It’s hard to get excited about a strategy game, especially one that doesn’t feature lots of big explosions and giant mecha-robots. It’s even harder to pretend to be excited about a strategy game that doesn’t have aforementioned colossal metal men; so we won’t pretend to be excited. We won’t even pretend that we were really aware of Anno 1404 in the run-up to release. It just kind of passed us by and if there ever was a marketing campaign for it then it’s not something we gave a second look.
Which is strange really, because Anno 1404 isn’t just one of the most playable and fundamentally pleasant strategy games we’ve played recently, it’s also one of the most gorgeous looking games we’ve had a look at in a while. Visually it’s quite extraordinary and if we’d been in charge of publishing it then we’d be pushing it harder than if we saw Jar-Jar Binks at the top of a flight of stairs.
Doesn't it look cute?
On the other hand though, we can perfectly understand why there hasn’t been a marketing campaign for Anno 1404; from appearances alone Anno 1404 is a hugely boring game. As we said only a paragraph ago; it’s hard to get excited about a game that’s mainly about economic management and setting trading routes. Don’t be deceived though; Anno 1404 is definitely worth a look, no matter how dull it looks and sounds.
Part of why Anno 1404 seems so dull is perhaps because it wants you to think that it has some basis in actual historical events, though in reality it really doesn’t. It has the austere title and it has a bunch of characters with real-sounding names and clear historical references, yes, but that’s really as far as it goes. In fact, close inspection of some the characters and the realisation that Marie is really a re-badged Joan of Arc and Lord Northburgh a poor-man's Sir Francis Drake utterly destroys any sense of feigned historical accuracy. That’s OK though – fiction is better than fact.
The good news is that, because the game world and fiction is littered with these references and amalgamations of several well-known real-life events means that there’s no need to learn some tedious fictional history. Instead of sitting down to commit to memory the history of the alien Vgeggies and their leader, Professor Bongaminge Qub, you can draw on widespread historical knowledge.
The water is GORGEOUS!
It’s the middle of the European Renaissance, America is about to be discovered by the Europeans and you work for an ageing Emperor who has launched a crusade against the Orient. It may not be exactly in line with real events, but these are things that slot easily into any frame of reference and that are easy to enjoy without lots of delving through historical tomes. It’s also a starting point that gives you a large amount of freedom as a player, though you’re still very confined by the rules of the game – no turning on your allies until the allotted time, or declaring an exorbitant tax on clothes that forces your citizens to walk around naked, for example.
Well, all that holds true for Anno 1404's campaign mode anyway, where you start off being given control of a small island that lies in the centre of a fractured map and are slowly guided through a storyline that sees you getting directly involved in the fictional political intrigue of Guy Forcas and his crusade against the Orient. In the other game modes, the story as it is plays a much more minor role. There are a few different types of game mode to try your hand at, including a number of scenarios that give you very focused goals, such as conquering the other factions or accumulating a set amount of wealth.
If the selection of scenarios don’t offer enough of a challenge though then there’s a endless game mode available too, where you can define all the conditions of the game in advance and then set off to see how long you can last. Our impression was that the campaign mode was the main focus of the game, which suits us given how well directed and lengthy it is.