Thursday, July 16, 2009

Nitpicking Dawn of Discovery

(Nitpicking is not meant to be a comprehensive review or synopsis of a game. It instead serves to discuss the design aspects that most contributed to my emotional response, or lack thereof, to a game. A general knowledge of the game is assumed and spoilers may be present.)

The traitor to the crown had secured a beachhead on the island, and his spies had infiltrated the city. I created military encampments in the hopes of fighting off the advancement, but for every unit of his I destroyed, the traitor laid waste to three of mine. In the hopes of prolonging my defeat, I increased military provisions. Unfortunately, this decreased the amount of food and clothing available to the city, and the nobles were unsympathetic towards my effort. Regardless of any effort I made, the traitor continued to advance; loss of the city was inevitable.

Fortunately, at the eleventh-hour, aid arrived from an ally. It was not in the form of reinforcements however, only in the form of a ship to carry refugees to safety. I was forced to abandon the cause, and relegated to the role of spectator as the city was laid to waste.

The traitor had won and was closer than ever to toppling the crown. Despite my defeat, all was not lost. With my refugees safely transported to another island, I could rebuild. I could create another city, increase its inhabitants, gather more allies to the cause, and ultimately strike back.

This building of cities and its inhabitants exemplifies the experience that is Dawn of Discovery, or Anno 1404 as it is known in most of the world. In order to support military campaigns, vast amounts of resources are necessary. To collect and produce those resources, both finances and labor are necessary. To secure finances and labor, cities and trade networks are necessary.

As the number and contentment of inhabitants that occupy a city increase, so does the amount of taxes the player is able to collect. Unfortunately, the number and variety of provisions inhabitants consume also increase, and collecting those provisions removes from a city’s income.

A small city may start off including only peasants as its inhabitants. As the city prospers, those peasants do as well, and evolve in status to citizens, patricians, and ultimately noblemen. Peasants that were once satisfied with simple fish on their plates and cider in their glasses eventually want spices to season the fish, bread to complement the meal, and beer to fill their stomachs. Where fishermen’s huts and cider farms were once satisfactory, spice farms, wheat fields, herb fields, mills, bakeries, and breweries become necessary.

Balancing the cost of all these services with the income a city produces as it grows can be overwhelming and frustrating, to say the least. Doing so successfully though, produces a sense of pride rarely felt in videogames. Dawn of Discovery is a constructive game in an industry that relies on destructive formulas. Whether zooming out to view how much a city has grown, or zooming in to watch euphoric citizens frolic together outside of a tavern, pride is felt in all that has been accomplished; pride that perhaps is analogous to what a sculptor might feel in completing a work of art, albeit to a lesser extent.

Tying the city-building and strategy elements of Dawn of Discovery together is a historical tale of war, treachery, and political intrigue that spans continents. Former allies become enemies and former enemies become allies in a narrative that sets the game apart from others in its genre.

The plot provides motivation for varied in-game scenarios and objectives that keep gameplay from becoming repetitive and stale. It also provides motivation for the player to continue interacting with the game. Much like a suspenseful page-turning novel, Dawn of Discovery ends many of its scenarios in cliff-hanger fashion, forcing extended playtime. For better or worse, this is balanced by an immersion-breaking message from the developers, notifying the player that he or she has been playing for two continuous hours and might want to take a break. I heard this message way too often in my time with the game, and almost never heeded it.

Dawn of Discovery will be a familiar game to those with city-building experience. However, well-constructed scenarios and objectives, in conjunction with an immersive narrative, serve to make this game a sometimes exciting and always pleasing experience. It is definitely worth partaking in for those both familiar and unfamiliar with the genre.

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