I used to like The Settlers. I played it on the PC many years ago (I think the bulk of my exposure came from The Settlers II & III). It's traditionally a slow game; an experience to savour over extended periods of play. It's not a game about explosions and action; The Settlers is more about tending to your community, by nurturing it and encouraging growth. It's all about taking your time.
You could argue that The Settlers has shaped the current real-time strategy landscape more than nearly every other title in the genre. The ideas implemented by Blue Byte in the first games have since gone on to be used by nearly every world-builder since. It is not a surprise then, that in the ever-changing modern landscape, someone at Ubisoft Blue Byte put two and two together and realised just how perfect The Settlers would be for the browser gaming generation.
Games like CityVille and FarmVille have proved massively popular on Facebook. While they might not be my cup of tea, the numbers can't be ignored (CityVille currently has more than 49 million users). In the knowledge that The Settlers Online had similar leanings, I was initially unsure I would enjoy the game. Happily, this wasn't to be the case.
First off the bat; this is definitely a Settlers game. The animations are simplistic, but detailed and endearingly reminiscent of the games that I enjoyed so long ago. Life bumbles along merrily at its own speed and when things eventually happen, it's never at a high-octane pace.
There are three speeds to play TSO; very slowly, slowly or medium. There's no fast setting here, so gamers who prefer an instant fix of action should probably run for the trees. Although it is entirely possible to play TSO without paying a single a penny, playing the game without any investment would result in an incredibly slow experience. The time it takes for buildings to be constructed, or for units to carry out tasks, can be excruciating at first, especially as you try to get established.
I quickly fast-forwarded up to slowly, and started using some of my credits to speed up the creation of some essential buildings. I wasn't really conscious of the financial cost of these actions, I just wanted to get started. Slowly buildings started to spring up here and there; my settlement was starting to take shape.
It wasn't long though, before I started to get a little restless. It's all very well playing an elongated tutorial, but I'd been using credits up and I wanted to get on with things. It was at this point that I started to throw some serious money at proceeding. I built a barracks and started the process of recruiting some soldiers (and for soldiers you need beer, so up went the brewery). It wasn't long before I'd spent nearly 40% of my credits, but at least things were heading in the right direction.
Coughing up the dough
Having spent such a sizeable chunk of my funds, it was about time that I checked how much my credits were actually worth. I'd spent quite a lot of my allowance, and I wanted to see what this would convert to into cash. I left it late to check this on purpose; I wanted to see how my attitude changed to the game when I could make a monetary assessment of how much each action was actually costing.
The in-game currency system comes in the form of blue gems. You buy these in varying quantities, and use these gems to speed up action, buy units and stock up on resources. You can buy different amounts of credit, but 5600 gems will set you back £25. It turns out that in my spending spree, I'd pumped about £10 into my little villiage. I was a bit surprised.
At this point I started to take things a bit more carefully. I had a steady stream of resources coming in and I wanted to hold on to the credits I had left for entering into the game proper. I started the process of clearing out the surrounding bandit camps and expanding my borders, but I did so slowly, coming in under budget, holding on to the rest of my blue jewels for use at a later date.
There are other ways of getting the materials you need to build an empire; by trading resources with other players I was able to get rid of some of my reserves of Fir wood planks, swapping them for much needed copper and marble. These in game transactions are likely to prove popular with players and should bring about the kind of cooperative gameplay that these type of browser games rely upon to survive.
At some point, about five or six hours in, I really started caring about my little community. I didn't expect that, if I'm honest. It bugged me when my little recruits got killed in battle with local bandits, and I was annoyed if my mills weren't working because they were out of grain. Rectifying problems became compulsive, and with so much going on, there's always something going wrong.
Then I discovered roads. I hadn't bothered with them at first, I'd just focussed on the buildings, units and resources. In truth, I don't know how I missed them. At first I put up a town square round the well, and linked it to the Mayor's house; the central hub of my village. Suddenly I felt compelled to establish a full network of paths, linking all of my buildings up. As they are free, you can make as many roads as you need. It took me a while, but it was a worthwhile labour of love. My villiage was fast turning into a town.
Is it worth taking a look at the beta? That's the ultimate question. And if it is, is it worth investing some cash into? I found the allowance given to me very helpful in speeding up parts of the game that would've otherwise required a significant investment of time and patience. But once I had spent that initial wedge, when everything was up and running, I found myself enjoying the experience of growing my community. It is much easier to do that organically when a solid infrastructure is in place, and that takes either time or cash (or a careful mixture of both).
Normally, when you buy a game, you just stump up the cash and buy your disc/download. TSO has a very different way of charging you. At first I was resistant to their method, but having played the game for a few hours, I have warmed to the idea. It's not the rip-off I initially suspected, it's just a different way of paying for your gaming. With competition in the marketplace fierce, who can blame Ubisoft and Blue Byte for seeking out alternative revenue streams?
At the end of the day, a title is only going to attract a large following of dedicated supporters if it is a solid game. In this respect, TSO is an enjoyable experience, and should find its way onto the browsers of many a casual gamer. The addictive gameplay, as well as the ability to trade surplus resources with other players online, means that TSO is likely to attract a strong following.
Once things get going, TSO is an engrossing game. It sucked me in; eventually I began to care, and I didn't realise it had happened until after the event. Maybe it was the point that I started looking for things for my settlers to do so as to lower unemployment? Or it could have been when I started to put down wheat fields so my men could drink more grog. I'm really not sure. All I know is that it happened, and from now on, I'll keep checking in on my settlers to see how they're doing. Ubisoft Blue Byte has got me hook, grind and tinker.