Review: The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom

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Sometimes it is even harder to be a Mac/PC game reviewer than it is to be a Mac/PC gamer – and that is pretty tough by itself! I think we’re all past the ‘PC r ded’ crap and have seen an amazing resurgence of interest and development over the last several years. Also, similar to what they are doing on all platforms, the big publishers are trying to find a way to monetize everything we do in games, to the point of having people showing up in camps in Dragon Age selling $7 add-on DLC!

However, unlike other platforms, the last decade has brought a nearly constant onslaught of new and even more draconian DRM (digital rights management) – from serial numbers to SecuROM to StarForce, each has done more to thwart paying customers from playing games while doing little to stop pirates from stealing games. Sites such as Steam mitigate this by registering a game to your account and letting you install and uninstall at will – and can even use the game in ‘off-line’ mode so long as you connect occasionally. The latest DRM scheme accompanies The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom – a combination of serial number, online authentication, and the new requirement that your internet connection ALWAYS be on and connected to Ubisoft, even when playing the single player game.

The impact to me as a reviewer is that I can no longer simply tell you if the game is any good – I have to talk about the DRM and any interactions with DRM and hardware. In addition, since this is a Mac game that was created using the Cider ‘wrapper’ from Transgaming, I need to address how badly the performance is impacted, since there is an inherent degradation. Since I also own a copy of the PC version I was able to do a direct comparison on the same computer.

But let’s start with the game itself.

Once you get the game started (just launching the game was terribly slow and seemingly unresponsive at times), the first thing you’ll notice are the gorgeous graphics. Everything in the world is drawn in stunning detail, and that detail just improves as you zoom in on areas. The different areas you explore are distinctly drawn and very colorful, and the animations used for all of the characters make the world feel alive.

The dialogue and voice acting are also very engaging and matched perfectly for the time period depicted. The soundtrack and environmental sounds, however, are fairly lackluster and forgettable.

In the single player campaign, you take on the role of Princess Zoe. Zoe is tasked with reuniting the lands, and this serves as the primary solo gameplay, a means of unlocking content for the sandbox mode and multiplayer, and also a tutorial for the multiplayer modes. If that sounds underwhelming, it is – this mode is short and lacks any reason to replay.

The gameplay is similar to most games in the civilization/city building genre: you start off by creating buildings which will attract settlers to the area. Then you need to harvest food resources to keep them fed, build more buildings to house the expanding population and ancillary buildings to attract more and more. Eventually you can build your army which will then be able to help you expand your territory by attacking other villages.

While in theory there are diplomatic options, they are very much secondary. In fact, early on you are told by an adviser that the best path to diplomacy is through military strength. In the wake of the depth provided by Civ IV and its expansions, I found this rather disappointing.

The main draw for this game is the economic simulation, and that is where the game delivers its best performance. Fundamentally this is a game about choices and balancing your options to produce optimal results. Since there is an emphasis on growth through combat, it makes sense that you will need to build an army and increase their might with better armor and weapons. But to do that you need to build and stock a smithy, and in turn you need to supply your blacksmith with the raw materials to create those weapons and armor. See where this is going? And there is finite space and resources to work with. Every bit of space you use for farmland (to produce grain for food for the townspeople and soldier and so on) is space you can’t build housing and barracks, and on and on.

For many gamers, this sort of game is all about multiplayer. There are skirmishes as well as full-on competitive multiplayer. In multiplayer you have the same basic constraints and priorities of building up your village and working towards expanding your sphere of influence in order to eventually conquer your enemies. It is fun to watch other folks making the exact same stupid mistakes in terms of allocating resources!

I mentioned the sandbox mode, which allows you to just have a great time building and expanding without the constraints of story or the competition of multiplayer. Of course, in order to get anywhere, you need to unlock stuff in the single player game, which really pushes you to complete the campaign before just noodling around in the open world. Personally, I have never been big on these ‘free play’ modes in city builders, so as always I played for a bit, got bored, and went back to more single player. But I know folks who adore the freedom, so it is nice that they included it.

Overall, though, the game feels small and shallow. There is a short single player campaign with little reason to replay, a limited sandbox mode, some reasonable multiplayer…and not much else. The graphics engine is quite nice, but it just feels like there could have been so much more.

OK … now to the Mac port and the infamous DRM.

When I first got this game it wouldn’t work. Well, it would launch, and give me a warning about needing Mac OS X 10.6.3 – which hadn’t been released yet. After that it would play, but the performance and glitches were terrible to the point that I just stopped trying until installing the OS update. At that point things worked much better, and overall I found the performance in terms of bugginess and stability to be about the same as the PC version … which really isn’t such a great compliment. I had a few crashes, but more often saw graphics glitches and textures that would blink in and out, and other graphical oddities. In terms of overall performance, the Mac version was DEFINITELY slower than the PC version, so I would call this a ‘mediocre Cider port’.

As for the DRM … it is intolerable and unacceptable. The DRM is this: you need to go through all of the normal serial number and online activation hoops, but beyond that you also need to have a constant internet connection to Ubisoft’s servers. If that connection drops – ON EITHER END – you are booted out of your game. Originally the boot-out would lose all progress from the prior checkpoint, but an update made it so the game state was saved at the moment of connection loss…which was at least a step in the right direction.

It was reported that the new DRM system was cracked on the day of release for both Assassin’s Creed II and this game, which was made worse the following week when Ubisoft’s servers experienced issues and many folks were unable to connect and therefore unable to play. I was amongst those who tried to play the game and while my internet connection was fine, I couldn’t even get started.

I was very hard on Dragon Age based on things outside of the core game, so I want to be clear that my ‘Skip It’ rating is NOT based solely on the DRM scheme. While I abhor the DRM and find it unacceptable, if a good game used this system I would have no problem giving it a ‘Buy’ rating – but with plenty of warning. But this game is not all that good – in fact, if I was reviewing the PC version I would only give it a soft ‘Try It’ rating based on the game quality. To be clear, this game falls far short of the standard set by the best games in the genre, and I personally would much rather spent my time playing Majesty 2 and the recent Kingmaker expansion (review here).

But taking a mediocre game, and killing performance with an unoptimized Cider wrapper and leaving the entire thing too buggy, then overlaying an abusive DRM system makes for an intolerable situation. The Settlers 7 fails as a game to live up to the expectations set by some of the earlier games in the series – but frankly, it has been a long time since the franchise posted a decent entry, and The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom doesn’t change that.

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Pros:
+ Gorgeous graphics
+ Deep economic simulation
+ Excellent balance of economic system makes multiplayer about player choices

Cons:
– World’s worst DRM system…ever!
– Mac port lags in performance – and didn’t work reasonably until latest Mac OS X patch
– Short single player campaign with no replayability

Game Info:
Platform: PC, Mac
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Blue Byte
Release Date: 3/25/2010
Genre: Strategy/City Building
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-4
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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!