Let's face it, if a game gets as far as a fourth incarnation, it must have something going for it. The cute cartoon-style Settlers series might not be everyone's cuppa, particularly when you go up against epiclooking titles like Cossack. But as always there's only one thing that really counts and that's gameplay.
As you'd expect, S4 is an empire-building game with its accent being on creating a sound economy from which to wage war on your opponents. In fact, it's perfectly possible to play without lifting a sword in anger, even against other humans, thanks to the free-settling mode in which the winner is the one with the biggest and best settlement at the end of the game.
To do this, you have to gather raw materials from the surrounding area, occupy land to provide space for your buildings and organise a complicated series of production chains to turn things like wood, stone and iron ore into tools, weapons and eventually war machines and ships. Unlike in Age Of Empires and its clones, you don't give your individual settlers instructions to 'chop wood' or 'mine stone' -you simply put up the relevant building and watch them do whatever is necessary to get them producing.
There's an incredible amount to do in S4, with a total of 32 raw materials, goods, tools and weapons to micro-manage, some 48 buildings types to think about, 36 settler types, eight warrior types, nine ships and vehicles and 11 different tools and weapons.
Wood and stone are the primary building materials, although you'll quickly need to mine coal, iron, gold and sulphur to build the best stuff. You can also build grain farms, waterworkers' huts and mills to create bread, manage pigs or sheep from the farm to the slaughterhouse to feed your miners, and grow vines to create alcohol to curry favour with your gods. Eventually you'll have to build storage sites because production stops quickly if the goods aren't carried away from the place of production. Only miners actually consume food but you need the right foodstuffs to get them working at full tilt.
With 36 different occupations for each settler, it's up to you to ensure the right balance. You specify the exact number of the three basic occupations: builder, digger and carrier. More builders and diggers makes construction faster, while the efficient flow of raw materials and goods around the settlement depends on carriers.
There are 28 other occupations in the game, most of which are automatically created when the relevant building is put up. Build a slaughterhouse, for example, and a spare settler who's not a builder, carrier or digger will pick up an axe (if you've got one, of course) and get to work. Carriers take animals to the slaughterhouse and the butcher stacks the meat outside for more carriers to pick up and take them to wherever they're needed most.
When materials are scarce, you can alter the relative importance and priority of individual goods and even prioritise production. Knocking down your own buildings to free up resources is also more tactically important than in other games of its type.
In contrast to Civilization clones there's no such thing as automatic production in this game and it does make you think. Hard. In fact, it's perfectly possible to stall a settlement completely simply for the lack of one tool or a bag of ore - at least it is if you've set the priorities badly. It can be frustrating in the extreme to watch six bags of coal sit on the ground right next to the building that you desperately need to turn out a scythe for example. To get a metal ingot with which to create the tool, you need to get your miners to work, but they won't if they don't get some bread. And they won't get bread until you farm the grain - with that bloody scythe that you haven't got...
You also control five specialists -geologists to look for mineral resources, pioneers to expand your boundaries, priests to cast spells and ask the gods for help, gardeners to counter the Dark Tribe's doings and thieves to pinch other players' resources and to scout around. Plus soldiers to recruit - swordsmen, archers and medics as well as unique units for each race.
Settlements in S4 have a fixed boundary, and to expand you'll need to either create pioneers who will slowly push the borders back, or build towers and castles. To ensure you have enough manpower, you'll eventually need to build small, medium or large residences to hold more settlers.
In military terms, soldiers can be created at first, second or third level of capability, but they can't be promoted, so making the right initial choice is essential. Adding squad leaders boosts morale, or you can pump them up with war machines such as catapults and warships or add specialist military units unique to each race.
New to the series is the fact that your military might is tied closely to your economic power. You can have more soldiers than your rival but if he's ahead in production, his men will fight that much harder. 'Eyecatchers' are another factor - build statues and ornaments in your settlement and your men will do better. Priests are another fascinating settler type, useful for casting offensive spells and beneficial ones, like shortcuts, which open paths through previously impassable terrain. Along with the direct link between military capabilities and the economy, there are three races: Romans, Mayans and Vikings, each with their own features, building costs and weapons. There's also a new enemy, the Dark Tribe, that bring in different game strategies as they ruin all the land they settle.
What You See...
In Age Of Empires and Civ-type games, you move through several eras, gaining new units and buildings, but that's never been part of the Settlers ethos. The buildings you create at the start could be with you at the end as there are no upgrades, weapon improvements and the like, which might surprise some of you.
You can change many special units back into carriers, recruit the new gardener unit to repair land ruined by the Dark Tribe, add hunters to collect meat, and recruit saboteurs in multiplayer games. Other additions include donkey carts for creating new colonies, multiplayer trade, and a superb seamless zoom option. With a half-decent graphics card you can play at resolutions up to 1,280x1,024 and still zoom in until one building fills the screen. S4 makes the most of 'kick ass' cards with filtering and texture support.
Multiplayer gamers also now have more options, either across a LAN or on the Net on the free Blue Byte Game Channel, but the small number of single and multiplayer maps is disappointing. Although the opening screens have a slot of 'custom' maps, there's nothing in the manual and no map editor.
That said, though, S4 is a tremendously challenging game with weeks of varied gameplay behind it. I'd like to have seen a less cluttered, more predictable landscape but the in-game menus, the excellent keyboard shortcuts and the incredible depth make this a hot contender for the strategy game crown.