You know you've got a good game on your hands when it hooks you in and won't let go for hours and hours on end. Such has been the case for me this weekend with a new one from Ubisoft called Dawn of Discovery. Dawn of Discovery is, as my collegue Patrick pointed out in his review of the PC version, a sequel or continuation of the Anno series of real time strategy games (only this time under a different name in America). I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I first fired up Dawn of Discovery, but it's been the most addictive game I have played in many weeks.
Anno 1404, aka Dawn of Discovery, is all about finding barren islands and building up prosperous towns and cities out of them. The story begins in 1404, and King George's kingdom is in trouble as a terrible drought has his people starving and his land no longer fertile. He seeks the advice of his two sons, Edward and William. Edward has the look, and plays the part of, the more aggressive and less trustworthy brother, while players take on the role of William, an upstanding man who has everyone's best interest at heart. He suggests that the brothers set sail to explore some southern islands near the mainland. The idea is that these islands, unaffected by the drought, can become fertile ground and produce all of the crop needed to get the King and his people through this disaster.
For about half of the twenty-one missions, that's exactly what you'll do -- travel to various islands, establish relations with the Orient, and save your father's kingdom from starvation. You'll be challenged by Corsairs and your brother's poor attitude, as well as the demands of your inhabitants as they begin to settle on the islands you lay claim to. Later on in the adventure, you meet a beautiful young Indian princess who's father is captured by the Corsairs and it's up to you to build a city with an army large enough to save him.
There's an awful lot to do in Dawn of the Discovery, too much for any one person to manage. Your father, the King, provides you assistance at the outset, in the form of Mr. Devenport, an accountant, and Evelyn, a capable young lady with an opinion and a will to help. These two act as your primary advisors throughout your entire adventure, giving you updates on your economy, citizen needs, and doing the talking when you make contact with other NPCs. You can adjust how often they chime in while you're developing your settlements in the options menu; other than saying the same few lines of dialogue over and over, in addition to the mission specific goals, I really didn't mind having their input.
Speaking of input, now is a good time to discuss the controls. As I think most of us would agree, the best Wii-based games are those that don't try to depend too heavily on the Wii motion controls. Dawn of Discovery has a great control interface that does use the motion controls, but it uses them wisely. The Nunchuk is used to zoom the map in and out with C and Z and to adjust menu options including slider bars in the Market interface with the control stick. The Wiimote is used as a mouse would be on a PC -- simply move it around and point at whatever menu or object you want. Additionally, it's used to control your ship while you're out collecting treasure, dodging Corsair ships, or exploring the area. I also used the Minus and Plus buttons more so than C and Z on the Nunchuck for zooming in and out. The B button is used to bring up the Construction Menu or, if you're hovering over an object, it acts as the Copy function; very helpful for replicating houses in a hurry. The A button is your basic confirmation button to confirm building locations, menu functions, etc. Furthermore, the 2 button brings up your Game Menu, from which you can save your game at any time -- which is simply lovely as I am not a fan of checkpoints or any system that doesn't allow you to save whenever. Oh, I should also mention that you can save your game in up to four save slots.
So other than my own shaky hand at times causing me to drop a building down in slightly the wrong spot, the controls for Dawn of Discovery are both very easy to learn, and very reliable -- two hallmarks of a good control scheme. As the leader of these exploration and inhabitation adventures, you'll have plenty of control to exact and a great deal of management to oversee. The difficulty builds up very nicely throughout the lengthy Story Mode -- at first you need only establish a very basic Seaport with maybe a hundred Settlers. During the final stages of the game, you'll be managing multiple islands (I'm overseeing seven right now) and a couple of thousand very demanding inhabitants (Patricians and Aristocrats no less). There are tons of responsibilities and it takes a lot of work and good strategy to succeed, but it's extremely rewarding to see the fruits of your labor. I also like how the game helps you out when times get unusually bad, too. There have been several occassions now (although never more than two in one mission) where I've actually run out of gold. Rather than just end my game, you get a 'loan' from the King of several thousand gold to help you keep going (they call it a loan, but you never have to actually pay it back). I think that's such a great design element to keep players playing rather than throwing up a fail screen and having them revert. I know it's not a new idea, and other games have done it, but it's just another reason that this game kept me playing for many hours on end.
Feeling that sense of reward in taking a barren island and turning it into a bustling town or city, and being able to make a few mistakes along the way without failing, is a big reason why Dawn is such fun. Dawn is also just really easy to pick up and play; the entire structure and flow of the game is laid out very well thanks to pointers from your advisors, an easy to use and understand interface, and a detailed mission log that keeps you on track. Granted, I'm not new to the RTS genre, but I do feel that even beginners -- or kids, which this game would be great for -- can readily pick this up and play. RTS games aren't really known for their accessibility, so while I had a moment, I think it's worth pointing out that Ubisoft did an exemplary job here.
Given what I just said and by looking at the box art, you could be fooled into thinking that this is a kid's game and because of that, it may not have much to offer you in terms of challenge or satisfaction. You'd be wrong to think that, as Dawn has all of the challenge and satisfaction of any other excellent RTS. That said, if you feel like the pace of the game is too slow or too fast for you, the difficulty is adjustable on the fly. During the final Chapter, 7, I do admit to taking it from Medium to Easy (and back again) at times to allow myself to catch up to the growing demands of my inhabitants; trust me, with the Corsair breathing down your neck and the goal of a Metropolis dangling in front of you, it gets quite tough, but it's still hella fun.
I feel like I've said a lot to this point about the game but not a lot about what goes on, specifically. To get to the nuts and bolts of it, let me begin by saying that players sail a ship to an island, dock at one of the beachheads highlighted in the interface, and transform their boat instantly into a Warehouse. The Warehouse is the lifeblood of any island; you can have only one Warehouse per island, and it is always the first building you have. Once you drop anchor and have your Warehouse, it's time to get the basics going so that some Pioneers can come to your island. You'll do this with simple roads that connect all of your production buildings and homes to either the Warehouse or another special building known as a Market. Markets are used as an extension to the Warehouse; they extend the operable range of production facilities and shorten the amount of time it takes to pump resources into your available pool so that you can either sell off your excess or reuse it for further expansion. Now early Pioneers need just three things to be happy -- Milk, a Chapel, and a connection to the Warehouse or a Market. Give them that and a few minutes, and they'll become Settlers in no time.
As you begin to build these production facilities and structures, you want to constantly keep an eye on the happiness level of the inhabitants, much like you would in other RTS/Civ games. Their happiness depends on their needs, wants, and how much you are taxing them, and all of these values are easily tracked with vertical meters (like thermometers). You have to keep a close eye on your resources, (which you can view at any time by clicking on any Warehouse or Market), because if a required resource is no longer meeting demand, your inhabitants get upset in a hurry -- or at least it sure feels like a hurry. Often times, Evelyn would warn me when it was too late and I'd have some very upset Citizens or Patricians to deal with, which usually turned into a major, but temporary, population drop and a big loss in gold funds. I do wish Dawn would notify you with either some more lead time or by some other means to help prevent these sequences where suddenly your citizens go from being very happy to super mad in what seems like seconds, or a minute. I may not have been paying close enough attention I suppose, but at the same time I wondered a few times if there might just be a hair too much micro-management going on, especially during the final missions.
That said, as you meet the demands of the Pioneer, and you have enough of them, they advance into Settlers, who have their own unique needs in addition to those of the Pioneer. The cycle continues until you turn your Settlers into Citizens, who then turn into Patricians and finally, right at the end of the campaign, Aristrocrats. As your inhabitants advance, so do your technological capabilities. Your little fishing village turns into a Seaport, and then a Trading Town, and so on until you become a Metropolis. As you hit these milestones, you're given access to a Tech Tree that grants you an additional boost like a Water Pump and Oriental Architecture. In addition to all of your normal responsibilities, you can also, most of the time depending on the mission, purchase treasure maps. Treasure maps generally cost between 50 and 300 gold, but there are also some that cost 999 gold. Usually, all of these are affordable during a mission, although not all at once.
When you purchase a map, a treasure chest icon appears on your world map that you see when you zoom out. You need an Exploration ship to retrieve the treasure, but look out for Corsair ships that can chase you down in the open water after you've loaded up the treasure. They can also sink your ships if they aren't near a safe harbor too. The map can help you locate the approximate location of these ships, but as they constantly move around, you never quite know where one will be. Normally, this isn't an issue, and out-maneuvering the Corsairs can be fun and satisfying (there are those two words again). It helps that as soon as you pick up the treasure, an arrow comes up on screen to help navigate you to your closest Warehouse. You can only pick up one treasure at a time, but they're always worth their cost. You won't know what you have until you arrive at your Warehouse, but rewards include things like 1000 gold and several tons, literally, of a particular resource like dates or clay.
Retrieving treasures is an excellent idea on any mission because it gives you boosts in various resources. Besides finding treasures and exploring for other islands, there is another reason to explore -- Specialists. Specialists are friendly NPCs that can dock at any of your islands and provide a service that in some way aids your cause. Normally these NPCs will require you to have so many inhabitants or do some kind of errand for them, but usually they are worth trouble. Their services include things like the ability to prevent rat infestations, increase the efficiency of production facilities, and make your land more fertile. No matter the skill, it's always helpful.
Two other elements of Dawn I'd like to mention in the same vein as these are Achievements and Tributes. Achievements aren't of the Xbox kind -- while sharing the same name, Achievements in Dawn apply to things like earning so much gold, building x number of water pumps, conquering so many islands, and so on. Achievements are not only something to strive for just because, but they also provide you with a new Sea Chart that allows you to remove a chunk of the 'fog of war' on your map. This reveals more of the sea around you so that you might find a particular island that has resources or room that you need to expand. Achievements aren't always available, it really just depends on the mission, but usually when they are available, they're required (at least one or two of them) to advance the Story.
Similarly, you'll have to provide about a dozen Tributes throughout the Story as well. Initially, these go to your father so that his Kingdom can have food, but once the Kingdom is on its feet, Tributes are paid to other NPCs. Tributes simply require that you submit some number of tons of a particular resource to an NPC, and you do this through the same menu that you buy treasure maps, access the Tech Tree, and view Achievements from. I've found that purchasing treasure maps are particularly helpful in achieveing the quota for a Tribute.
I don't have a lot bad to say about my experience with Dawn; earlier I mentioned that inhabitants seem to go from happy to very upset in a hurry, and if you're not really on the ball that can cost you. In addition, I was a bit annoyed at having to "re-learn," basically, how to build any of the Tech Tree items, like the very important water pump, from one mission to the next. To be able to purchase one, you have to get to City Level 3, but to do that, you have to have like 1000 inhabitants on a single island, and that requires a fairly large island that can support dozens of houses and nearly a dozen Public Places buildings (Chapels, Guesthouses, Public Baths, etc), not to mention production facilities, unless you have those on another island. Honestly, this wasn't a problem until late in the game, but it was a pain trying to squeeze all of these structures into a small island. And on a particular mission in Chapter 6 I'm thinking of, I couldn't get another Sea Chart (to get resources from another island) without completing an Achievement -- the only problem being the Achievements required things like having 10,000 gold and having put down two water pumps, things I couldn't do because I didn't have the water pump to begin with. It was also roughly around this point that I realized that the islands tend to be on the small side, which is annoying when you're having to place so many large Public Places buildings while trying to build up a large community on one island. Then again, this was done by design to encourage and force you to use several islands at once.
Dawn also includes a small military component that comes into play fairly late in the Story. To help battle the Corsairs, you eventually get the ability to build battleships and barracks. Conquering islands is done by beachheading two or three battleships and then raiding the Corsairs' Warehouse and Barracks. I thought the control here was just a little annoying in that you had to select the ship, press Down on the d-pad or B on the interface icon to enter Military mode, and only then you could give your command. Commands are very basic and boil down to moving four troops from point A to B. You can move troops from your Barracks to a Battleship, Warehouse, or Market (to fortify them), and that's really it. I really didn't mind that Dawn didn't have a larger, more robust military component, but its complete omission would have been a drawback, so I'm glad it's included.
In terms of presentation quality, Dawn of Discovery is pleasant. There are a variety of great colors that all pop very nicely with vibrance. All animations are smooth and I didn't notice any major technical problems. Zooming in all the way down to street level on your town reveals some casual graphics, but also some detailed ones like dogs running about. Most of the time you'll play from a traditional RTS height and everything looks fine. Furthermore, instead of cutscenes, you'll witness a basic slide show of animated stills that convey the picture of the words being spoken by the characters. On that note, the voiceovers are all very good and fitting, but I would have liked more lines of dialogue for Mr. Devenport and Evelyn. The sound effects, like plopping a new building on the ground, were all good with no complaints while the smooth, instrumental soundtrack reminded me of the many hours of playing Pirates! and Age of Mythology.
Ahoy there! Summary lay ahead...