In my opinion, this was one of the first and greatest victims of the DRM wave of the past few years. While other games like Assassin's Creed had people up in arms about "Always On" DRM systems, they were still popular enough to be successful. Settlers 7, on the other hand, never stood a chance. As a strategy/city building game with a lot of unusual mechanics and a bit of a learning curve, this game was never going to appeal to everyone. But, thanks to a giant dose of Ubisoft bad PR, the target audience avoided it like the plague. And that's a MASSIVE shame, because it's great!
Settlers falls into that odd "almost a sim game" category of strategy, with a slower pace and less of a direct combat focus than your average RTS game (such as Starcraft). Personally, I love this genre, but good examples of it are unfortunately rare. In the past, series like Dungeon Keeper, Stronghold, Startopia, and earlier versions of Settlers itself had a good cult following, but these days they're a bit harder to find, with lesser-known titles such as the Anno series (also heavily damaged by Ubisoft DRM), or independant titles like Reus, Towns, or Gnomoria. Unfortunately, this is further harmed by the sorry state of the Sim genre itself, with the majority of city builders being money-sucking Facebook-inspired social "games", and major blunders like the reboot of SimCity.
But, politics aside, how does The Settlers 7 stand up on its own? It's a game full of interesting ideas. Similar to the afforementioned Anno and Stronghold series (which, to be fair, were probably inspired by The Settlers to begin with), the majority of the game is spent handling production chain strategies. The number of these chains is VERY daunting to those who don't enjoy such systems, but they're pretty intuative once learned, such as farm -> wheat -> bakery -> bread. The unique twist here is the division of science, trade, and military tactics. All three require development of these production chains in various ways, but unlike most games, they don't require you to do all three simultaneously. In fact, the game heavily encourages specialization in one or two of those choices in order to monopolize (i.e. steal all the best techs, steal all the best trade posts, or have the most military muscle). Thanks to an interesting "Victory Point" system, you can win the game in a variety of ways other than just destroying your enemy. In my many playthroughs, this resulted in some wonderfully bizarre situations, including winning a game mere seconds before an army destroyed my most valuable city by just barely holding out long enough with my economic strategy.
Presentation-wise, I always loved the way the game manages to paint a board game-like set of zones to be settled, painted into breathtakingly beautiful maps, resulting in surprisingly natural-looking landscapes for a game that asks the player to flood the place with roads and buildings. Technologically, it's nothing crazy (the game is three years old at time of writing), but it has a wonderful fairy tale asthetic, light-hearted, but with more of a focus on beauty than goofiness. The campaign is a bit campy, but I found it quite enjoyable, with good voice acting and a good method of injecting each character's personality into their tactics.
Overall, I understand how this game doesn't appeal to the hardcore, as I'm sure its complexities could easily be exploited if the game was played in an ultra-competative way. On the other hand, the more casual gamer could be easily scared away by the game's unfamiliar systems. And everyone else? They were already scared away by the DRM, it seems! But, if you are in that middle group, I highly encourage you to overlook all that and just have fun. The game is a bit old now and Ubisofts money-grabs have been abandoned (at time of writing, all DLC is included with the game), so while you won't find any strangers to play with or anything, there's still plenty of content and great city-building strategy fun to be had!
Posted: February 9th, 2014