Dawn of Discovery
A worthy successor to the Anno franchise.
Aug 9, 2022 1:59 am
Jul 15, 2009 9:34 pm
Longtime fans of quality city-building simulators should have no trouble recognizing the name Anno, the decade-old economic strategy franchise focusing on settling colonies in various historical settings. The series is a huge critical and commercial success in Europe but has failed to find a solid base here in the US, which is most likely why this newest entry in the franchise, Dawn of Discovery, has arrived on our shores lacking any indication of its prestigious heritage. Rest assured, though, this is without a doubt a title worthy of the Anno lineage, complete with all the strategy and mechanical complexity those games entail.
In an effort to expand the player base beyond core enthusiasts, Ubisoft is releasing three distinct titles bearing the Dawn of Discovery namesake. Both the Nintendo Wii and DS are receiving their very own versions of this economic strategy simulator, each with simplified mechanics and a more stylized, family-friendly visual style. The PC version, on the other hand, retains the characteristics that made the franchise such a success, a fact that fans of true, hardcore city-building simulators should be thrilled to hear. While there are still a few areas that could use extra coats of polish, Dawn of Discovery manages to build upon the foundation of previous entries to create a gorgeous, complex real-time strategy game with enough depth to entice longtime fans of the genre.
Dawn of Discovery offers two main modes to players, Campaign and Continuous Play. The title's campaign mode sets the stage for the entire game, thrusting players into the role of a young fiefdom administrator tasked with settling various colonies across a number of idyllic tropical islands in the year 1404. The narrative quickly expands as a crusade against the Orient begins in the wake of the Emperor's crippling illness, providing an engrossing context to the potentially trivial rope weaving and wheat harvesting. The campaign mode is propelled along thanks to Dawn of Discovery's surprisingly high-quality presentation, from the well-produced score to the fully voiced characters that really sell the story with each passing chapter. It's clear that developers Blue Byte Software and Related Designs put a lot of effort into the campaign mode, offering a solid narrative while simultaneously teaching players the title's complex mechanics and economic intricacies.
That complexity is, after all, the root of what makes Dawn of Discovery such a rewarding title to play. Mastering the intricacies behind efficient city mapping, trade route planning and production ladders is key to proving a successful colony administrator. Those of you familiar with city-building simulators will be right at home with the general mechanics found within Dawn of Discovery thanks to its accessible control scheme, easily able to lay roads and low-level housing with ease. True success, however, will only come to those who take the time to really master micromanagement details such as the effect of fertility on grow cycles, efficient market wagon routines and properly maintained storage facilities. Presented all at once, these features would merely overwhelm and confuse, but offered in the slow, isolated instances provided by the campaign mode, Dawn of Discovery's complex mechanics become a precision tool with which to command your entire archipelago of interconnected trade colonies.
The easy-going pace of the campaign mode is a large factor in the success of Dawn of Discovery's tutorials. Very few time-sensitive objectives are thrust upon the player, and while some may scoff at the reduced challenge this characteristic seemingly entails, it makes the game that much more accessible to both new players as well as veterans simply looking to understand the game on a deeper level. Considering that Dawn of Discovery's manual lacks any sort of in-depth mechanics index and the in-game help doesn't cover every aspect of the title's complexities, the ability to further understand the game in this manner is a welcome addition.
Unfortunately, not all of these mechanics are explained on a deep enough level. Several times throughout the campaign, I was confused by some aspect of the game's micromanagement demands, forcing me to spend precious production time simply tweaking variables almost at random. Eventually I would stumble upon the solution and subsequently grasp a deeper understanding of the confusing mechanic, but players shouldn't have to essentially reverse-engineer specific outcomes in order to learn them. Truthfully, Dawn of Discovery has enough complexities to make explaining each and every one according to every single circumstance virtually impossible, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating. A few unclear campaign objectives are likewise troublesome, but don't derail the experience too much thanks to the campaign's aforementioned slower pace.
Continuous Play offers exactly what its title suggests, the ability for players to start their own civilizations free from the trappings of a linear narrative and artificial objectives. Various settings can be tweaked before play begins, from starting and victory conditions to the characteristics of the world itself, offering plenty of opportunities for players to tailor their experience to fit their needs. There's a lot of flexibility within the provided options, allowing everything from tense standoffs between two dueling nations to peaceful games meant simply to test how large one can expand their empire. Scenarios offer more guided experiences, setting variables in advance and offering specific objectives through each of Dawn of Discovery's three difficulty levels.
The uninterrupted nature of Continuous Play is where Dawn of Discovery's design and mechanics are really put to the test, and to the title's credit it manages to hold up fairly well even after a continuous playtime reaching into the double digit hours. The game's pace is fairly steady throughout, offering a consistent ramp from the early lumber yards and cider mills to the balancing act of later yields that require multiple resources across varying levels of production. Dawn of Discovery's complex advancement tree threatens to collapse in on itself later on as financial resources stretch thin and each new upgrade requires an increasing amount of tributary products in order to run. This issue can largely be avoided by carefully planning out building arrangements ahead of time, though learning how to do so is really only possible after completing multiple sessions.
Combat mechanics are one of the few instances in which Dawn of Discovery falls short. More often than not, naval combat is simply reduced to two ships exchanging cannon fire on open waters until one ship simply explodes and sinks to the bottom of the ocean. It's a disappointingly simple system considering how deep the rest of the game is. Sure, Dawn of Discovery is essentially a game about production and trade, but that doesn't mean the combat should be given a free pass. Providing the game with a method of battle involving true strategy and control would have vaulted Dawn of Discovery up into the realms of other classic strategy titles like Civilization, but as it is the combat is simply an unfortunate reminder of what could have been.
One thing Blue Byte Software and Related Designs absolutely nailed are Dawn of Discovery's gorgeous visuals. Each building is lovingly crafted and highly detailed, from the fluttering sails of trade ships to the crooked shingles of a commoner's homestead. Colony citizens will mill about town and congregate in high traffic areas like bazaars or taverns while market wagons weave between production mills, their wagons visibly empty or full depending on the direction they're heading. The outcome is an extremely appealing artistic style that simultaneously manages to visually inform players as to the status of their colonies. The only real flaw is evident when zooming right up next to buildings from afar, as high-polygon textures take a second or two to pop into place over the default facade. It's a trivial gripe, to be sure, and definitely a forgivable offense considering how detailed the world of Dawn of Discovery truly is.
The one area in which Dawn of Discovery truly disappoints is the fact that it provides absolutely no multiplayer support. As much replay value as the single-player content provides, there's really no excuse as to why a game like this wouldn't support multiple players. Playing Continuous Play with this truth in mind is all the more disheartening, as the mode is so clearly perfect for online play and yet we're left to compete against static AI opponents.
Dawn of Discovery provides one of the best real-time strategy experiences of the year, hands down. Fans of city-building simulators will be floored by the amount of depth evidenced by the game's mechanics, though it may be a bit too complex for casual fans of the genre. A few minor hiccups surrounding the campaign such as some unclear objectives and unexplained features don't hold back the experience too much, and the Continuous Play mode theoretically offers hundreds of hours of engaging colony management. Dawn of Discovery would have no doubt benefitted greatly from the inclusion of multiplayer, but the fact that it still manages to provide such a complex, lasting experience is a testament to the extremely high quality of its overall design.
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Dawn of Discovery