The Settlers Preview: Ubisoft’s Reboot Stains the Settler Boot
The nearly 30-year-old franchise forgets what made it great
In 2022, The Settlers’ heart has been ripped out and traded for a casual audience. While I haven’t been with the iconic franchise from 1993, I’ve sunk hours into Cultures and Ubisoft’s own Anno series, games built off The Settlers’ focus on economy chains and discovery. The new Settlers title tries to fit in with combat-heavy RTS titles like Age of Empires but slips on both fronts.
I’m no longtime Settlers follower. I’m just a city-building devotee.
But a glance is all it takes to see what irks The Settlers fans. The difference between the game’s alpha build from 2019 and January’s closed beta is staggering. I wonder what happened behind the scenes for The Settlers to end up here (and incite the departure of creator Volker Wertich).
The Settlers’ basic supply chains and military ambitions are just the start.
A feature comparison between the promising alpha build and the lackluster closed beta merits a separate article. The game has fewer resources and smaller chains to manage, fewer unit types, and barely any building upgrades.
In short, The Settlers trades the depth of the sea for that of a teaspoon.
The Settlers matches are bizarre right from the start
I can’t think of another city-builder, let alone an RTS that gives you a dozen military troops right at the beginning. This makes building up defenses like towers essential and shifts the very core of the Settlers franchise. For some reason, the dummy that attracts enemies like a magnet has the health of a war elephant. And no walls? Come on.
The AI crumbles if you take out their engineers early. So will you.
Divisive aesthetics aside, the game starts off with engineers and villagers in addition to the aforementioned military units. The engineers take on the roles of several earlier Settlers characters, letting you build, survey mining locations, and expand your borders. Your villagers serve as carriers and suppliers for your production buildings.
These supply chains are where The Settlers begins to stumble.
They’re far shorter than in earlier iterations and food is now an “optional” resource, no longer crucial to your economy. Placing buildings on a tile-based map feels more like a mobile game than the flagbearer of one of gaming’s most beloved city-builders. The short economy chains mean that the only delay in military encounters is the size of the map.
I can’t tell if the devs ran into hurdles during development or whether these decisions were intentional.
As for obtaining resources, The Settlers’ focus on exploration got nerfed too.
The Settlers forgets what made its games so special
Surveying mining sites aren’t a game of chance; they always give you access to an “unlimited” supply of iron, gold, or gems. Ridiculous. Trading the series’ forester hut for trees that grow back on their own is a decision that is just as baffling.
This theme of gross simplification ripples across The Settlers.
Engineers are the only means of surveying or expanding your borders and watching them being picked off by enemy units at the start of a match stabs the very spirit of city-builders. Even war-focused Age of Empires and StarCraft give players time to shore up their defenses.
In a game devoted to planning and execution, the pacing feels ridiculous.
A revealed map and predetermined mining sites mean that an army is just a bit of construction away. Armies consist of swordsmen, archers, and healers, with little in the name of upgrades. The game’s siege unit is a boar that shoots magical projectiles, a decision that only adds insult to injury. Besides the graphics and detailed building animations, there’s little to praise.
A shallow reboot and great sales don’t go together
I’d have trouble recommending the current iteration of The Settlers even if it was a free-to-play title. Sequels like Age of Empires IV are proof that game studios can introduce new mechanics while respecting the ground that earlier titles marched through. The Settlers chopped its alpha build with a butcher’s knife and the results are worrying.
Gone are the series’ deep economy chains and meaningful progression.
The game’s new military angle doesn’t stand up to its rival offerings either, with a bland upgrade tree and a handful of units. Ubisoft’s own Anno series has retained its depth and offers pristine city-building for hours. Pandering to a casual audience has erased the soul of the Settlers franchise.
I’m hoping that the game’s campaign and onslaught mode redeem some of the goodwill Ubisoft has lost. A more peaceful setting might soothe some of the wounds that the skirmish mode has inflicted.
The Settlers is now a painful reminder of what was.