ANNO 1701: Dawn of Discovery DS Review

So you’ve eaten your fill of Diner Dash. You couldn’t care less for Touch Darts. You’ve had it up to here with Dr Kawashima and his friggin’ obsession with your frontal lobes. Where are all the games, you ask? The games, with their stats and labyrinthine interfaces and decidedly un-hip narrative focus? What price a proper video gaming experience in this touchy-feely post-Warioware age?

Despair not, ye zealots, for the cavalry is a-coming. ANNO 1701: Dawn of Discovery (hereafter ANNO 1701) is the latest in a growing number of PC strategy franchises to make port (badum-tish) on the DS, a pretty damn intellectual proposition which should come as a welcome relief to all those gamers sick of flinging cartoon vegetables around or prodding their Nintendogs. What did you think all that Brain Training was for, fun?

The year, as you may have guessed, is 1701. You are a captain in a thinly disguised variant of Great Britain, and your Queen has commanded you to colonise the ‘New World’ archipelago before those over-sexed Spaniard fellows walk off with the booty, rascally blighters. Beginning with a single exploration ship and humble warehouse, you’ll farm, fish, herd and mine each island to produce goods and amenities for your settlers, whose demands will grow ever more expensive and problematic as they advance to new levels of civilisation and your budding colony becomes a metropolis. Keep your little tribe of pilgrims happy and you can get away with taxing the bejazus out of ‘em whilst building up a rudimentary army (only one type of troop can be recruited), or constructing additional ships to settle/conquer neighbouring islands. Miss a shipment of tea leaves or fail to put dinner on the table and they’ll desert you in droves, sending your revenues into free-fall.

You’ll be doing quite a bit of urban planning during your time in the New World. Each building has an area of influence which dictates where it should be placed: manufacturing facilities need to be built close to the relevant resource and within reach of a market place, while public services such as taverns and bathhouses ought to set up shop in residential areas. Barracks should be built within rifle shot of one another, as troops can only be moved between military buildings. Everything needs to be linked by road and the quality of the road will affect the rate at which goods are accumulated in your warehouses.

Throw all this together with a few environmental hazards, occasional fires, outbreaks of crime and disease and you’ve got a game which will be instantly familiar to players of the antiquated originals (or indeed of similar titles like The Settlers). And herein lies the rub: while it certainly ain’t broke, ANNO 1701 can feel a little too comfortable in its moccasins. Nor are the paltry play options- story campaign, moderately customisable single and multi-player skirmish modes- very inspiring next to the likes of Advance Wars.

But over-familiar though the experience may be, what starts slowly to impress as mud tracks become cobbles, schools shoot up like proverbial wheat and huts explode into townhouses is the elegance with which the whole thing has been translated to Nintendo’s paradigm-busting portable wonder.

Both screens are put through their paces. The bottom screen displays an isometric view of the game world and a sidebar menu with construction, finance, mission-objective and map options, while the top screen houses a summary of your income and expenditure together with an animated portrait of the Advisor, your all-purpose guru and moral compass in the world of ANNO 1701, who beams complacently when you do nice things like defeat the plague and purses his lips when you do less nice things like selling off your settlement’s entire food supply, or accidentally bulldozing the local hospital. Two levels of zoom are available and you can jump to remote locations using the map screen.

The stylus is arguably the first console interface to replicate the ease and intuitiveness of mouse control, and thus a natural fit for a resource-management title. Sunflowers has clearly recognised this, as ninety-nine percent of the game is playable with the stylus alone. Tap on an area of undeveloped land and the top screen will tell you which player owns it and give you a breakdown of its industrial and agricultural potential. Tap on a building to access a radial menu on the bottom screen with options such as upgrade, demolish and duplicate, while the top screen gives you a detailed account of the internal workings, production progress, maintenance costs, troop capacity and so on. Tap on the construction icon to bring up a series of radial menus clam-shelled inside one another, while holding down on the finance icon allows you to choose between trade, taxation, tribute and balance-sheet screens.

Clever touches abound. The camera drifts a little under its own momentum as you whip it from point to point (a mechanic apparently known as ‘soft-stopping’), which not only cuts down on tedious dragging and clicking but also feels rather satisfying in that rose-tinted, momma’s-home-cookin’ way the best Nintendo titles feel satisfying. High praise indeed. Both right and left-handed control schemes are available, for all you freaky mirror-world citizens, and you can also hotkey various actions to the face buttons.

Graphics and visual design were always going to be significant factors given the visually involved nature of the genre on one hand and the DS’s lack of screen real estate on the other, and thankfully ANNO 1701 strikes the right balance between clarity and complexity. The colour palette is bright, cheery and accessible, and while you’ll occasionally struggle to distinguish lumberjacks from stonemasons the buildings are all quite distinctive thanks to good detail and some canny colour-coded roofing. There are a respectable (but not excessive) number of graphical flourishes, from the plumes of smoke which rise from the ore smelter to the ickle sprite workers who wander about herding sheep, pulling wagons and being all industrious, the darlings. The menus are clear and unobtrusive and there’s an option to turn off certain building icons to reduce visual clutter. Smart, smart, smart.

Just a smidgeon of political comment before we slap that score on the end. The campaign storyline (told through text dialogue and hand-drawn stills) is charming enough bar a few nasty bits of Hollywood revisionism. Why hello there, Mr Iroquoi, sir! A small tribute of cloth before we all prosper together in peace and harmony? Why certainly. And because we’re all Technicolor-liberal these days, we won’t contaminate it with smallpox first.

So to sum up: an old game, a game which would feel superficial and out-dated on a home format, but nevertheless a game built around tried-and-true mechanics, given a fresh lease of life by a brilliant conversion to the DS. Sounds good to me. Issue forth, ye gaming diehards! Make the very foundations of HMV shake with the fury of your vengeance!