1999 was a good year for RTS fans: Tiberian Sun was released by Westwood Studios as a sequel to the hugely successful Command & Conquer and Ensemble Studios released award winning Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, a game that often appears on Top 100 Games of All Time lists.
A year before this, in 1998, another RTS sequel was released: The Settlers III. The Settlers series had a different style to most RTS games with the focus being on resource management and city building rather than tactical combat. I played The Settlers III not long after it came out after borrowing it from a friend. I had fond memories of it, so I sought it out as something to play for downtime between revision and sitting exams. So, was it as good as I remember or have I been looking at it with rose-tinted spectacles?
As with most RTS games, the gameplay takes place from a top-down perspective. You designate where buildings should be built with the aim of creating a strong economy which will in turn lead to a strong army. The first thing that will strike RTS veterans is the lack of control you have. You can only control soldiers and a few select types of settlers, with the majority performing their tasks automatically. This has the advantage of letting you concentrate on the actual planning and building of your city rather than micro-managing your units, but causes frustrations. Structures will be built in the order they were placed on the map, which can lead to your builder units crisscrossing the map to get everything done, wasting a large amount of time. It encourages very careful planning on where and when you designate buildings to be built.
Resources are an important aspect in any strategy game and The Settlers III puts an emphasis on managing them carefully. Instead of resources being collected into some global store and being able to be used anywhere at any time, each resource collected is present on the map and must be carried to its destination by a settler. This means that building must be positioned in order to reduce the distance these resources have to be carried, and when you’re dealing with up to 29 different resources on a map this can become quite a challenge. Once you’ve created your economy witnessing the fruits of your labour is most satisfying; you can watch a bundle of wheat feed a pig, which then gets slaughtered and turned into ham, which is then taken to the iron mine to feed the miner, who finds some iron ore, which is then smelted into an iron ingot, that is forged into a sword that is finally taken to a barracks so a settler can become a soldier. I could stare at the settlers running around and performing their duties for minutes at a time: it’s all very therapeutic.
It’s not a game you’ll mind looking at either, despite being 13 years old. The art style is very pleasant with bright, colourful, cartoony graphics and different styles of buildings, settlers and soldiers for each individual race. Some of the buildings and soldiers are hard to tell apart at first glance but the resources are all unique enough to be recognisable. Some of the campaigns also have cutscenes that play at the start and after certain missions, the animation of which is passable and nothing special. Thankfully the writing is much better and evoked a laugh or two from myself. The voice acting is also pretty good in the cutscenes, as well as in the monolgues by the protagonists before the missions in several of the campaigns.
Sound effects are decent enough as well. Every time a map is loaded there’s about a minute of music, after which is just sound effects. I quite liked the way you could hear all the jobs your settlers were doing, like the sawing of logs and the glug of the iron smelter. The attack sounds can get a bit overwhelming during large battles and the Amazon beehives are very irritating with the amount of buzzing that goes on near them.
The final result of all your careful resource management is to increase your combat ability. Weapons are needed to create more soldiers, gold is mined and smelted to increase the strength of your soldiers and alcohol is brewed and sacrificed to the gods to give you mana for spells and to increase the rank of your soldiers. One important aspect of combat is the idea of territory: you can only build inside your territory and must expand it by building guard towers and castles or by using the pioneer units. When your soldiers are inside your territory their default strength is 100%, whereas when they are outside your territory their default strength is 100% divided by the number of players on the map. (50% for a two player game, 33% for three, etc.) This means rushing during the early game is not a good option, as the attacking soldiers will only have half the attack power of the defending soldiers. Having gold ingots in your possession increases the strength of your soldiers meaning they can put up a much better fight while attacking during the late game. Soldiers also come in three different types; swordsmen, archers and spearmen. As you might expect, archers can attack from a distance and shoot from the tops of towers, swordsmen are fast and spearmen have a long reach. Each soldier type beats one of the other soldier types so bows beat spears, spear beat swords and swords beat bows. If I’m honest though, I’ve never seen the point (no pun intended) in the spearmen, I’ve never found that they were particularly effective against swordsmen as the swordsmen’s speed allows them to escape or surround the spearmen. With the controls the way they are (more on that later) you’re better off spamming swordsmen with a few bowmen for support and hoping for the best.
There are four different races to play as in The Ultimate Collection; the Romans, the Asians, the Egyptians and the Amazons; and each plays somewhat differently. The Romans and the Egyptians use more stone in their buildings than the Asians or the Amazons, the Egyptians can mine gems which are twice as effective as gold for increasing soldier strength, the Romans can make coal out of wood, the Amazons can turn gems and sulphur into gold and iron ingots and the Asians can create raw stone and turn it into iron using mana. While these differences make each nation somewhat interesting it doesn’t have much effect on the actual gameplay other than forcing players to produce more wood or stone. Playing longer games against human opponents would probably show off the differences more.
Talking about multiplayer, it’s worth taking that “Online Multiplayer” bit with an unhealthy dose of salt. From looking around online it seems there are few workarounds for getting it to work but I have been having trouble with them myself. I also have not tested LAN multiplayer; convincing people to play a slow, 13 year old strategy game during their final exams isn’t the easiest thing.
Going back to single player, The Ultimate Collection offers 8 different campaigns, each with 8 or more maps to play, most of which can be accessed at any time from the “Load” menu. This is a huge relief for those of us who could never complete the first mission of the Egyptian campaign. Single player scenarios can also be set up against computer opponents on any one of a large number of maps. If you enjoy it, this is a game that can last you a long, long time. One aspect where The Settlers III is lacking is it’s save feature, as only 8 slots are available for saved games. Games can also only be loaded from the main menu, so you’ll have to quit out of the game you’re currently playing in order to load a saved game.
Reading this review, you probably think I like the game, and you’d be right. I’ve spent a lot more time than I planned playing this and look forward to playing it more in the future, but that doesn’t mean the game doesn’t have its bad points. Whereas the resource system and city building parts feel very well designed and tested, the combat, soldier and ship controls feel like they were designed in a particularly lazy afternoon. Compared to the tight controls in Age of Empires and Command & Conquer, The Settlers III’s is on another level; a much lower and more frustrating level. Soldiers will regularly ignore your orders and wander exactly where you don’t want them to go. In some situations I have selected soldiers and repeatedly clicked a place for them to go only for them to continue wandering in the opposite direction. They are much too easily distracted by enemy units, often breaking cover and being bombarded by arrows so that they can kill an enemy geologist. When keeping your army inside your borders is vital to victory it’s incredibly disheartening to see them run into no-man’s land and get annihilated. Because of this, tactics more complex than swarming the enemy with sheer numbers will be no use.
Ships are also a problem child for the game. Using transport ships to ferry soldiers across the sea is cumbersome and time consuming, and keeping your trade ships in check can be hard as they have the same “ignore orders” problem as the soldiers. Missions often go exactly the same every time with little variety in how you actually build up your base, and due to the dodgy controls the combat often degenerates to sending as many soldiers in as you can and hoping leading to a pretty similar experience for every map. Some maps try to mix up the regular formula by tasking you with delivering certain resources to certain places or providing resources to your ally but they are pretty few and far between.
The AI doesn’t fair very well either. On the last mission for one of the Roman campaigns most of the enemy soldiers walked past my front lines without attacking, only to be killed by my military. Even when I was invading their base the enemy soldiers were only trying to get past, possibly to attack a specific tower in my base. Another problem is random resources lying around. When you destroy a building a small amount of stone and timber is left behind, including whatever resources that building was using at the time. These resources stop new buildings from being built and there’s no easy way to get your settlers to move the resources out of the way.
If The Settlers III has one thing going for it, it’s that it’s unique. I’ve yet to play another RTS game that makes resource management so satisfying. Yes, there are a few problems and they are quite big problems but they haven’t stopped me from putting many hours into the game and enjoying almost every one. It may not be as expansive as Age of Empires or as tactically sound as Command & Conquer but The Settlers III will always do its own thing and do it pretty well.