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Anno Online Review
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Anno Online Review

Release Date:  May 15, 2013
Publisher:  Ubisoft
Developer:  Ubisoft Blue Byte
Genre:  Strategy
Sponsor:

Anno Online is a new strategy game by German developer Ubisoft Blue Byte. It features social elements and is played entirely in your browser. It has been in closed beta for a while, but the English beta just opened to the public on May 14th. For those unfamiliar with the name, Anno is a series of city-building real-time strategy games that is nearly 15 years old. Anno Online is the eighth entry in the series. Read on to take a look at what Anno Online has to offer and find out how well it survived the transition of becoming browser-based and free-to-play.

Review:

The game starts with you gaining ownership of an island. Your task is to begin a settlement there and help it flourish. As the settlement expands and becomes more advanced, it will become a village, a city, and eventually a sprawling metropolis with territory across multiple islands. Gameplay is very simple, almost everything is accomplished by left clicking on buildings, buttons, and undeveloped land.

The tutorial consists of an NPC advisor providing you with very simple missions. The tutorial guides you through the construction of several basic buildings, explains what they do, and teaches you how to navigate the game’s menus. If you’ve ever played a casual social game, the formula should be recognizable: accomplish a super easy mission that teaches you a bit about the game, collect your reward of in-game resources, receive another mission. After you’ve got the basics down, the advisor will show you how to add him as a friend and then invite you to visit his island. The screen transitions from your tiny settlement to an island filled to its every edge with better-looking buildings and far busier streets. Panning around his island gives a teasing preview of what greatness your tiny settlement could someday achieve.

When you return to your island, you’ll find more missions waiting for you. The tutorial has ended so you can perform tasks in any order you feel like. The post-tutorial missions are a little more complex, but still feel like more of the same thing. The missions cover what you’re going to do next anyway: collect a certain amount of resources, build a certain building, reach a certain population size. It becomes apparent that completing these missions is all you’ll be doing for a while. Only a handful of missions in, you are going to hit a wall when you don’t have enough wood to do anything besides wait for more wood. The game has many different resources, but wood is the most important and is needed to build almost every building in the game. Unfortunately, wood collection by your lumberjacks is on a timer. Resources will continue to pile up while you are away from the game, but this set up is really disappointing as it places Anno Online closer to Farmville than the real-time strategy found in the Anno series.

In fact, Anno Online is not a real-time strategy game. Unlike each of the previous installments in the series, there are no units to control here. Anno has always been a clever hybridization of real-time strategy (including combat), city-building, and economic simulation. Anno Online strips away the real-time strategy and trades it in for timers. This is really disappointing because it eliminates an enormous amount of decision-making on the player’s part. Surely there are better ways to convert a game to free-to-play and give it a social layer. There are timers to gather resources, explore more of your island, and discover new islands. Thankfully, Anno Online does not make you wait for buildings to be constructed.

Anno Online features a shop where you can buy premium currency—rubies—that allows you to work around all the timers. Rubies can be used to buy resources, explore your island instantly, buy faster boats, double your production rate for 24 hours, and buy new islands outright. All of those purchases allow players to pay real money to play the game less, which inevitably leads to bad game design. Of course, this monetization model is everywhere in today’s “freemium” games—and it works. Blue Byte can’t be blamed if the executives at Ubisoft want to make a buck using this proven monetization model. The various bundles range from 900 rubies for $4.99 to 25,000 rubies for $99.99 (38% more rubies per dollar). There are several bundles in between, each with a better ruby-to-dollar rate than the last. Rubies can also be used to purchase decorations for the island and I’m totally okay with that. The sale of aesthetic items provides a way for players to express their love for the game, support the studio, customize their islands, and all without discouraging actual gameplay!

Being browser-based actually works really well for Anno Online. The graphics are great (for a browser-based game), load times are reasonable, and everything runs really smoothly even when the game is taking up almost your whole screen. The game requires Flash, so while the move to browsers will bring in players on other operating systems, it will continue to exclude many mobile devices. Despite that, I think the move to the browser was a great idea. Your save is kept online so it is quick and easy to access from any computer.

The art of the game is done in isometric 2D. You can zoom in quite close to examine your settlement and everything still looks great. Unfortunately, praise for the graphics must include the caveat that the graphics are good for a browser-based game. The graphics are pretty boring and just don’t compare to those in modern games, 2D or 3D. Instead, the graphics are reminiscent of Age of Empires II (coming up on 14 years old), though they are admittedly more realistic and at a higher resolution. People move busily about your island. What the people on the screen are doing has no effect on the game, but it’s a nice touch that makes your village look alive. The music fits the theme and doesn’t get annoying. It is otherwise unremarkable.

Over the course of play, I encountered several buggy moments when clicks would either do nothing or would open a menu I did not click on. These bugs were infrequent and did not severely impede gameplay. Every time I experienced a buggy click, I could work around it by simply clicking again. A few minor bugs during beta testing are not concerning and I am sure they will be addressed before the game is fully released.

Anno Online attempts to straddle the gap between casual free-to-play and hardcore strategy games. My biggest concern is that Ubisoft let this become a casual free-to-play game that added a few elements from strategy games instead of the other way around. Undoubtedly, this is a better and more strategic game than Farmville, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that you are just clicking on everything that needs your attention instead of making any important decisions. There is no way to fail, so progress relies almost entirely on your time, not your choices.

To be fair, strategy is not entirely absent. When your settlement hits certain population milestones, it will be promoted to the next rank. At each rank, you will gain access to more buildings and people will become more demanding about what resources they need before they will move to your island. At first, having a place to live and fish to eat is sufficient. Eventually, people will require milk, security, a place to worship, wool clothing, and more. Each building has an area of influence. For churches and markets, the area of influence determines how many residencies they can benefit. For lumberjack cabins and fisherman huts, the area determines which of the island’s resources they will have be able to harvest. Placing your buildings so that they cover the maximum area without interfering with each other is a fun puzzle that requires some strategic planning. Determining your rate of expansion requires some strategy too. Ideally, you will expand as quick as possible, because higher populations bring in more income, but if you expand too fast you can drive your net income into negative numbers and severely hamper your growth.

The game’s social elements are currently limited to text-based chat, private messages, and the trade of goods. Because islands can be customized and the game lets you visit the island of your NPC friend, it is very likely that Blue Byte will eventually add the ability for players to visit each other’s islands. The chat is split into a global channel and a help channel. Players in both channels were friendly and helpful.

Ultimately, Anno Online is a city-builder that is casual, social, and free-to-play. It has lost most of the strategic elements of its predecessors. That seems like a huge missed opportunity to me, especially because I think players who are already fans of the Anno series will be sorely disappointed. Moving past that missed opportunity, Anno Online is actually one of the best casual free-to-play games I’ve played. The decisions are thin, but still far more interesting (and far prettier) than the likes of Farmville and Mafia Wars. If you enjoy the relatively mindless games of clicking objects until your next promotion, Anno Online is really quite a tolerable iteration of the formula. It’s sad that this is even something to get excited about, but I really enjoy that buildings don’t take hours to be constructed. It is nice to be able to use your new buildings as soon as you’ve earned them! Anno Online does a good job of providing you with plenty to do. Across hours of playing, there were only a couple of times that I had nothing to do but wait.

Signing up is free. If it sounds like something you might like, give it a try! You can register a new account or sign in with an existing Ubisoft Uplay account at the Anno Online site . If you register by May 21st, you will receive “the swift and mighty golden ship”! There will be no reset when the game goes live, so all of the progress you make during the closed beta will be saved!

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