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Review: Anno 1800 - A few frames short of outstanding

Published: 10:26, 15 April 2019
AltChar
Screenshot of Anno 1800 cutscene with the queen out for blood
Anno 1800

Anno 1800 delivers a mesmerising mosaic of interlocking systems with a lot of charm and a romantic attitude towards the industrial revolution. Some technical stutters are the only thing standing in its way to becoming a modern classic.

There’s something to be said for an opening presentation that features explosives and a funeral. In the case of Anno 1800 and its cliche-heavy plot, the two are only tangentially related, but diving into an Anno game in search of a narrative masterstroke is two steps removed from dynamite fishing to begin with.

Regardless, the campaign and its plot need to be addressed, if for no other reason, than because it might make a certain demographic more than upset. Anno 1800 presents a deeply romanticised image of the industrial revolution and its colonial baggage. It never quite abandons its lighthearted tone, and by virtue of sheer charm, manages to get away with little to no commentary beyond the mechanically ludicrous.

AltChar Anno 1800 screenshot of ships of the line in new world harbour Anno 1800 - New World harbour

Cotton can’t be grown in the Old World apparently, while the attitudes of your underlings remain equally submissive at their core, regardless of geographic location, so any implicit intent by the developers to provide for some sort of social commentary on a question such as slavery or indentured labour can be dismissed right of the bat.

Any bridges built between Anno 1800’s story, tone and mechanics are usually reserved for more high-concept pondering of balance between industry with its pollution and a more touristically appealing and eco-friendly agrarian approach to urban development.

AltChar Anno 1800 cutscene screenshot of prison island with character dialogue Anno 1800 - Prison island

There’s the odd joke thrown in for good measure, like the proprietor of a prison island always being willing to purchase soap and potatoes. That same administrator will gladly notify you every time he receives a shipment in a snarky manner, which gets stale-ish after a while.

How many shipments he receives depends entirely on how the player decides to prioritise and distribute their resources. Anno 1800 is primarily about its economy, city-planning, production chains and trade. This occasionally gets broken up by mini-games in the form of quests, requiring some clicking around your settlement, taking the occasional snap in photo mode, escorting or destroying a ship, and sporadically even performing fetch duties.

AltChar Anno 1800 screenshot of production buildings with island in the background Anno 1800 - New World enterprise

Most of these bits serve to break the hypnosis of setting up island infrastructure, balancing the needs of various population classes, establishing trade routes with allies or between player owned outposts, and defending these against pirates and rivals.

During the campaign that doubles as an extended tutorial, and later flows into a sandbox mode, it is indeed possible to eradicate pirate factions entirely. Certain events formulated as quests are aimed at reintroducing them to the playfield and give players a chance to hinder them from doing so. Naval combat is appropriately cumbersome and the weight of every cannon shot is superbly underpainted with satisfying effects both visual and auditory.

AltChar Anno 1800 screenshot of fleet being ambushed by fire ships Anno 1800 - Flaming ambush

Having a fleet of frigates and ships of the line bombard an enemy stronghold is a spectacular affair, and the player’s success or failure in maritime warfare has an impact on population happiness back on the home island. A newspaper will report on a lot of in-game events and assign penalties or bonuses based on different outcomes.

The player is given the option of editing or redacting individual issues, and some AI factions will be more or less cooperative depending on how the press is treated.

AltChar Anno 1800 news editing svreen showing personality test Anno 1800 - Uncompromising journalism

Where Anno 1800 starts to falter is under the sheer weight of complexity it actually thrives on. During our playthrough, we were forced to steadily make compromises with graphical fidelity. As the game needed to draw more and more objects on screen, we progressively slid from maximum settings down into a low-medium, just to keep framerates in the 30s, and even then dips into the teens were frequent and almost predictable based on the amount of commotion on display. This is with a machine well above recomended specs.

This may be a dealbreaker for many, as it interferes with Anno’s numerous and carefully crafted interlocking systems. The game depends on the player drifting into a sort of flow-state, managing resources, fleets, expeditions and production chains, and while the transition between its two biomes is seamless, the same fluidity can rarely be seen in moment to moment performance.

AltChar Anno 1800 screenshot showing town streets during a festival Anno 1800 - Town festival

The necessary compromises in the graphics menu also rob Anno 1800 of a lot of its visual appeal. It is relatively easy to get used to these, but Anno is an incredibly good looking game when at its best, if only it could maintain that beauty without paying a performance toll.

Another thing that got in the way on the visual side is the UI. With so many spinning plates in the air, Anno needs to notify the player of numerous events from any one of its considerable number of gameplay loops running in parallel. This can make the screen somewhat crowded, and while most UI elements are easily navigable, we found ourselves closing menus and notification boxes many times just to get enough screen real-estate necessary for placing buildings or commanding units.

AltChar Anno 1800 screenshot of cluttered UI during fleet battle Anno 1800 - What happens when your fleet gets ambushed while you are busy planting gardens

Anno 1800 has a lot to offer, and fans of the series shouldn’t be dissuaded by its technical shortcomings. Newcomers stand to get even more from the experience, if they can stand the erratic performance in an admittedly slow-paced game. Being exposed to Anno-style city-building for the first time is a one-time deal, and Anno 1800 is a welcoming place for the uninitiated.

One of its major advantages is a willingness to let players focus on whatever aspect of gameplay they find most appealing, and most challenges presented have several potential solutions.

AltChar Anno 1800 screenshot of exploded distilery nexto to intact wool production building Anno 1800 - Exploded distillery

Resource needs or shortages can be addressed through production, trade, reducing the population's appetite for a resource by manipulating the press, or even through raiding rival trade lanes. The issue of attractiveness of any given island can be handled by leaving as much of the natural environment untouched as possible, developing tourist attractions, or simply avoiding clustering unseemly industry and slaughterhouses on a single island.

If Anno 1800 presents players with an obstacle, it usually allows for several different avenues to bypass or overcome them.

AltChar Anno 1800 screenshot of frigate with pirate base in the background Anno 1800 - Hostis Humani Generis stronghold

We got a decent 40 hours of production-chain juggling, sailing and just pleasantly meandering around out of Anno 1800, and are likely to return in a while and see if the few technical shortcomings separating the game from greatness have been resolved.

From its mellow unobtrusive soundtrack, to its carefully laid out systems, the city-builder has the potential to obliterate hours as if they were minutes and has notifications warning to stretch legs, eat, and check on your next of kin for a reason. A planned quick session can easily devour half a day before you know it.

AltChar Anno 1800 screenshot of royal harbour with island in the background Anno 1800 - Her Majesty's docking facilities

We can’t quite wholeheartedly recommend Anno 1800 to just anyone, but for those with even a passing interest in the series, the latest entry is an excellent place to start. A solid 8/10.

AltChar Anno 1800 screenshot of fire ship fleet attacking a city Anno 1800 - Don't play with matches

Anno 1800 pre-release images from Blue Byte and Ubisoft

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