Defining the Anno experience to someone who has never played the games can be tricky. It is, in truth, a city-builder. But with no contemporaries that can lay claim to sharing the same motifs, it can almost be said to be in a genre all of its own.
All the traditional genre trappings are in place, but it is in the way they interact that makes Anno unique. Whereas most city games see you appropriately positioning buildings as population needs demand, Anno is more focused on its intricate tech tree and the means by which you obtain higher branches. Most of the time this means ‘levelling’ up your populace by meeting each tier’s demands for more advanced production.
At times Anno titles can feel more akin to a puzzle game than traditional city management strategy. Each building must be placed with caution. Resources are limited and each dwelling you forsake for the purposes of meeting your populace’s desires is a lost opportunity for capital growth. Given the constant trade-off between space and resources, the series also focuses a heavy emphasis on trade. The faction that does not play nicely with others is, more likely than not, the one that falls.
From a mechanics standpoint, Anno 2070 carries on in this steady pace but with one significant difference – the setting. Where prior games have all been set during colonial times in both the old and new worlds, Anno 2070 – as the title suggests – takes the leap into our near future. That’s not to suggest, however, that this move to a different time period has drastically changed the Anno experience. The majority of your time with the game will still be spent micromanaging available resources against your growing population’s needs, but the future setting does allow for some interesting twists on the standard gameplay.
Absent of a historical basis on which to hang the game framework, the techno-futurist world of 2070 rolls out the crisis du jour of this setting – the environment. The game is far from subtle in this focus with the two main factions representing the polar opposites of the environment debate. On one side we have the Eden Initiative, a group of Earth-loving environmentalists determined that their own prosperity is not achieved at the cost of the planet’s health. Contrasted against them are the Global Trust, an industry-focused group to whom the environment is a secondary concern.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this latest entry in the franchise has turned the game into some form of eco-morality play. The impact of the ideological differences between the two factions is limited to their play styles. In this regard it can be said to be a touch unbalanced in favour of the Global Trust. While the Eden Initiative is often required to give up valuable land to provide for pollution countermeasures, the Trust is able to deal with much larger levels of environmental damage before detrimental effects are experienced.
Inserted into the middle of the two factions is the SAAT. This tech-focused organisation is only available to play in the freeplay mode after completing a significant proportion of the game. In terms of play-style it feels like a blend of the two main factions with the added ability to build cities under the sea. As exciting as this watery frontier sounds, the truth is that building an aquatic metropolis is not too far removed from the process above the waves.
Factional differences aside, the heart of Anno 2070 (and indeed all Anno games) is the delicate task of city growth and maintenance. Managing your settlements as they grow into major cities is no small task. The singleplayer campaign may start off like an extended tutorial but by the second act you will discover what a precarious balancing act the core game is. Keeping resources flowing in and climbing up the tech tree is not always easy. Your ability to juggle competing needs will be sorely tested in each of the game’s three play modes: the singleplayer campaign, the sandbox ‘Continuous Play’ mode and the single mission scenarios.
Given the level of minutiae within the game’s mechanics it is somewhat disappointing that the game’s interface is not quite up to the task. The game is no deeper than Civilization V but it lacks the elegance of Firaxis’ stunning UI. Finding what buildings belong to what tabs is as much a matter of trial and error as it is a case of familiarity. It is quite common to hit a developmental plateau and be at a loss as to what should be built next to jump-start your growth. Lamentably, the answer often involves not just searching the production tabs but also clicking on your various buildings in case the essential development you are after turns out to be an add-on to an existing structure.
Which is a shame, as this complexity that the UI so ineptly grapples with is the same complexity that makes the title so appealing. Even if you thought you played Anno 1404 to death, 2070 still has a lot to offer. The new setting allows for compelling new game concepts such as environment seeding, and the visuals mark one of the best-looking strategies in recent times. Furthermore, it is simply the very best Anno we’ve had. The game’s difficulty in exposing what’s ‘under the hood’ through its AI is a large black mark against it but in the end it is the compelling, thoughtful strategy at its heart that wins out.
Originally published in PCPP#201.