Discussion Review: Dawn of Discovery

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In Europe, the Anno game franchise is huge, something like the Madden NFL franchise is in the US. Each addition to the series is hotly anticipated and sells very well. In North America, however, the series has struggled to find an audience. The last entry – Anno 1701 – was brought to North America as 1701 A.D. for the PC and as Anno 1701: Dawn of Discovery for the DS. The games got solid reviews but suffered disappointing sales. This time around Ubisoft dropped the Anno moniker entirely and just called it Dawn of Discovery, and has recently released versions for the PC, DS and Wii. Matt and I will be looking at different versions of the game and discussing our findings, but to add a twist I went to my local GameStop and grabbed a copy of the DS version, so I will look at the PC and DS versions and Matt will look at the Wii release.

Mike: Dawn of Discovery takes place in 1404, and the ‘campaign mode’ begins with you needing to colonize and develop an island in order to produce resources for your father the king (DS, Wii) or producing resources to help fund the building of a huge temple dedicated to your king (PC). Either way, you are put on a ship with an adviser and flung out to a remote island to colonize and get to building!

When I reviewed A.D. 1701 for GamerDad a few years ago, I said “for me, 1701 A.D. is like a refocused Civilization that is easier to share with younger kids. Because the game is more tightly focused on supply economics than the sprawling expanse of the recent Civilization IV, it is easier for kids to get into playing it. Yet there is considerable depth ヨ this isn’t a simple ‘city builder’. It falls somewhere in-between both of those types of game, while having a unique characteristic that makes it appealing.” Of course, that was my first exposure to the series after hundreds of Civ-hours, so it is natural I would come at it from that angle.

I’ve now logged tons of time in both the DS and PC versions of this game, and have two thoughts: first, I absolutely adore both versions, and second, I can’t wait to hear what Matt has to say! Matt – after our discussion on how the Wii handled the Broken Sword game, I am intrigued at how this sort of game plays on the Wii. The PC and DS games are distinctly different, yet both seem to focus on a single player, staring at the screen heads-down sort of play mode. In other words, PC-centric. So Matt- have you played any of the Anno series before? How are you finding this one? And what about the feel on the Wii in general?

Matt: Like the Broken Sword discussion, you’re the series veteran here (in relation to me at least) and will have to explain where Dawn of Discovery fits in with past games and the simulation genre as a whole. I have no past experience with the Anno series, so I’m coming into this discussion without any preconceived expectations, just an open mind looking for an engaging console simulation experience. That being the case, it’s perfect that I took on the Wii version because to me it seems like it was designed as sort of a “Beginner’s Guide” to the Anno universe, and that’s a very good thing because I bet most Wii gamers are as unfamiliar with the series as I am.

Dawn of Discovery on the Wii, as you pointed out, tells the story of two rival brothers sent out on a mission by the king to seek out and colonize unexplored islands, produce needed resources and send them back to your homeland, which is suffering through a terrible drought. I’m not sure what the story is like on the DS or PC, but on the Wii it plays out almost like a Saturday morning cartoon. This is both good and bad. On one hand it fits in with the “beginner’s guide” approach to the game, but on the other it seems skewed perhaps a bit too young — this is a basic simulation game, but I don’t think it was meant to be a “simulation for kids”. It comes across that way sometimes.

But that’s just a minor complaint. The game itself is just wonderful. I can’t recall ever playing any other city-building/civ management simulation game on the Wii (are there any others?), but Dawn of Discovery definitely proves the genre is a perfect fit with Nintendo’s motion-control console. The interface works incredibly well, for one. It’s super-simple to pan around the world map using the nunchuk control stick or by pointing and dragging with the on-screen finger pointer using the Wii Remote, and zoom in/out at the push of the Wii-motes +/- buttons or the C/Z buttons on the nunchuk. An intuitive radial menu system also makes placing buildings an effortless process — just tap the B button to pop up the menu, then point and click through the different building types — and to prevent even more hassle you can even copy and paste structures at the tap of a button without any need for cycling through menus.

Mike: I’m a relative newbie to the franchise and genre myself. I was convinced by a combined discussion with GamerDad and a former editor from Computer Gaming World that I simply HAD to play Civilization IV – and no, I’d never played a Civ game before then! After that I was convinced to try A.D. 1701 when it came out, and found it wonderful fun – enough so that I bought the DS game as well! Of course the Anno games are real-time rather than turn-based, and the emphasis is much more on short-term micro-development than on larger scale epochal evolution.

Based on your description, it seems that the Wii and DS games are the same, and the PC is somewhat different. The core stories are the same – you need to develop resources constantly in order to help your king back on the mainland. As I said, the impetus is slightly different, but the overall course of action is similar. And aside from that slight difference most of the structure is the same. You have a campaign mode that will take you through the entire story of helping your people back at home by developing islands and trade routes far away. Then there is the ‘free mode’, which is really the meat of the game. Once you know how to build up your world, it is time to work on your own to develop a dominant power in the uncharted isles.

When I first started with the Anno games, I was thrilled with the tutorial as it was constantly there helping you figure out stuff and get things done. I still appreciate the help now, and even as I progressed through the game. The reason I appreciate it is simple: those darn settlers constantly WANT something! As you begin to amass loads of islands, each with different specializations, you really need an adviser to ‘have your back’. Managing the flow of resources – and even making sure that you are properly supplying all of your manufacturing sites with raw materials – is not trivial at higher difficulties and later in the game.

As for the visual and story style, you nailed it perfectly: colors are super-saturated, items pop up and bounce around, and things have a very light and cartoony feel to them. Those effects are definitely more pronounced in the DS (and Wii) versions than the PC, but they are present to some extent in all versions. This distinction is something that divides some fans. For many, they feel that the style belies the depth the game offers, making it look like a silly and trivial affair. For others it is simply a choice. Personally, with so much emphasis on ‘dark & gritty’ games lately I appreciate the graphic style of games like Drakensang and Dawn of Discovery.

The one thing I wish was there is multiplayer. For this kind of world-building simulation, the competition between brothers seen in the DS and the general sense of different potential goals shown in both versions makes me wish there was a way for those versions to have a competitive mode. I see the Wii version has 2-player capabilities – how does that work, and how WELL does it work?

Matt: Wait, there’s multiplayer in the Wii version? *scampers off to take a look*

Well what do you know, there is multiplayer in the Wii version! The back of the box indicates as such, but there’s no mention of it that I can find in the manual or even the game menus. But when you’re playing a second player can indeed pick up a Wii Remote and use it to lend a helping hand. And by lend a helping hand I mean point at the screen and set off fireworks, mark points of interest on the map and perform other seemingly pointless stuff I don’t see how a second player would have any fun doing. Obviously I haven’t spent a bunch of time here testing it out since up until a few minutes ago I didn’t even realize multiplayer was in the game, but I only needed a few minutes to see that it’s pretty lame. Looking over at the game’s website I don’t see that it lists anything any more exciting either.

As you say, the story mode essentially serves as a fleshed-out tutorial for the endless sandbox mode, which is called Continuous Play in the Wii version. That’s partly why I called it a “Beginner’s Guide” to simulations, as the advisers hold your hand throughout much of the story mode, keeping you updated of current objectives, hinting at tax adjustments you may want to make, etc. That’s not a bad thing per say, because as you pointed out there is quite a bit of data to manage between resources, settler demands, building needs, taxes and so on, so I too found it nice to have friendly reminders every now and again. But at the same time, I can understand how some players may find this hand-holding a bit too easy. Is the PC version as simplified as this or does it grow into a more hardcore simulation?

Speaking of simplification, how’s the combat on the PC (and DS) side? It’s pretty simple on the Wii, as is to be expected from a city-building type of a game. At least that’s my thinking — I’ve heard some minor complaining about the limited combat on a few other sites, and really don’t quite understand the beef. On the Wii you can train some troops for defense and attack purposes, and while exploring the high seas on your corsair ship you’ll occasionally engage in simple naval battles while you search for new islands to settle and seek out sunken treasures, and that’s about it. But that’s plenty for me. Not every game needs to emphasize action. Dawn of Discovery is about exploration, discovery, and civilization development, and in these areas it excels.

I’m glad you expanded more on the visual style, because the game really does look quite lovely. The Wii version is bursting with bright pastel colors, which aren’t necessarily super-detailed or hyper-realistic, but really keep your senses stimulated. Zooming in on the landscape, you’ll also find a lot of little details that make the world more believable and full of life. Fox and deer graze un-settled terrain, workers harvest resources and cart back and forth between their farm/shop and the nearest warehouse, and so on. The water effects are also pretty damn impressive.

Mike: Well … I guess I’m not missing anything with the multiplayer!

Combat is an interesting thing with this franchise, and since I started the Anno series coming from Civilization IV I immediately expected more confrontation options. I was very concerned about it back then. But, as you say, that isn’t what the series is about. Combat is something that happens as you are exploring the world, not a central focus of the game. As such, I was very satisfied with the implementation on both the DS and PC.

The overall depth is a place where there is a difference between the DS and PC versions. To a certain level, the games are structurally identical. But where the DS version stops, the PC continues. Things like Ascension Rights are more detailed in the PC version, as are the levels of control around building your empire and controlling how things flow and happen. The developers did a great job of not increasing complexity along with details and options. However, that level of micromanagement can get exhausting.

Speaking of details, I guess I have one last thing on the looks. I was thrilled at how much detail and life they added to the DS game – and by your account, also to the Wii version – but the improvements they made to the PC game are simply staggering. The game runs every bit as smooth on a mod-level PC as Anno 1701 did, but they have squeezed even more details from the engine. As you zoom out it feels like you will eventually see the whole world, and as you zoom in you get the feeling you could almost see the fingernail coloring on the people working around town. The DS version presents a living world, but the PC version renders it in stunning detail.

I very much enjoyed Anno 1701 when it came out on the DS, but my favorite version of that game is the PC version by far. The DS version was solid and well done, but was lacking in some of the features and details that I had fallen in love with on the PC game. With Dawn of Discovery, I have dumped too many hours into both the DS and PC versions, and would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. Each is perfectly suited to its’ platform, and I have found that my expectations and play style bend to each game very easily without losing any of that core Anno feel.

These are games I tend to revisit to play small chunks on a random basis for quite a while, as I did with the Anno 1701 games. In fact, as I start clearing disc space on my PC for the coming fall game release onslaught, once again I find myself leaving Anno on the PC – it is the sort of game I will keep coming back to. This is also true for the DS, so that game is also always nearby my DSi.

Entering into Dawn of Discovery, my mindset was that this would be a ‘Buy It’ recommendation unless they managed to screw things up. Quite to the contrary, I find Dawn of Discovery to be the best Anno game yet! Easy to get into, easy to learn, but very challenging to master, and with loads of replayability to keep you coming back time and again.

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Pros:
+ Excellent tutorial
+ Excellent level of detail
+ Great simulations
+ Gorgeous graphics

Cons:
– Cartoony style can be off-putting
– No Multiplayer for DS or PC

Matt: It’s really great to hear that Dawn of Discovery turned out so well across all three platforms – when you think about it, that’s a pretty rare accomplishment for a multi-platform game on systems as different from each other as the DS, PC and Wii are! The Wii version in particular – since that’s the one I covered – turned out far more engrossing than I ever imagined, proving once again that when developers take the Wii seriously it can produce more than trashy shovelware and cash-in mini-game collections. It may skew a bit too casual for some, but overall if you’ve enjoyed simulation games on other platforms before or are looking to discover a refreshing new experience on the Wii, look no further than Dawn of Discovery.

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Pros:
+ Intuitive Wii interface
+ Adapts well to all three platforms
+ Great all-around simulation, especially for novices
+ Gameplay is simple, but still deep enough to keep you hooked
+ Beautiful visuals

Cons:
– Perhaps a bit too basic and hand-holding for some
– Wii multiplayer is lame

Game Info:
Platform: DS, PC and Wii (all versions covered in this review)
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Sunflowers Int. / Blue Byte
Release Date: 6/23/09
Genre: Simulation/RTS
ESRB Rating: Teen (PC), E10+ (Wii), E (DS)
Players: 1 (1-2 on Wii)
Source: PC and Wii review copies provided by publisher, DS copy purchased by reviewer

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!