reviews Anno 1800 on Sony PlayStation 5

Review: Anno 1800 (Sony PlayStation 5)

Build cities you want to live in.

10 mins read

I haven’t played an Anno game since Anno: Create A New World on the Wii and DS, but I absolutely loved those games, and I likewise love Anno 1800, the first game in the main series to also get a console release (the Wii and DS titles were spinoffs).

If EA’s Sim City (and its spiritual successors, such as Cities Skylines) are the epitome of the American approach to city design, with sprawling networks of congested roads and vast reaches of suburbia, Anno represents a more European vision for city planning. Populations want to have goods and services close to them, and to really grow your city, you have to be efficient with space. You need to build dwellings for people to live in, but they also need to make sure they have access to utilities, entertainment, consumer goods and culture. From any given dwelling there is a fairly small circle that needs to feature all of these things within it. Where in Sim City and Cities Skylines you zone out big blocks of space for residential, industrial and commercial space, and link them by long stretches of roads (and, occasionally, rail), in Anno, things are much more tightly integrated than that. Residents still don’t like pollution (given the game takes place during the industrial revolution, this is an ever-present issue), but they like having their markets and workshops nearby.

In many ways, it’s more difficult to make a great city in Anno, because the planning can be intricate. Are you going to have the space to plonk down a big zoo in the middle of your CBD once the people suddenly demand it? Probably not, but then, how can you clear out enough space to keep those critical central buildings happy and growing?

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But it’s also so much more rewarding to build a city this way. I love Cities Skylines and Sim City, don’t get me wrong, but what you build in those titles is not necessarily the cities I would want to live. Not when the nicest places to live and the best places to work are a two-hour commute and then some. If you play Anno 1800 well, the resulting city that you have is, effectively, what people have recently started talking about with the 15-minute city. No, not the hyperbolic nonsense about “control” and a loss of “freedom,” that you hear from some quarters of the perpetually outraged. Actual 15-minute cities, where everything that you need to live a comfortable life is planned within an easily accessible ring.

Just today I watched a rather neat episode of Some More News, which was looking at the way that American cities ended up being the way they are, and how culturally you basically need a car to do anything over there (spoiler: it was the car companies successfully infiltrating government). As I sat down to write this review and muse on it I was struck by just how great the differences are between these two processes, and what they mean to the structures behind their respective games. In Sim City, you need to watch your finances like a hawk, and be constantly looking for ways to minimise costs. In Anno, finances can certainly run out, but if you’re doing right by your population, the overall wealth of the city will grow, and you’ll find that your city remains comfortably liquid anyway. As you drill down further, the differences between the Sim City city builder, and Anno, all come down to this: Sim City is, culturally, American. Anno is culturally European. Frankly, Anno is nicer.

Anno 1800 works like this: You start with an empty plot of land (like any city builder), and your first task is to lay the barest foundations of a society down. This means laying down farmer houses, getting some woodchoppers and sheep farmers in, and throwing down a bar and market for the new residents to enjoy.

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These farmers are not particularly picky people and don’t need much more than that to be happy. But, soon enough, you’ll want to convert some of those farmer houses into buildings for “Workers”, “Artisians,” and, all the way up to “Investors” and “Scholars.” These people get much more demanding, expecting to have access to a wider range of goods (soaps, sausages, wines, etc), and want to have churches, member’s clubs, zoos and so on within their “15-minute” walk. If you can’t meet those needs, those properties will start to suffer and decline. But, if you can, then your population will grow rapidly, and money will come flooding in.

It can be challenging. In fact, it often feels like turn-based Tetris, with the way you need to carefully manage space and build things in precise locations. But it is wonderful to watch cities blossom in Anno. It helps that the game is gorgeous, of course, and all the buildings eventually make cities look like vibrant places to live and work. But it’s also because, quite simply, the urban planning that goes into succeeding in Anno feels good. It feels like you’ve actually created something utopian.

Beyond the city buildings, there are parts of Anno 1800 that I’m more ambivalent about. The story mode is an extended tutorial to walk you through the entire game. This is the case for most simulators, and there was a point, early enough, where I had the urge to simply go and start playing in the sandbox modes. However, for what it is, the narrative is fine, and it’s backed up with some gorgeous panning camera work that really shows off the strength of the visual engine. There’s also naval combat, and while it works fine, I’ve just never been a fan of combat in city builders, whether it’s this or the frequent raids you have to deal with in Tropico. Military conflict is an irritating distraction when I just want to build cities.

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The one thing that the game developers did go wrong, however, is the controller interface. Anno 1800 is a little inelegant and busy with the menu interfaces and popups, which work fine with a mouse and keyboard, but are a pain to be constantly navigating to and removing with a control stick and buttons. What’s more, the controls get very twitchy when trying to place buildings down. More than a few times, I’d line something up, and at the last second, touch the control stick, which would drop the building slightly out from what I had planned. Because the game is so demanding on the use of space, the only option here was to delete the misplaced building and try again, but that meant many button presses through the menus over again. The developers probably did their best, and Anno 1800 is still very playable, but there are other simulator ports – including Cities Skylines and Tropico – that have worked better on console.

Anno’s core strength is the cities that it allows you to create. Sometimes it does feel more like a puzzle game than a simulator, as you desperately try to figure out how to give your most demanding residents access to everything they crave. However, the satisfaction of doing it well is almost incomparable for the genre. I am a firm believer that simulation games, at their best, teach you about real-world jobs, processes, and social/cultural/environmental dynamics, whether that be flying a plane, driving a train, running a hotel or building a city. Anno does that, and it presents players with a vision for cities that will, hopefully, be the future of urban planning.

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Matt S. is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of DDNet. He's been writing about games for over 20 years, including a book, but is perhaps best-known for being the high priest of the Church of Hatsune Miku.

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