Release-Day eXcursion: Anno 2205

Anno 2205, Ubisoft Blue Byte’s sequel to Anno 2070, has just been released and while it’s not my favorite sequel of all time, it definitely comes close. That’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Anno 2205 Preview2015-10-29-20-11-23

Making a quality sequel is almost a more challenging endeavor in some ways than crafting the original entry, itself. The new game needs to be similar to the first, but not too similar. It has to look and feel like its predecessor, but also fix all the problems that held back the previous iteration. At the same time, the sequel must also improve on the previous installment, evolving the gameplay so that the new experience feels like it’s worth a fresh investment.

Make the new game too similar and you get the Madden series or Assassin’s Creed – a game that feels more like a full priced expansion pack than a new, unique release. Change too many things and fans will be alienated from the franchise – remember when XCOM: Enemy Within was going to be a first-person shooter? Was anyone happy with that?

The best sequels, though, do one other thing. To borrow a term from my advertising life, truly transcendent sequels “cannibalize” their predecessor. In other words, the new game is so good, it renders the original basically unplayable. Games like Age of Empires 2, Grand Theft Auto 3, Tie Fighter (the sequel to space shooter X-Wing) or even SimCity 2000 didn’t just take the original game and make it better, they redefined their entire respective series.

Anno 2205 does all of this: it keeps what was good, mostly fixes what was bad, and adds all sorts of potentially smart new ideas. It’s not the perfect sequel because there are some problems, but this is truly a triumph – exceeding my expectations for where the series was headed.

What they kept the same

It’s almost impossible to talk about Anno 2205 without referencing its direct predecessor, Anno 2070. 2070 came out four years ago. While 135 game-years have passed since the last entry, not much has changed. The world is still recovering from its near-drowning in 2070 and every action must be balanced against the risk of total environmental collapse. Players are again put on an island and tasked with building the futuristic city of their dreams.

Those expecting the intervening time to have significantly changed the look of the game will be disappointed. Oh, the graphics themselves are much improved – the game is downright beautiful – but it’s still houses and factories, roads and flying cars. If you want a bold vision of our future existence, you will be underwhelmed.

Oh crap, I built Atlanta

Oh crap, I built Atlanta

General gameplay, as well, is unchanged. Players are charged with building homes for workers, collecting resources, creating factories, making new products to fulfill their workers’ needs, then doing it all over again. The production trees appear to be different this time around, but it’s the just the same song played with different instruments.

The game rewards careful planning and a good amount of foresight. There are no “enemies,” just your own best effort. The game is a real challenge, however, and it definitely forced me to think hard about how I did things. Keeping a positive flow of money is key, but every action comes with associated, ongoing costs.

You earn funds (mostly) by building houses and taxing the residents. So, I build some houses. Ah, but those houses need power. I build a power plant. OK, good. However, all these new roads and buildings are overburdening my logistics (the ability for anyone to get anywhere on the map). That’s another new building, called the transport center, basically a futuristic bus stop. OK, all set. But all those people mean my food supplies are low. Another cannery will take more fish, so I’m expanding that entire operation. Also more power. More logistics. By the time I’ve done all that, I’m earning even less money than before!

Fail at building the ideal city, and you will watch as your metropolis slowly devolves into an underdeveloped, overly complex, bankrupt monstrosity. Y’know, like Detroit. Succeed and… well, you get to keep playing. So that’s cool.

That’s… a lot of OJ.

That’s… a lot of OJ.

Anno 2205 is a puzzle with multiple solutions and no perfect answer that constantly evolves to challenge the player’s idea of a winning strategy. That’s the fun part of this game, and it always has been; 2205 stays in its lane, as it should. In fact, it’s this overall commitment to reinforcing its strengths that makes the game so successful.

What was improved

For all the similarity, no one will ever be fooled into thinking they’re playing 2070. As I mentioned above, the graphics got kicked up more than a notch. The old game was pretty. 2205 is gorgeous. I have, on many occasions, just zoomed in and watched as my world raced by. I own a PS4, but this is the first game I’ve seen in the so-called “next gen” era that really blew me away visually.

Ah! Horrible UI flashback!

Ah! Horrible UI flashback!

More importantly, however, is what you won’t see – the developers did a fantastic job of taking the obese, unwieldy mess of a UI from the old game and getting it into lean, trim fighting form. Buttons are clear. Menus are simplified. Systems are intuitive and, just in case they’re not, everything is extremely well explained with clearly written mouseover tooltips and easily accessed screens.

Putting together a trade route used to be a complicated morass of multiple steps buried under layers of incomprehensible menus. And that was just one of three options depending on the type of route you were trying to create. The new system is just four clicks. Easy. Hell, even starting a game has gone from four unclearly named options to one simple one: click start, name your corporation, and begin dropping buildings.

Clear, easy to understand UI. The future really is better.

Clear, easy to understand UI. The future really is better.

Just about everything has been streamlined. There are no more factions with ill-defined similarities and differences. Combat and quests are still there, but changes have made them far less intrusive (I’ll explain more in a bit). Even the key bindings make more sense than before.

I’ll also point out that 2205 seems much less preachy than its predecessor. In my last article on Anno 2070, I mentioned its heavy-handed environmentalist message. There are still some far-from-subtle mentions of climate change and environmental responsibility, but the game’s not trying nearly as hard to push across its political/philosophical message. The guilt trip didn’t really bother me in the last game (though it seemed awfully hypocritical to make a game that kept people inside, burning precious electricity in order to lecture them about global warming), but if it bothered you, you’ll be glad to know it’s (mostly) gone.

I tried to be clever with my city layout. It… did not work.

I tried to be clever with my city layout. It… did not work.

In many ways, Anno 2070 felt like a 4X wannabe with eXploration, a very simple form of diplomacy, and some tacked-on combat just to round everything out. 2205 does away with most of that, focusing on what makes the game unique and great, and it is so so so much better for it. If this was all Ubisoft Blue Byte had done for 2205 – kept the key gameplay and removed the intrusive, obnoxious, incomprehensible UI – we’d have a pretty great game. They did more than that. Much more.

What they added

There are two new concepts in Anno 2205, and they’re both fantastic additions.

As I said, players start on an island in the middle of the ocean, rich with resources and completely undeveloped. Wow, deja vu. However, once they’ve mastered their initial island, players will be pulled away and dropped into two entirely different regions, each with their own unique challenges. By the end game, you’ll be running and balancing three cities at once, each with their own individual needs yet also interconnected. The Anno series was always about balancing – creating a productive, resource-rich city, while still staying as financially frugal as possible – but now players are asked to juggle multiple metropolises at the same time. The result is a three-ring circus’ worth of challenge and fun.

On the plus side, it’s really easy to harvest green cheese in this region.

On the plus side, it’s really easy to harvest green cheese in this region.

These two new regions – the Arctic and the Moon – really challenge the player to rethink how they build their cities. In the Arctic level, the polygonal people need to live near factories in order to stay warm. On the Moon, everything has to be built under shields to be safe from asteroids. These are not just aesthetic differences; they really alter gameplay and force new strategies. Buildings are also far less effective in the harsher climates. The range for most citizen-pleasing projects gets cut severely, making a map that is far more unforgiving. Also, costs get downright ridiculous. Doing everything correctly based on the Temperate template will make for a disaster of an Arctic city. Repeating your snowbound strategies in space will absolutely bankrupt your once-solid economy. You’re not just moving to a new art set, you’re almost ratcheting up the difficulty level – going from easy mode to hard to downright tortuous.

I’ll be honest, I’ve got Temperate pretty much mastered and I feel good about what I can do in the Arctic, but the Moon just kicks my butt every time out. Everything is so expensive and complex… I really feel like I’m doing this impossible undertaking and the challenge of it only increases the reward from doing it right.

Buffalo, New York in June.

Buffalo, New York in June.

Each region produces unique resources. While it isn’t always intuitive (e.g. bionic eyes can only be made in the Arctic, because game mechanic), it makes each region feel necessary and important. This feature also allows Anno to bring back the trade route features in a way that feels natural. People in the Arctic want fancy food like anyone else, but only the Temperate folks can make beef and wine. So players must build the meals in one region, then ship them to another. It’s another pretty little system that is oh, so satisfying to use. Jumping from region to region, watching the trade route come together and the Arctic people develop, it really feels like you’ve accomplished something more than just… I dunno, slapping a few pretend buildings down in a made-up city in your fake universe.

In fact, I like the regions so much that my biggest issue is that I wish there were more of them. Just two (in addition to the original island-y flavor) is almost disappointing. When I made it to the moon I was excited, but also sad… I wanted even more. This seems like the perfect opportunity for expansion packs. Why not desert regions or underwater or, dare I say it, Mars?

The other addition to the game is much smaller, but no less revolutionary. Most of the player’s buildings can now be upgraded using modules. So instead of building, say, tuna farm after tuna farm, the player can build one farm and then improve it. This adds a whole new challenge to placing buildings as players don’t just have to figure out where the building fits but have to plan for where its expansions will go, as well. Build everything too close, you’ll get a building stuck in its original form, and your whole economy can come crashing down.

This bad boy is just begging for two more digger-thingies.

This bad boy is just begging for two more digger-thingies.

The modules are the perfect example of what to do in an sequel – fixing a strategic problem while adding additional considerations for the player to work through. It’s another feature that just feels necessary in retrospect. I don’t ever want to play an Anno game without modules again.

What’s still missing

Anno 2205 is far from perfect, however, and many of the previous problems from 2070 continue to plague the game. It is still online-only. You must be connected to the Internet with Uplay running in the background to experience the full game. Yes, you can do most things offline, but there are several necessary features (notably the ability to trade excess resources for money) hidden behind the online wall. This is a remarkable frustration, especially since the developers dropped the option for multiplayer play entirely. All I want is to be able to build cities on my laptop while riding on the train. That’s really so much to ask, Ubi?

Combat and quests, everyone’s least favorite features, also return in 2205. Quests are almost completely unchanged from 2070. Other corporations will appear on the player’s map and ask for favors. There are only two quests, by the way: a crappy pixel hunt with your mouse or sending your corporate yacht all over the place to… also hunt for pixels. This kind of gameplay was unacceptable in the ‘90s, people, now it’s practically insulting.

This dude looks so much like my cousin, it’s really creepy.

This dude looks so much like my cousin, it’s really creepy.

The developers made the quests less intrusive to the game overall – you can choose to complete them or not without consequences. However, at the same time, they made the quests absolutely indispensable. You see, in order to add modules to your buildings, you need certain resources. The only way to get those resources? Complete quests. So, sure, you can skip these entirely pointless, annoying, time-wasting features, so long as you don’t mind having a messed up, unprofitable city. What. The. Hell!

Combat, at least, has changed significantly. Instead of warring with other factions, there’s a story about separatist lunar terrorists out to sabotage your oh-so-invasive city. The battles take place on a separate map, almost like a scenario or an instance. Further, every combat mission (except for the first) can be skipped with no consequences to the overall growth of your metropolis. Once again, it’s all naval battles. There are no troops or planes or anything. Apparently all war will be water-based in the future. Better start the swimming lessons now!

I’m on a boat to battle?

I’m on a boat to battle?

That’s not to say the experience hasn’t been improved upon. Instead of just click and watch, the player has several strategic options including missile launches and shields that can be implemented at key moments. It’s a lot more engaging and active. Sometimes it’s even fun.

But you know what? Combat still feels ancillary and moving this part of the game to it’s own separate corner just makes it feel like even more of an afterthought. Fighting just doesn’t feel like an organic fit in the Anno universe – more like something some dudebro up at corporate insisted on adding because “people only buy stuff with ‘splosions” or some similar BS.

Some of the more modern features you might expect from this game are also missing. As I said before, multiplayer is no longer an option. I don’t really feel MP’s absence, but that’s because I play games to avoid my fellow humans, not engage with them more. Some people certainly played 2070 with friends and they’re officially SOL. Options to customize maps or add/remove certain rules are also not present. Want continents instead of islands? Prefer to just mess around in a sandbox mode? Too bad, buddy. In fact, there’s very little that allows players to personalize their experience.

To that end, there don’t appear to be any modding tools available, either. Not that that’s stopped homebrewers before, but it’s going to be a lot harder to do without any of the usual tools provided. I have no idea if this is something the developers are planning to add, but it feels like the kind of thing we might see in a DLC release.

Walking on the moon. Sting would be so pleased.

Walking on the moon. Sting would be so pleased.

What I’d like them to fix

Sadly, my favorite addition to the game, the regions, also leads to my biggest complaint. Moving to another region requires backing out of a city to a larger menu screen then choosing and loading the other region. It makes everything feel uneven and the load times can be particularly galling. All I want to do is make sure my moon miners are getting their precious medical supplies, a five-second thing, but I have to stare at a boring screen for far too long while the region loads. All the waiting can really pull you out of the experience. Games like this are all about keeping you immersed in their universe. The regions often have the opposite effect, constantly giving you an excuse to just stop playing and move on to something else rather than keep at it.

I also found a few other, admittedly smaller, issues in my time with the game.

I ran into one significant bug. After playing for around four hours straight, the game becomes convinced that it is no longer online, against all evidence to the contrary. This happened just about every time I played for a long period. It’s not a disaster – more of a grease fire in the kitchen than a burning, world-ending conflagration – but still. It’s like Ubisoft is trolling me, not only making me play a single-player game online, but then telling me I’m not connected when I am. Fortunately, a quick reboot fixes the problem.

Bionic eyes are a dish best served cold. It is very cold, in iiiiiiiiiice

Bionic eyes are a dish best served cold. It is very cold, in iiiiiiiiiice

I also encountered some mild freezing on big graphical moments like the first appearance of large structures – nothing that didn’t shake loose after a second and probably more related to my aging computer than any issues with the code. The game is really, virtually bug-free. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but these days it’s practically a religious experience to fire up a game and have it work right.

A few of the changes also introduce new issues. For all the additional content, there are times the game actually feels smaller this time around. There are several different maps for each region, but you’re drawing from that same limited pool every game. There are no procedurally generated maps. So if you choose temperate option #3, it will always have the same geography. Once players “solve” a map, they’ve solved it in perpetuity. It makes the game seem a little more limited, like at some point there will be no more challenges left.

Floaty car traffic. Not nearly as bad as regular car traffic.

Floaty car traffic. Not nearly as bad as regular car traffic.

Finally, there are places where the economics feel unbalanced. For example, there are modules that can reduce the cost of power plants by 50%. Buying the upgrades, however, is prohibitively expensive: it’s five modules of 10% cost reduction at 400 pretend bucks a pop. At that rate, players won’t recoup their investment before an hour and a half has passed. I understand that 2205 is a long game, but that seems a little… off. Nothing is totally tipped – certainly the balance doesn’t ever get bad enough to be unplayable or break features entirely, but I do think there’s some adjusting that needs to be done to make things work as they ought.

What’s left?

Anno 2205 is not perfect. It is, however, a ton of fun. I’ve already introduced my wife to the game (a true sign of my approval), and I have no doubt both she and I will be making moon cities far into the future. The game is really challenging in all the best ways and it begs you to come back and try a different solution, to improve your cities, to get better and better at creating this unreal reality.

Beyond the usual bug fixes and overall improvements, I have a wishlist for future content. As I said above, I’d really like to see more regions added with their associated challenges. Having to keep my citizens cool in a desert location or create little underwater domes for a city under the seas is really appealing. I’d also like the developers to add a way for me to gather the rare resources needed for modules without forcing me into quests or combat. I don’t want to schlep all over creation just to install one lousy, extra orange grove. It’s not fun, it’s not engaging, it’s an immersion-killing annoyance. Lastly, if there’s one disappointment I have with the game overall is that we’re playing in a future 200 years from now and yet it often feels very… everyday. Some cool sci-fi stuff, cribbed from the universe of surrounding media, would really make me feel like I’m far, far, into humanity’s future. I’m not saying I need space lasers (OK, I totally need space lasers), but what about some buildings that create wormholes, allowing me to farm resources from an alternate universe? What about a way to attract aliens to my cities, allowing for new civilian abilities but also raising tensions, forcing me to spread out the settlements?

A whole menu of blue arrows. That’s what we like to see.

A whole menu of blue arrows. That’s what we like to see.

There are already some really amazing ideas in Anno 2205, and I can’t wait to see where the developers take things. Some sequels looked like mistakes at first release (*cough* Civ V *cough*), but evolved into something amazing with expansions. Anno 2205 is already great and I have very high hopes for its future. In a few years, we may be talking about this game as an all time classic. Right now, it’s already my favorite, not just in the series, but in the entire city-building genre. The fun of city building combined with the economic depth makes for a game I’ll come back to often.

TL;DR: Anno 2205 is a fantastic sequel that improves on everything from the previous game and adds some truly interesting and fun new gameplay features along the way.

You might like this game if:

  • You enjoyed Anno 2070, even a little bit.
  • You’re into economic simulations.
  • You find joy in creating perfectly balanced systems.
  • You like nothing more than spending hours at your screen, playing god with imaginary people’s lives.

You might NOT like this game if:

  • You cannot bear DRM.
  • You only like games where you get to blow stuff up.
  • You must have multiplayer in your games.
  • You preferred the 4X-esque aspects of Anno 2070.
  • You feel like $59.99 is a lot to spend.

Joshua has played for 25+ hours on a custom-built Maingear X-Cube with an AMD Phenom II X4 processor, 8 GB DDR3 RAM and a Radeon HD 5800

Categories: eXcursions

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