Do you remember where you were back in August 2018? It might seem like a silly question, but it's actually a topical one, because August 21, 2018 was the exact date that Ubisoft, as part of its Gamescom appearance that year, announced The Settlers, a game which will serve as a return to this iconic franchise almost 30 years after the original launched back in 1993. Despite that announcement happening three and half years ago, Ubisoft is finally gearing up to release this game, and ahead of that date (which will be March 17, 2022), I've had the chance to get hands-on to check out the title, right ahead of its Closed Beta, which will be happening next week (between January 20-24).
Even though we've known about The Settlers for some time now, Ubisoft has been quite stingy when it comes to dishing out the details. So let me help rectify that a bit. The Settlers is a real-time strategy game that tasks the player with commanding and leading a group of well... settlers, as they venture to a new land to create a new home for their people. While you might be thinking this is a 4X strategy game at this point, something along the lines of Civilization, The Settlers isn't. While there are elements that are similar, for example scouting new land to grow your borders and claim new resources, the gameplay is designed from the ground-up to suit cooperative or multiplayer action. What I mean by this, is that a match is played between opposing factions, with the two sides competing to remove the other from one island, with matches usually lasting up to an hour or maybe two, depending on how quickly you can start claiming and taking territory.
To be clear, while the full game will include a campaign, as part of this preview, I've only been able to test the Skirmish mode, which included the option to play either a 1v1 or a 2v2 against other players or AI, as one of two factions (the Elari and Maru) on two different maps (although I only ever got to play one of those maps). So with that in mind, everything here will be framed around this experience.
With that out of the way, how does a game usually work you ask? Well, you start with a skeleton crew of people; a few soldiers to protect your lands, a few engineers to start creating buildings, and regular people to do the monotonous work such as felling trees and making logs into planks for construction. From here, it's your duty to begin creating a population that can protect and support itself, by building farms to produce food, quarries and mines to dig up vital and important ores and minerals, and towers and other defensive structures to ward off the opposing faction, as examples. The idea of expanding is that you can start creating an autonomous civilization who will continuously gather resources from the land so that you can fund and create an army that you control, who will either defend your borders or instead go on the offensive to destroy your opponents structures, all in the aim of winning the match.
As for how you go about winning a match, as far as I'm aware (and I phrase it like this because The Settlers' tutorials are quite frankly abysmal and fail to teach you pretty much anything about how to win a game), this requires you to destroy all of the opposing factions' warehouses - which are essentially buildings that act as bases where you store resources. These are generally well protected and nestled deep inside the enemy's lands, meaning you'll need quite the formidable army to be able to march in, defeat the opposing army, crush any defending structures, all to have a crack at reducing one of usually multiple warehouses to ashes.
Looking at gameplay as a whole, there's not actually a lot to harp on about. The majority of the base building is done by simply selecting a type of building and then dropping it in the place you want it built. Engineers will then construct it, and available workers will then ensure its operational, to be able to produce the resource you're after. This could be fish as a food source, or iron bars, made from iron ore and coal, to be able to manufacture swords necessary for the creation of warrior units. It may seem complicated at first, but after a few games, it all makes complete sense.
In terms of exploration and combat, this has a little more freedom. The jack-of-all-trades Engineers can be told to expand borders and to survey ore veins to discover new resources, and likewise can check out various points of interest on a map (for example, shipwrecks or bandit camps) to locate goodies to help advance your civilization a tad. Armies and soldiers on the other hand need to be commanded. They need to be told who to attack and when to attack, but the actual action of swinging swords and drawing bows is done automatically. Essentially the strategy is your duty, with the hard work handled by the tiny AI soldiers. There is some extra depth here, largely revolving around the more premium troops such as healers and siege units, who have special abilities (i.e. creating damage boosting auras) that can be issued as commands or left to be automated. But all in all, it's worth noting that the combat is not massively diverse or packed, it's designed to be as simple and straightforward as possible, which makes it easier to grasp, even if it does feel lacking in options at times.
In fact, that very thought of the combat lacking in options can largely be expanded to the entirety of The Settlers' experience. While the game looks great, played without many performance issues, and has a charm to it, I can't help but shake the opinion that after around five games, I'd seen everything that The Settlers had to offer. Again, it's worth noting that there will be other game modes come launch, but from what I've seen, the core experience seems quite limited and rudimentary.
The rudimentary nature extends to some of the gameplay design choices as well, as the map isn't crammed with resources, even though it may look like it on the surface. There are trees that can be cut down and as I mentioned earlier a few (I really do mean a few) ore veins and stone outcrops to harvest, but for the most part, you won't be doing a whole lot bar waiting for your settlers to gather resources so you can create an army to finally win the game. But for me, the biggest concern I have about The Settlers isn't it's limited content, but rather the pacing of the gameplay. Unlike a lot of strategy games, as this is real-time and a competitive title, there is no fast-forward button, meaning you will be spending a massive amount of time waiting, and that can be very tiring and dull to deal with.
I don't dislike The Settlers, in fact, I think it's quite an interesting and unique concept that isn't really explored a lot in the industry (Dwarfheim may be the most recent and relatable title to The Settlers out there). But, at the same time, as of right now, I can't see this game being anything truly special as it just doesn't have much depth at all. The campaign may turn this take on its head, but if the Skirmish mode is the best of what we have to look forward to, then I wouldn't recommend holding your breath on this one.