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Anno 2070 (PC) artwork

Anno 2070 (PC) review

"The campaign, which has no time limits and almost no fail states, is just a primer. The core of Anno 2070 is the continuous scenario, which you can set up to be as competitive, goal-oriented, and punishing as you want, or as peaceful, open-ended, and forgiving as you want. This is the epitome of the sandbox game. Just start it up and build your little heart out. And the longer it goes, the longer you'll want it to go."

It starts out modestly enough. Drop a few houses and make sure they're well fed. Then give them a few amenities, at which point they turn into richer houses that pay more taxes, and eventually expect more amenities. This is standard issue city builder stuff, as old as Caesar.

But Anno 2070 does more than the average city builder. It layers on a trading and transportation game. It presents a futuristic waterworld dystopia in a global warming apocalypse. It offers a set of imaginative production chains. It gives you a ridiculously detailed research tree/crafting system. It lets you choose among different factions with unique buildings. It adds a whole new undersea element. It features utterly amazing graphics. And it wraps it all up in a crazily addictive metagame.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Any city builder needs to first do two things to be good: constantly give you something to do, and constantly give you something to admire. I can think of no other city builder that does both of these crucial things as well as Anno 2070.

The first issue -- that you must constantly have something to do -- is a matter of pacing and gameplay. If you're ever hanging fire because you have nothing to do until your gold has stockpiled or your people have reproduced, a city builder has failed you. Part of the genius of developer Related Design is their immaculate pacing. There will be moments of waiting, but there are almost never moments when there isn't something productive to do. Usually this is something fundamental to the game. Sometimes you get busywork missions. You might need to find particular pedestrians or wild animals, or maybe deliver an item to a point on a map, or destroy a particular ship. But you'll always get some reward for this. There might be waiting in Anno 2070. But there is never empty waiting.

The second issue -- that you must constantly have something to admire -- is a matter of information and/or graphics. Anno 2070 has both. This is a very above-board system for the most part. It gives you information through panels, tooltips, icons for special effects, map filters, and meticulous online documentation. But, as with the previous Anno games, the information isn't always easy to find. The most disappointing thing about Anno 2070 is that the interface hasn't improved when it comes to troubleshooting production problems.

For instance, let's say you're not making enough steel. First you have to find your steel mill, with no help from the game. At which point you can easily see what goods are in short supply, or what environmental effects are slowing you down. Suppose your steel mill isn't getting enough iron. Now you have to manually pick out your iron factories and from there trace industries that use iron, figuring out that you've got iron going into tools, weapons, and steel. And if you want to shut one down one of these -- it's usually tools -- you get no help from the game tracking down your tool factories.

With practice, you'll learn efficient layouts to help more easily track your industries. But would it kill the interface to grant that sometimes I'm going to load a map I haven't played in a while, and even if I've carefully grouped my tool factories, I may not remember where they are? I can easily sink 30 hours into an open-ended scenario, and it's a safe bet this won't be in one sitting (spirit willing, flesh weak, yadda yadda yadda). Why hasn't developer Related Design put more work into making life a little easier for me?

But more to the point, when it comes to giving you something to admire, there is no city builder as good as Anno 2070. The previous game, Dawn of Discovery, used the same graphics engine to wonderful effect to create living dioramas of glittering 15th century archipelagos. But the imagination, craft, whimsy, and affection that goes into Anno 2070's sci-fi waterworld dystopia is almost magical. These sparkling cities are alive with people, hovercars, cargo, industry, and robotically cultivated agriculture. Outside the cities, rivers course and bears lumber under the rustling trees. At sea, ships and boats bob in the waves. Under the sea, divers swim around your algae farms among whales, manta rays, and languidly pulsing jellyfish. Anything you build will reward you with a visual flourish. Anything that happens oil spills, acid rain, nuclear accidents will have some sort of visual effect. Press F1 for the postcard view and you're soaring above a Pixar-worthy world of tiny shiny bustling toys. This is what kids see in their heads when they play with blocks. This is what you saw years ago when stood a block on end and imagined it was a skyscraper or floated a plastic boat in the tub and imagined it was a cargo ship carrying gold. Anno 2070's graphics are childlike in their intricacy, beauty, and charm.

You could even say there's something childlike about the gameplay. Anno 2070 is as universal and accessible as playing with LEGOs. The campaign, which has no time limits and almost no fail states, is just a primer. The core of Anno 2070 is the continuous scenario, which you can set up to be as competitive, goal-oriented, and punishing as you want, or as peaceful, open-ended, and forgiving as you want. This is the epitome of the sandbox game. Just start it up and build your little heart out. And the longer it goes, the longer you'll want it to go. Sandbox? Checking my time played in some of these cities, it's more like quicksandbox.

The draw of growing your cities larger and larger and longer and longer is the the high-end content in Anno 2070. It's borderline absurd how much stuff is held in reserve as you dig deeper. Fans of the previous games might figure early on this is just a reskinning of the same basic gameplay. Little do they know. Aircraft and submarines, the population factions, buffs for buildings and vehicles, pollution, and power are all new concepts that tie into the near-future conceit. But on top of this, tech research works like an elaborate crafting system in which you can build modules and hunt for rare prototypes to change how the game plays.

And where this research system really sinks its hooks into you is how it ties into Anno 2070's absurdly generous metagame. This includes the usual achievements, unlockables, and friends list, although it's a disappointingly solitary experience. While I can add friends, all this does is show me a pop-up message when they earn an achievement. We can chat if we want, but who needs another front end for chatting? Why can't we compare achievements? Why can't we compare scores in specific scenarios? Why can't we post cities for each other to download? Why can't we share screenshots with captions? Why can't I link to my profile from here? It's like, minus the .net.

The meaningful part of metagame is the persistent bonuses that carry over from game to game. Every scenario starts with a floating base called an ark. You ark has slots similar to gear for an MMO character. For instance, my ark currently has better screws so my submarines travel faster, improved cargo containers so my ships carry extra tonnage, and improved windmills for a power boost when I rely on wind power. As you play, you can randomly discover equipment for your ark and sometimes buy it from other factions. But most of your ark improvements will come from researching and crafting them in advanced cities. Any given city isn't just a city. It's also a potential boon to later cities you haven't even started yet.

There are also bonuses based on players voting online for different factions. And each faction has a career ladder with rewards along the way. Among the ways to advance along the career ladder are daily quests for the faction of your choice, insinuated into your current game. This is usually something simple like gathering items from a specific place on the map or delivering a few basic commodities. Yesterday, the corporate faction wanted diamonds. Diamonds. Can you believe it? Who has diamonds? Which meant I ended up playing for two hours to grow my city so that I could set up underwater diamond mines. It's insidious enough when middling games add this sort of longterm persistent grind. It's downright evil in a game as good as Anno 2070.

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Freelance review by Tom Chick (December 02, 2011)

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