Tablet friendly RTS games are a new breed of evil time consuming amusement that will vaporize any spare time you may have. Think of them as Candy Crush Saga with a point.
The Settlers Online is such a game, but it has managed to fly under the radar so far, quietly it has been building to become the ultimate free to play (with paid premium options) real time strategy game that can be played anywhere, anytime.
After a year of constant play and development The Settlers Online is now more than ready to take over the world, it is ready to become the best kind of entertaining diversion from the daily grind.
In the distant past, during the birth of the video game industry Ubisoft released the first Settlers game. Released initially in 1993 on the Amiga the first game brought a new angle to the then new genre of real time strategy games, AI controlled people and intense resource management.
Fast forward to our modern internet enabled world and Ubisoft have put Blue Byte Software to work once more, bringing the franchise to browsers around the world. Officially released during the Christmas build up (September) of 2012 The Settlers Online (also called The Settlers: Castle Empire) owes much of its character to the early editions of the game, closely resembling Settlers III with enhanced graphics and expanded gameplay.
System Requirements and Interface
Testing of the game was carried out on both a Surface Pro 2 tablet and a Core-i7 17 inch laptop, performance was identical on both, smooth. As far as compatibility is concerned it will play on any device that has a Flash compatible browser. On the Surface Pro 2 the touch screen interface came into its own, especially thanks to the pen that made the game a completely mouse and keyboard free experience. Playing on a laptop (no touch screen) was done using the mouse and keyboard, reminding me how much I like the pen on the Surface Pro 2.
As a cloud based browser game the system requirements are low enough that even an Atom based Windows tablets should be able to keep the game running nicely. Using an Android tablet will require a browser with Flash built but even then its not super smooth. For Android tabs it is recommended that you remote into a PC to play. Played on a Windows tablet this is one game that’s as easy on the CPU and GPU as it is on the eye, and even with the detailed graphics your empire can grow to massive proportions.
This is as close as you get to a AAA title without the cost and in my opinion possibly one of the best looking browser based RTS games available.
Getting started is as easy as clicking the login with Facebook button, which also gives you a nice way to drag your friends into this immersive world of empire building.
Being a browser based game there is nothing to install, even locked down corporate PC’s will be able to play this one. The other advantage of the cloud is portability across machines; log in at work and play at lunch, on the train home login using your Surface and once home use your machine of choice to continue your empires development.
As with many isometric empire building games the player begins with a blank canvas, in this case a small island world with only a small portion revealed. Starting with your empty empire and the Mayor’s House the long process of bringing your world to life begins. The tutorial is extremely thorough although a little time consuming, more a product of the fact that the game is actually extremely detailed and feature rich.
Unlike many popular RTS empire games Settlers automatically controls the population of your world, leaving the player to construct and manage their empires evolution and survival. As your empire expands new citizens are automatically drawn into your empire.
The complexity and depth of the game is very impressive, due in no small part to the structure of the many layers of the economy. The economy for your empire is accessed through the Economy Overview window which provides access to the resources, food, weapons, science and building materials hierarchies. Each section has its own inter-related options that are enabled as you level up through the game. This does make the initial learning curve quite steep and slow but it really does drag you in. All of the complexity is laid out in fairly logical ways thankfully.
The variety of structures and construction options is vast, with each resource having different collection and processing buildings. While more advanced resources requiring the basic structures to be in place before the options become available, this is of course standard stuff for an RTS.
The game can be accelerated by spending real money in the Merchant Store to improve construction times, but being cheap and patient I never really felt pressured to spend hard cash. Having said that as you progress through the levels more complex buildings take longer and longer to construct, going from minutes to hours.
Once you have established your empire the multi-player aspects of the game begin to become more important. To encourage you to bring your friends rewards are paid for each friend that you can convince to join and play, possibly the easiest way to gain spending money within the game.
With the basics down pat and friends joining in you can start exploring the wider world, mounting attacks to gain access to new resources. Joining forces with fellow players to take down bandits and expand your empire to new corners of the world.
Helping to keep long term players involved new adventures and events are always being held as part of the online community. Ubisoft and Blue Byte Software recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Settlers franchise with a special balloon collecting event. Hidden treasures and Easter Eggs are also hidden throughout the game for everyone to keep an eye out for.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The Good: Settlers Online is all up side, the graphics are beautiful, the gameplay is well thought out and highly addictive while the community is possibly the friendliest of any multi-player RTS. The price can’t be beat either.
The game runs extremely well on tablets, an experience made even easier using a pen / pointing device, it works well with touch but I like to see as much of the map as possible which makes the objects in my empire quite small. I could just increase the zoom in on the Surface Pro to make the game more finger touch friendly but that’s not the way I roll.
The Bad: The only real down side to the game is the pace, this is not a fast paced build tanks and go to war RTS. Players craft and slowly build their empire. I found the first couple of hours very slow, but as slow as it felt the pace really did drag me in, hook line and sinker. After getting the tutorial I wouldn’t change that aspect of the game at all.
The Ugly: If you do use your Facebook account to play your FB friends will quickly become aware of your new addiction.
If you’re looking for a new place to park your brain for a few hours a day, somewhere to take a little break from reality then Settlers Online is well worth a look. Being free to play there is no cost to have a quick play but be warned if you make it a few hours in this game may own you, in the best kind of way.