Up until last year, I’d never played an Anno game. I definitely knew of the franchise but that was about it. More than that, I only knew it as “that SimCity-like game,” which I realize is totally unfair to the entire Anno series, but here we are. And it was only through that unfortunate stigma that I finally got around to playing Anno 2070 after the entire SimCity always-online debacle when Ubisoft discounted it and every website and their mother (a newspaper? How does that work?) suggested other city-building alternatives.
And I really enjoyed it! It’s a fun game and has its own quirks, highlights and lowlights, but I definitely liked it enough to go back and play a few other franchise entries. It made me realize, though, that I really only had room in my life for roughly one city-builder video game a year, maybe less. It’s a rather isolating experience to play such games, both physically and mentally. Amongst the fleshy bodies of the world, you often seclude yourself to engage in digital entertainment, but the mental isolation was so much more taxing. You would sit and ponder this nonexistent, practically hypothetical world that only you could rummage about in, dreaming up and concocting situations to get yourself into and out of.
SimCity addressed that by putting your cities right up against other cities in a region, shoulder-to-shoulder sharing resources and traffic. It was an interesting idea, if a tad poorly executed since it eventually limited you to what type of city you could build in addition to the size. Luckily, though, Ubisoft and Blue Byte, publisher and developer of Anno Online respectively, have decided to rectify this injustice, so I took a key to their closed beta lock and took a look around.
Anno Online is an MMO still in the style of the traditional series, which is to say you’ll be building structures, managing populations, and optimizing economies from an isometric perspective. The kicker is that you’ll be doing it online with a bunch of other players. Actually, there are several kickers, so get your shin guards on.
First off, it’s free-to-play. That usually has some poor connotations on its own, but nothing egregious purchase-wise has jumped out at me yet (yet). Second, it’s browser-based. Or more accurately, it’s Adobe Flash-based and you play it through a browser. So if you want to write up some diatribe about more always-on video games, go ahead, but the trade-off here is that you can play it on pretty much any computer with Flash installed on it.
This puts it in direct competition with several other browser-based, free-to-play city-building games out there like Immortal Cities: Nile Online, Evony, and even Blue Byte’s own The Settlers Online. It’s already a crowded market, so despite setting itself apart from the rest of the Anno games, you have to wonder how they plan on making it to the front of the pack with the rest of the Flash F2P runners.
Well I can’t be sure if their plan will work in the long term, but I can tell you what they’ve done so far. First and foremost, Anno Online probably has the best presentation of the bunch, which is not surprising given the rest of the series. The interface is most like Anno 2070 but the visual milieu reminds me most of Dawn of Discovery, and if you’ve played The Settlers Online, it is perhaps most reminiscent of that but with a more deeply saturated color palette and textured veneer. But the buildings and ships and everything are indeed charming. They are nothing more than sprites laid over one another, but it comes together in a cohesive, quaint visual package that I really appreciate.
And it’s good there’s a lot to just stare at from the get-go—though you won’t immediately see all of its 120+ building types from the start—because it’s a slow burn. The introduction is lengthy and a bit on the dragging side of things (and highlights the oddly cumbersome road-building tool), but it also is probably necessary given that this is an attempt to bring in players unfamiliar with the Anno series and the builder genre in general. And even as someone somewhat steeped in the conventions being laid out to me, I found it useful and hid the Anno-style complexities rather well. I didn’t realize how far spread my influence had grown until I stopped and looked around all my network of old timey machinations.
Your network, though, will soon interact with other networks, and necessarily so. Some of the more impressive structures like huge Gothic cathedrals and whatnot require cooperation to build. Trading is actually a large part of the game as you can ship off resources to those less fortunate (or less skilled) than you and you can watch ships from other player islands come in stocked to the brim with goods (ships can be customized so others may begin to recognize certain boats coming and going).
While interacting with all the social hooks of Anno Online can help speed up your fungibility, none of it is required, though it is great at encouraging you to try it out. You can just as easily muck about in your own island slots. As you grow your starting island of fixed layout but somewhat random contents, you will be able to set sail to colonize your other parcels of land, each with their own minable resources. However, you can circumvent that with trading, or supplement it to build faster. The desire to get the game going faster is key to urging the inter-player economy, and it works because holy crap does the solo drive feel slow.
But if you do want to go it alone, you can engage in some microtransactions to boost your progress acceleration as well as unlock additional islands for you to expand to. This doesn’t feel especially dirty, but given how easy it is to take the already snail-like pace down to dead snail speed, it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. And once PVP gets involved, competition-based microtransactions always feel a bit unsavory.
Which is a shame because so far, I kind of like Anno Online. There are some great multiplayer hooks with global leaderboards and a nice chat system, game design that encourages social interactions for bumps in trading and economy, and a leisurely approach to the gameplay. It may be painfully slow to some players, but Anno Online seems specifically designed for 30-minute bursts of fine-grained micromanagement. There is an underlying complexity here and that is very much in the style of past Anno games, and that’s definitely a good thing.
I’ll have some closed beta keys to give out a bit later, but definitely keep this one on your radar if you’re into building cities and maximizing economies. Anno Online is a free-to-play, browser-based city-builder that just might be worth keeping tabs on. An open beta is coming with no official release date set.