It's always encouraging to see developers try new things, particularly when so many games recently seem to follow the "tried and tested" mantra.
The only real problem with this is when the entire theme of the game is usurped in the interests of reinvention. Such is the case with Anno 2070; all four earlier entries in this franchise have based every aspect of gameplay around a single premise; the constant need to maintain supply and demand for a burgeoning population in a historical setting. The Anno franchise is about as hardcore as mainstream real-time strategy titles get in this regard – no mere city simulator, most interaction will be between the player and the economy, with a side-serving of war for those sufficiently cashed up to partake.
Anno 2070 does away with the creaky charm of a world lit only by candlelight, and skips forward several centuries to a world affected by rising sea levels, a scarcity of resources and two political factions attempting to fix everything using their own ideology.
The Eden Initiative are about as left wing as can be expected in 2070. They're geared up to use largely pollution-free energy generation, require sustainable farmland to encourage population growth, and are highly susceptible to swings in the environmental state the islands they've colonised. This translates over to their appearance as well, with buildings and units cut from a warm palette of colours that sit well with the environmental theme of the faction.
The Global Trust however are more concerned with progress through industrial means. This faction thinks nothing of mining each island for their own commercial interests, and as such requires most of their population to live in a perpetually polluted landscape. They're less reliant on farming to support large populations, and are more likely to run with a surplus of energy to power their industrial machine. Reasonably enough, their colour scheme is more reminiscent of a Victorian rail yard.
Tying these groups together is the mysterious S.A.A.T (Scientific Academy for Advanced Technologies), a robot AI NPC that is largely responsible for the technology on display, and can be interacted with to unlock further advancements.
Much like Anno 1404 before it, 2070 crosses both factions over in the campaign, with a heavy reliance to serve each group in the largely Fed-Ex inspired missions. The early missions act very much as a tutorial, gently holding the player's hand and issuing instructions through the persistent AI narrator, "Eve". Again, as with previous releases, the goal is to build to a particular level of citizenry, unlock additional goods and buildings, set up production chains and attempt to balance it all together without crashing and burning. Once the requirements have been met, the mission will end and a new one will push the player to achieve even more complexity.
The campaign isn't the only sign that developers Related Designs are treading familiar ground. Concepts such as ascension rights have been retained, and operate much in the same way they did before – not everyone in the population will advance to the next level, and a certain level of poverty is necessary to make the system work. Those that do progress require ever increasing quantities of goods. Each progression is accompanied by a surge of demand for resources to facilitate house building. And again, as with 1404, goods can only be grown on particular islands, or islands that have been colonised then specifically modified to produce that particular good by way of socketing seeds into the main warehouse.
Where the real changes have occurred, Related Designs hasn't always managed to improve on the fairly slick presentation of 1404. The new pseudo-StarCraft-inspired menu system takes an age to become familiar with, and isn't always particularly intuitive in the heat of crisis. Showing which buildings are necessary to form each production chain is useful however, and there is some merit to the flow-chart layout and fairly comprehensive bar charts explaining population density. But it's clear the artistic direction was dictated by someone who emphatically believes the future consists of a pale blue world where everything pings.
There's the same focus on resource gathering as before, albeit these resources have been tweaked slightly. Tools remain the same – this time represented by a cordless drill icon – however in the place of bricks and stone, building modules and concrete make an appearance. Wood returns, but there is far less reliance on cultivating huge numbers of forester's huts to keep up with supply, as houses upgrade early on with only tools and building modules, both of which are relatively easy to produce. The structure of mines has been changed too – those that exist on each island offer a range of resources from iron, coal, limestone and copper, and it's up to the player to select which mining building to place in order to extract the relevant material. It's a not-so-subtle nod to the volcanic island geologist concept from 1404, and does streamline production somewhat.
Newly introduced, the energy resource is a constantly fluctuating variable based on each buildings requirement for power offset by the energy production on each island. Failure to keep this value in the green will see buildings unable to process resources. Raise the value too high by installing too many energy production chains, and it's likely the associated pollution will cause a serious loss in efficiency throughout farm production chains. As has always been the case with Anno, this concept reiterates that there are frequently unintended consequences to rapid growth.
Some new building types actually do require population in close proximity – research labs and academies, for example, operate at a higher level of efficiency when surrounded by worker accommodation, which adds another layer of complexity to urban development.
Continuous play has always been where the true value of the Anno series lies, and 2070 is no different. There are a huge number of variables to configure before starting out, such as island size, AI involvement, winning conditions and essentially all the tweaks necessary to ensure that by failing a game, it's only ever the player's fault. This time around, choosing between factions is compulsory, and once either the Eden Initiative or The Global Trust is selected, only those building options will become available during vanilla gameplay. Traders and pirates can be included too, as well as help in the form of co-op with friends or random internet players.
Throughout the continuous play, quests are offered to either ingratiate the player with close neighbours, side them with various allegiances, or merely reward them with resources, trinkets or ships. These once again offer a nice distraction from the often mind-bending management of resources that forms the bulk of the game proper, and can often result in the acquisition of technology from the opposite faction, opening the game up even further.
Serving as an overlay to the game itself, internet-connected players can vote for particular temporary upgrades or modifications to the game structure on a daily basis. These modifications typically skew the balance of power towards either faction, and represent an interesting attempt by the developers to encourage more interaction within the Anno fanbase. It's also another reason to stay legit, although Ubisoft do their best here to negate any such benefits by requiring all installs to be locked to a particular Uplay account, and installed on no more than three different hardware configurations. Still, at least it doesn't require an always-on internet connection to function, and if Anno 1404 is anything to go by, Ubisoft may well drop the hardware install limit at some stage in the future.
Anno 2070 isn't the major jump that many may have been anticipating for the franchise. It's clear that some mechanics are solidly bound to the series in the eyes of the developers and can't be changed, such as island-wide warehouse sharing, tiered resource requirements for citizens, and a heavy reliance on trade to even the books. These concepts can be shifted to any time period and remain valid, and that's exactly the approach taken here. It's erroneous however to consider Anno 2070 as an expansion pack, or a reskin of 1404, there's certainty enough on offer to justify full price, and keep fans happy with the direction taken.
Regardless of the validity of pushing Anno away from a historical setting, Anno 2070 once again proves that the real-time strategy genre is alive and well, and should be considered seriously by any armchair dictator with a lot of spare time.