A little over ten years ago, I picked up an Amiga magazine, as one did in those pre-Internet days. This said magazine came with a cover mounted floppy disc, as was the norm back then. I may or may not have had an onion on my belt at the time. Anyway, sartorial decisions aside, the demo on this particular floppy was for a title developed by a small German programming firm, Blue Byte, called The Settlers - or Die Seidlers, if you prefer. Despite being a no-save, one map demo, it sat glued into my humble Amiga 500's floppy drive for days on end, often without the power going off at all, simply because it was so good.
Three sequels followed at a slow and steady pace, keeping the same mix of micromanagement and mild combat throughout, combined with a genuinely cute graphical style that gave each individual Settler tons of pixellated character. Settlers IV was a long, long time ago in gaming terms, but news of a new Settlers game had me practically foaming at the mouth, despite the fact that a lot of competing titles have firmly defined the modern micromanagement/RTS title in the interim period. There's a fair chance, in fact, that those looking at Settlers: Heritage of Kings may never have played a previous Settlers game, although certainly those who will track it down first are more likely to be fans than novices.
The first thing that aficionados will notice about Heritage Of Kings is that the cute style developed in the previous four titles has been abandoned in favor of a 3D graphics engine that, while stylish in a certain way, is also decidedly nondescript - you could look at a screenshot and not pick that it's a Settlers title at all. If you're a long time Settlers fan (and, in case that intro didn't key you in, I'd count myself amongst that number) it's a disheartening step, as part of the fun that came from the titles was from seeing each individual settler hefting wood, hewing stone or making weapons outside their easily identified dwellings. That's all gone now, replaced with buildings that do form more cohesive towns, but at the cost of individuality and easy recognition. The removal of individually cute Settlers also creates a problem that didn't really plague the earlier titles, and that's to do with the game's pace. Settlers games have always been slow affairs, but they've been workable in that context because there's always been plenty to watch going on, as you built a micro-economy from the ground up. With many of the construction and economic tasks being functionally invisible, and even the buildings rising up from the dust, you're just left with an RS RTS - that's a Really Slow Real Time Strategy title.
Micromanagement is still a core attribute in Settlers: Heritage Of Kings, however, and those who love poring over stats and working out just how much clay they'll need to allow them to create their next building, or research their next upgrade will still find quite a bit to keep them occupied. If the thought of making sure you've got enough woodcutters chopping wood so that you've got enough wood to make handles for swords to equip your troops, who'll need their own barracks, so those said troops can defend your woodcutters against enemy attacks, simply so that the woodcutters can keep on cutting wood. If that makes your head spin, then this won't be the game for you. On a pure gameplay per dollar basis Settlers: Heritage Of Kings certainly rewards well, but that's more to do with the game's very sedentary pace rather than it having a lot of unique content to uncover. It's definitely a game that's worth assessing in terms of its own demo, which shows a lot of what you'll be doing throughout the game. If the demo grabs you, then by all means go for it, but bear in mind that the demo does a very good job of showing just about everything in the game - good and bad alike.
Combat in previous Settlers titles was always more a matter of necessity than the core context of the title, and it's certainly fair to say that an audience raised on titles like Blizzard's Warcraft series will find the combat approach in Settlers: Heritage of Kings somewhat unsatisfying. Borrowing heavily from the best of the genre, you can recruit hero characters with special abilities to fight alongside your trained troops - and even serfs with pitchforks, if you're desperate - but the basic combat model remains as it ever was - more a matter of tank rush style attacks than deliberate strategy, and it's certainly this tank rush style of tactic that the game's enemy AI adopts over and over again. It's clear to see that the developers have moved towards a more combat-centric model than the previous titles used in order to appeal to the mass market that enjoys more combat than building, but that's somewhat at the cost of the existing fans.
So, what's shameless Settlers aficionado like myself to make of Settlers: Heritage Of Kings? It's a bold move forwards for the series, but it's ultimately a move into blandness that robs the series of much of its earlier charm, at least from a fan's perspective. What if you're a newcomer to the franchise? Well, it's less of a painful experience, to be sure, but then the game's slower pace is unlikely to win it too many new fans, even though it clearly borrows a lot of other factors from more successful recent entries in the RTS genre.
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