I need some iridium so I can put finance calculators on the tidal power stations I had to build for all my new synthcell incubators.
That word soup, which makes complete sense to me, is Anno 2205 in a nutshell. A chain of interconnected sci-fi gobbledygook that you must link together: iridium, finance calculators, tidal power stations, synthcell incubators. Not “you must” in the sense of “the player must blah blah blah” as a tedious description of a game. “You must reach the end of the level in Super Mario Bros” or “You must repair the water filter in Fallout” or “You must gather ten bear hides in World of Warcraft”. But “you must” in the sense that you are driven to do it. You feel a need to do it. It has a pull on you. It is incumbent upon you. You must do it in the same way you must do the bidding of some mysterious master when you’re in his thrall. You must link together an interconnected chain of sci-fi gobbledygook. And you must do it for hours on end. Beware the allure of Ubisoft’s Anno series, more powerful than ever in Anno 2205.
After the jump, you have been warned. Proceed at your own risk.
The sleek future world of Anno 2205 doesn’t start as nonsense. Because, really, you can’t just go straight to anti-grav compensators, bio-enhancers, and qubit processors. It won’t make any sense. You have to work your way up to the techno mumbo-jumbo. You’ll get there when your cities start to sprawl a bit, when you’ve started to care a bit more. First you have to feed your people rice and give them water. Then make some fruit plantations so they can have their orange juice. Raise cattle for luxury foods. Nothing too crazy, nothing too sci-fi. Now harvest algae for some sort of special drugs. It’s not too weird when you start making fake eyeballs called neuro implants or microchipped clothes called IntelliWear. It’s not too far removed from there to mining a little deuterium for the fusion power cells you’re building on the moon. Before you know it, you’re making qubit processors for your quantum computers and multi-spec prisms for your replicators.
What are quantum computers and replicators? It doesn’t really matter. It just matters that people want them. Who am I to question that? To paraphrase Selena Gomez paraphrasing Woody Allen paraphrasing Emily Dickinson, the people want what the people want. Mine is but to do or buy. Because if I can’t harvest or build stuff, I’ll have to buy it from the friendly local space marketplace. I must — must! — piece together this production chain of stuff to make better stuff to make better stuff to make better stuff.
Really, it doesn’t matter so much what the stuff is called. It doesn’t matter so much that the techno mumbo-jumbo is just a new name for the advanced goods in any production chain game. Quantum computers instead of coffee. Replicators instead of spices. Anti-grav compensators instead of silk. But once you’ve played Anno 2205 long enough — an easy proposition given how addicting it is — the economy starts to stop not making sense. Of course your moon factories are assembling bio-enhanced limbs to ship down to your cities on Earth. Of course people of a certain socio-econimc strata demand those bio-enhanced limbs. Of course executives needs bio-enhanced limbs to become investors. Why? Who can say. They just do. Oh, look, they need four more. Better boost my moon production.
As with the previous Anno games, it’s borderline obsessive (I’m only writing “borderline” in there to feel better). There aren’t many games I find myself playing for this many hours at a time. I have a pretty low threshold for when it’s time to move on to something else. In other words, a short attention span. But the Anno games just gallop apace, and there’s no slowing down, much less getting off. I just ride and ride and ride, one building at a time, and suddenly it’s light out and I never did my dailies in Guild Wars 2, or booted up the latest Assassin’s Creed, or watched this week’s Walking Dead, or checked to see if the cat wanted in. Sorry cat. What is going on here that my butt is this numb?
What’s going on is the universal appeal of progress. The model for the Anno games is progress itself, technology, industry, sheer civilization, Moore’s law in macro. Everything must get bigger, better, more advanced, more efficient, simply more. Who can resist inevitable improvement? The only limit is real estate. How much can you wring from every acre? Had you world enough and time, everything would be possible.
In the previous Anno games, building a building was a commitment. If you wanted to move it, well, tough. Who ever heard of just picking up a building and moving it? So you tore it down and rebuilt it in the new spot. You did a lot of that as you learned the Annos. This should have gone here, that should have gone there. Time for some costly urban renewal. Realism! Sometimes you have to tear down to build up. Sometimes progress is one step back, two steps forward.
One of the biggest changes in Anno 2205 is that you can freely pick up and resituate any building. You can rearrange the modules you’ve built onto a building. Make it long, short, square, rotate it to fit into that odd gap against those mountains or along that coast. I cannot overstate the impact this has on the familiar Anno gameplay. It reveals a whole new layer of optimization as you wring more from every acre; as you better situate buildings like libraries, police stations, and transportation hubs to service the most residences; as you carefully arrange housing in the difficult environments; as you tear up roads and reimagine whole neighborhoods. To some folks, this would be a royal pain. That’s fine. They don’t have to do it. The rest of us are Tetrising our way to a flourishing and ruthlessly efficient economy. I can’t think of another game that lets me wallow so thoroughly in the relentless tuning of an economy.
This is just part of how Anno 2205 applies a laser-like focus on the inexorable progress that will keep butts in office chairs. Combat has always been a difficult fit in a city builder, and an even more difficult fit in German production chain management games like the Annos. In Anno 2205, combat is strictly optional and entirely separate. It is never an unwelcome interruption because you never have to do it. If you like, you can take a break and go play a combat mission for extra resources, or just to level up your combat experience to unlock more units that will make harder combat missions easier. Think of it as an optional branch of progress.
And if you want to earn the resources you’re supposed to get from combat, which are vital to hitting new technological thresholds but which you can’t harvest or create, Anno 2205 will give them to you anyway. As you level up, accumulating population instead of experience points, it periodically drops rare resources into your pocket. It even leaves them scattered around on the map for you to pick up as you’re admiring the graphics, which are as worthy of admiration as ever.
These games sure are pretty. This future world and the hostile environments it tames are picture postcard beautiful. There is no city builder this lush, this opulent. There is no city builder that gleams this hopefully in the bright sun, and certainly none that huddle this way in the driven snow and the lunar shadows. You can even switch to nighttime if you want. Night is as cosmetic as the useless ornaments. But that’s kind of true of everything in Anno 2205 that you couldn’t just as well play on a spreadsheet. A lot of the appeal of the Anno series is cosmetic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It doesn’t minimize Frank Lloyd Wright’s work to note it’s mostly cosmetic.
Because Anno 2205 rewards meticulous optimization, some of the longstanding interface issues are all the more pronounced. Why do I have to hunt around the damn map trying to remember which building made flax? Or, even worse, why do I have to hunt around the map checking to see if there’s a building that makes flax that I can expand, or whether I need to start a whole new flax building? Why can’t I click a resource and have the view cycle through all the buildings that produce that resource? This is 2015. People have been making city builders for decades. Why does the Anno series insist on being so goddamn obtuse? Why does it so willfully and stubbornly make itself so difficult to play well? Why does Blue Byte, Ubisoft’s Dusseldorf studio that’s been making these kinds of games for 25 years, conspicuously forget its German efficiency when it comes to the simple matter of helping me remember where my rice farms are? Why does so much of the endgame consist of me scrolling around the map, peering intently at all these samey futuristic buildings, muttering curse words as I try to figure out which one makes fucking microchips? This awesome game is on the verge of making me hate it.
And let’s talk about the challenge level. As with many city builders, there kind of isn’t one. There is mostly the inevitability of progress, which is easy to manage in the Anno series (the difficulty levels are the equivalent of an accelerator limiter on a car). These economies are relatively static. This type of population always and only eats this much food. This building always and only uses this much energy. These factories always and only process this many resources. A tornado isn’t going to wipe out a neighborhood. A walker isn’t going to choose the wrong direction at a fork in the road and plunge half the population into a plague. The traffic isn’t going to accordion and clot on a busy artery, interrupting the flow of coal to your power plant. These cities aren’t living breathing organic cities so much as math puzzles with excellent graphics. Drop a building and watch the balance sheet instantly change as surely as the cell in a spreadsheet. Of course, this isn’t news to us Anno veterans. We signed up for this. This is partly what makes them so easy to not stop playing. The cause and effect is evident and manageable. There are no rude surprises.
So once you’ve got a stable economy, it will run forever, like a clock that doesn’t need winding. If you need money, just set up a positive cash flow, go make a sandwich, and you’ll be richer by the time you’re done. Or better yet, go watch a movie. Or go to bed and come back to it in the morning. This is a facet of lots of real-time economic games. Here’s you, waiting for enough money to accumulate for the next step. The Anno games let you hold down the keypad plus button to moderately speed up time. Only moderately, but I’ll take what I can get. I’ve put a heavy object on the keyboard — the Germans at Blue Byte might be happy to know it was a boxed CD set of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde — and left the game running for hours at a time. As I type this, Anno 2205 is running in the background. I’m waiting for my balance to hit 800,000 credits so I can build a fusion reactor on the moon.
This “wait to win” economy isn’t unique to Anno 2205. The otherwise excellent Cities: Skylines is a recent example. That game had no answer for the “wait to win” issue. It just shrugged and let itself run overnight, yielding all its gameplay to its running time. But Anno 2050 puts some brakes on the “wait to win” concept. If you’re making money selling goods to your friendly local space marketplace — You are making money selling goods, aren’t you? — you have to periodically renew trade deals. And these trade deals will degrade, since prices fluctuate with supply and demand. Those lucrative microchips won’t earn that profit forever. You’ll eventually have to cultivate some other excess resource to sell.
Anno 2205 also gives you busywork while you’re waiting for enough credits to buy your fusion power plant or whatever. You can run missions with your command ship. As you scroll around the map, perhaps admiring the view but more likely trying to remember what a goddamn flax factory looks like, you can scoop up little caches of resources. And there’s always an optional combat mission or two available. Go play one of those. Go ahead, give it a shot. Don’t be such a stick in the mud. They’re simple, quick, loosey-goosey blow-’em-ups festooned with crazy powerups like submarines attacks, EMP blasts, and missile strikes. You never have to sink resources into building ships or replacing losses. Just go explode some stuff. Blow off a little steam on these silly little action ditties like the commando missions in a Command & Conquer game. When you’re done, plenty of credits will have rolled in and you’ll have some extra resources in your rare resource stash.
The most prominent new feature in Anno 2205 is the three biomes. This isn’t exactly new. The Anno games have always been about interdependent island economies. This island needs tea, but you can only get tea from that island; therefore you must settle the tea island and set up a tea route. Anno 2205 does the same thing with biomes instead of islands. The basic game is the same as Anno 2070 for a while. You’re just building up a future city in a vanilla climate. But at certain sizes, this city needs resources it can only get from hostile environments. These aren’t islands on the same map. Instead, they are entirely new maps with their own idiosyncrasies. Houses in the arctic need warmth they can only get from industrial buildings. An arctic city resembles a ramshackle settlement more than a city, because you’re trying to cram as many houses into the various radii of warmth, threading the streets between buildings as best as you can. It’s a whole different type of optimization.
And then there’s the moon, where every single building has to be underneath an energy hungry meteorite shield. Houses, which are normally free because they’re your main source of revenue, cost actual money. It’s really expensive to ship stuff up here. But you don’t choose to go to the moon because it’s easy. You go to the moon because it will literally solve energy. You go to the arctic for those fake eyeball things. When your economy stalls and you’re not sure why, check the neuro implants. It’s always neuro implants.
These interdependent biomes, each with unique resources, demands, and layouts, fulfill the promise of interconnected cities in 2013’s SimCity. The idea behind Electronic Arts’ disastrous release was sound. Some cities provide oil, some process garbage, some are university towns. You play them each separately. They all need each other. Manage their interaction on a strategic map. The emergent properties of which city needs what create dynamic objectives and variety. What a great idea. Which wasn’t actually implemented into a working game, but it was a great idea nonetheless.
Anno 2205 achieves that idea beautifully with its three interdependent biomes. Manage their interaction on a strategic map. A gratifying layer of streamlined transport/trade tycoon unites all your cities and their goods. These go here, those go there. Ship neuro implants to one city. Can you afford to get deuterium up to the moon? And then what about bringing fusion cells back down? Now that you’ve unlocked the largest cargo transport, is it worthwhile to ramp up molybdenum production and just dump it all on the market? Manage it all with sliders, transportation options, base development, and a simple interface. Why couldn’t it be this easy to find my goddamn flax factories?
You don’t get a free-form game in Anno 2205. You can only play through the campaign, which walks you through the steps of a healthy economy by doling out frequent objectives. At least it doesn’t end when it ends, so Ubisoft can call it a continuous game. The manual describes it as “seamless”. “The transition between the campaign game and the continuous game is fluent,” it reads. It doesn’t specify which language.
You furthermore won’t find Anno 2070’s extended metagame of assembling projects and scientific advances. Instead, you just level up until you can build a corporate headquarters, which does nothing but sit there and drink up resources. An accurate representation of a corporate headquarters, I suppose. If you want, you can buy up more land and keep playing. Maybe work on achievements, or try to get your population to a million, or do each map’s quests. But without a sandbox mode, or challenge scenarios, or Anno 2070’s grindy but gratifying system of scientific advances, 2205 doesn’t have the infinite replayability you get in the best city builders. That’s probably a good thing. The last thing I need is a city builder this good with infinite replayability.
Colonize continents. Race to Space. Mine the Moon. Transform your cities into thriving metropolises. Secure the prosperity of your people by managing multiple locations on Earth and on the Moon. Forget to let your cat in.