means you’ll need to conquer neighboring camps and that means building an army. Simple, right? Not even. To build an army you need to: set up woodcutters and mines to obtain building materials, set up storehouses to hold these materials, set up farms and hunters and herders and fishers to provide food, set up bakeries and butchers and brewers to make the food, set up more storehouses to hold the food, build houses for people to live in, spend precious resources to build decorative objects that up your “prestige”, thus opening up more building options, spend even more precious resources trying to upgrade your camp’s fortifications so it doesn’t get taken over, spend the last of your resources setting up churches to train clerics (in order to research technology) and setting up an export office so you can hire merchants, all the while watching as your gold reserves accrue at an agonizingly slow pace, allowing you to recruit a new soldier say, every ten minutes?
Actually, this painfully slow process doesn’t just apply to building an army; it’s the same whether you’re trying to gain technological advances or build a commercial empire. The problem isn’t just that there’s so much preliminary set up or that milk curdles faster than the gold in The Settlers 7 accrues—it’s that it’s seemingly impossible to control what the people in your society are doing. There’s no way to click a worker and make him go where you want him to go, and the menu where you’re supposed to prioritize construction most of the time appears not to work. The most obvious annoyance in the building process is that it takes one person to gather a resource, another person to carry it to the storehouse and yet another to grab the resource from the storehouse and take it where it needs to go. The result of this is a map full of stalled-out industry and construction that no one seems to be paying any attention to. It’s particularly ridiculous when you see the guy who needs wood to build something standing right next to a storehouse full of wood, but rather than getting it, he stands idle, leaving the house unbuilt until someone else brings it to him.
These are all dings against The Settlers 7 but it earns a final thumbs down due to the fact that since release, the game has had serious connectivity issues. Sometimes the game fires up, no problem; other times you get a nasty “server unavailable” message that means you can’t play—not even single player—for hours at a time. Alas, the downside of setting things up so that players have to be server connected at all times.
It’s really a shame The Settlers 7′s system design makes it such a chore to play, because the game is looks-wise, extremely polished and unique. Its pop-up book intro and high-quality cinematics are its strengths, as is the in-game art and charming animations of the villagers going about their work. The game’s voice acting is also really good, and the soundtrack (with an Enya-like intro theme) also deserves praise. On top of that, the game grants perks in the form of coins earned as you play that let you purchase new content online like new castle stylings, props and maps. Now if only the idea of playing was more attractive…
The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom is an ambitious game that’s graphically very well executed. Much to our chagrin however, it just isn’t the game we hoped it would be. The game’s uneven presentation makes us alternate rollercoaster-like between disappointment, admiration, frustration, enthusiasm and back to disappointment again. The game puts forth a friendly, inviting facade that when pulled back reveals an unforgiving gameplay system meant only for gamers with either a lot of previous experience in the genre or an infinite amount of patience. On top of that, Ubisoft’s grand idea of forcing players of The Settlers 7 into a communal, online experience has proven to be seriously flawed with its hit-or-miss mentor system and unreliable server availability. That said, the community has been highly vocal about the game’s problems so perhaps there’s hope those issues will be addressed in the near future. For now however, only RTS rock stars or people with excessive amounts of patience need apply.