Do you remember the first time you played Sim City or Civilization? The joys of constructing buildings, improving your city (or civilization) and helping it prosper are sometimes hard to remember. Instead, we recall the frustrating gameplay, convoluted menus and poorly designed battle systems that have plagued the second-rate imitations that have flooded the market in recent years. Luckily, 1701 A.D. manages to breathe life back into this crowded-but-listless genre. You won't see any far out gimmicks or genre breaking features - just good solid gameplay that's well balanced, challenging and a whole lot of fun.
The game takes place during the age of exploration, in which you must build your fledgling colony into a thriving medieval metropolis by providing your people with the goods they need through trade and or brute force. Each map is littered with islands, and you'll start off with pioneers who have basic needs on one of them.
After you successfully create the infrastructure to produce the basic goods your pioneers want such as food, cloth, and religion, they will upgrade to settlers who have additional needs such as education, tobacco, and alcohol. Eventually, your settlers will upgrade to civilians, merchants, and finally aristocrats - who have the most demanding needs in the game.
A famous poet once said that "no man is an island" and the same holds true for your colony. Each island contains the basic natural resources you'll need to keep your pioneers happy. However, they only have two to three resources that are necessary to produce goods that will allow you to advance past the settler level. This means that spreading out and interacting with other players through trade or violence is not only necessary, but inevitable.
This is where 1701 A.D. truly shines by providing balanced gameplay. Do you attack another player to take over an island that is rich in gems or marble? Do you establish a trade agreement and pay a higher price for rum so you can further develop your tobacco making infrastructure? Or do you race around the map and establish yourself on the juiciest islands with whales for lamp oil and perfume, or honey and cocoa for making desserts?
The answer? All of the above. Aggressive players will enjoy laying waste to towns with warships and cavalry, and forcing the pirate factions into submission through brute force which will allow their trading ships free passage. Sneaky players can plant saboteurs to disrupt manufacturing facilities or pickpockets to siphon gold into their own coffers without the other player being any wiser. And pacifists can quickly expand and establish themselves with the most diverse infrastructures on multiple islands and secure lucrative trading routes.
You can get away with focusing on conquering the map through force or occupying the most islands first. But that's only if you're playing by yourself or against the computer on easy. Just about every civilization sim offers these sorts of combat and building aspects of gameplay. But it's rare that you find one that encourages you to explore both without making you feel frustrated and boxed in.
You can also butt heads with up to four players online in either co-op or versus modes with various conditions for victory. But if that's not your cup of tea, there are lots of single player missions to dig into for a more structured and shorter session. In one mission, we found ourselves stranded on an island with a huge volcano and we were charged with upgrading our colony and building a ship so that our people could escape before fiery lava death rained down on our town.
Unfortunately, not all of the single player missions are this exciting and a lot of them have similar objectives. Also, no matter which mode you play, your colony will almost certainly end up with the same boxy look as the cities you've built in other sims as you attempt to crowd as many housing structures near the ones that provide benefits to your people.
Still, these minor flaws are easily forgivable. The game looks great. Trees sway in the wind, seagulls circle your fishing wharves, and dolphins playfully swim by your ships. Also, if you do a particularly good or poor job of managing your colony, you can zoom in to get a close view of special events like the beer wagon coming to town or angry protests where sign waving mobs begin torching your buildings. Even though you've done the whole "construct buildings, connect them with roads and upgrade them" thing before, 1701 A.D. has captured the best of the civilization building genre. It doesn't leave any gaps in gameplay that will allow you to exploit a particular way of playing and serves up a challenging and fun experience that will have you mesmerized for hours on end.