Juxtaposed against the quaintly whimsical Settlers 7 box artwork is a large, bold disclaimer: "A permanent internet connection is required to play the game". Such is the world in which we now live.
Much like the seventh iteration of this immensely popular kingdom builder, the world at large has progressed. Settlers 7 includes subtle changes to the series along with a complete graphical overhaul, so those with hazy recollections of hours spent huddling over an Amiga 500 listening to a floppy drive that sounded like a chicken being interfered with would do best to approach this one with care.
After you've been lulled into forking over your dubiously acquired pesos by the aforementioned cutesy box artwork (which seems to indicate the game is a delightful romp through a medieval town packed with the cast from Blackadder) you'll be brought back down to earth in a crushingly humiliating fashion when you realise that Settlers 7 is brutally, brutally difficult.
Oh sure, the Campaign mode (which doubles as the tutorial) starts out nice and easy, but that's to be expected. Soon you'll have a relatively cogent grasp on the dynamics - place a shelter next to a quarry and extract stones. Place one next to a forest, set up a lumberyard and voilà - you're away. Create living quarters for your workers, and your population cap will increase, allowing you to create even more chains of production, all of which need to be joined to a storehouse by a road. It's really pretty simple stuff - the first ten minutes or so of which might actually prompt you to admire the box artwork once again, assured of your own brilliance in taking this perceptive plunge into the days of yore.
After about an hour however, there's every chance you'll be reduced to apoplexy, perhaps muttering to all within earshot that you had no idea of the finite nature of the world's resources. You may even briefly scan the game credits in the manual to see if anyone with the surname 'Gore' was involved during the development phase. The production chains required to sustain your population and enable expansion are interconnected in such a fashion that even placing a storehouse unwisely can bring the entire endeavour to a crashing halt as you stare mindlessly at exclamation marks proclaiming your failure.
The main problem is that everything is at a premium, particularly real estate. Each shelter may have three workshops that can be attached, but their footprint almost always means you're struggling to squeeze in enough at the right location. Likewise, the worker accommodation carries with it the ability to attach businesses, such as a mint to convert coal and gold ore to money, or a butcher to convert deer meat to "fancy food", but you'll need an ever increasing amount of land to support residences required to accommodate even a small-scale army.
Pretty much everything requires tools to build. Tools require coal, iron ore, an iron smelter and a woodcutter to produce. Coal requires a mine, which must be staffed by settlers which also require accommodation, which can only be built with wood and tools. The settlers themselves require food to function and initially this can be satisfied with fish and bread. However, as they progress they'll require a hunter to produce fancy food, which is also required to train musketeers and support any workshop attached to a noble residence. Iron is not only required to make money, you'll need it for weapons and wheels, and pretty much everything at the beginning of the game requires stone, which is finite but can occasionally be produced by a geologist, assuming you've mined enough resources to unlock him.
And on it goes, through chain, after knot, after loop, after cable-tie of seemingly endless production lines, any one of which are completely broken if one resource is absent.
Taking into account the amount of effort and diligence require to create an army, the combat system is surprisingly simple. It's really a matter of selecting your General and telling him to invade a particular location, at which point the computer will take over the combat in its entirety - the outcome is relatively predetermined based on the number and types of units you have. This is determined, obviously, by your ability to secure resources, which in turn is affected by the amount of land you have, again determined by where you choose to place your buildings. It would be a lot easier to simply use the gold required to create troops to purchase the enemy territory instead, you'd be left in the same position.
Winning a match essentially comes down to the way in which you choose to expand. You can either pursue a military edge, work on the mostly baffling trade side of things, or hope to overwhelm your enemy with extensive technology. You can either wipe out your foe entirely, or simply reach a predetermined number of Victory Points before they concede. Either way, it all really comes down to sound economic management, which the computer will generally look after for you, provided you're actually placing buildings in the right areas, gathering the right resources, and doing your best to avoid ending up in some kind of M.C Escher loop of infinite madness.
In addition to the Campaign mode, you can jump online (a misnomer, as technically if you're playing the game, you're already online) and battle against others. There's also a rigorous Skirmish mode where you can enjoy getting your ass handed to you by up to three AI-controlled players, and there's even an option to tweak the game and environmental variables pre-game, using the aptly titled "Map Forge".
No matter what issues the core gameplay may have, the world Blue Byte has created is spectacularly pretty. The character animations (particularly in the cinematic sections) makes The Lion King look like a piece of crap, and merely using the in-game camera to glide around your kingdom reveals a loving attention to detail inherent in every moving object. Indeed, at the beginning of a new game, it almost seems as if someone has created a complete 3D, fully populated and functioning kingdom, and then removed all evidence of how it was achieved other than a couple of roads and some idle peasants. Sort of like Papakura.
Settlers 7 does suffer from overly pedantic placement issues, finite resources and simple combat, but then, that's Settlers. That's what the game, in one way or another, has always been about.
Interestingly enough, Ubisoft now have two psuedo-4X franchises that show remarkable similarities across the board, yet are different enough to presumably warrant separate development. Anno 1404 and the associated expansion, Venice, arguably provide a richer, more cerebral take on the genre, something to keep in mind if you're planning on dedicating a lot of spare time to a single title.
It's not that Settlers 7, when viewed in it's entirety, is a necessarily bad game. The difficulty curve will be seen as a challenge for the more grizzled player, and having a challenge is obviously preferable to a cake-walk. It's more that the game doesn't really know what it wants to be. Is it a nation builder drawing from its humble origins as an otherwise excellent Amiga title? Or is it a mature, complex and unforgiving strategy title that just happens to be presented as a cute medieval folly?
For some, the price of admission will prohibit such a gamble, but those who enjoy the genre will probably vote for the latter.