Review: The Settlers: New Allies (Sony PlayStation 4)

A strategy game with no strategy is... a game, I guess?

9 mins read

It has been 13 years since the last The Settlers title. The Settlers: New Allies is also the first time the series has ever made its way to a home console. Until now, this venerable, hugely respected and beloved simulation/strategy series had been exclusive to PC (with a couple of Nintendo DS titles thrown in). With all of that, it’s so unfortunate that this is such a poor entry (and, one suspects, will be the last).

Related reading: Sadly while this game fell flat, Ubisoft’s Anno on PlayStation is exceptional. Our review.

The Settlers: New Allies is playable, it must be said. It works. Like with most RTS titles, you’ll start out with little more than a few grunt workers and a central building, and from there you need to build up a city, including gathering food, collecting timber and metals, and building defences to protect your territory from opposing factions. There are several different military units to construct as well, and eventually, you should have a force powerful enough to roll on through your opponent’s territories.

You’ve played these games before. The Settlers: New Allies behaves almost like a throwback to the very earliest examples of the genre, with very little effort at innovating. What you’ve probably not played before (or, at least, not for quite some time) is a strategy game that is so lacking in strategy. The pathway to a flourishing town is very specific – you’ll need to build X to build Y which then lets you build Z – and because you need to build towards specific units to successfully attack the enemy, you’ll find that within the first few games you’ve worked out the correct “pathway” to success, and you’ll just stick to that forever after.

Screenshot from The Settlers New Allies. This screenshot shows a town.

Some maps make certain resources harder to come by, or place them quite some distance away from your main hub, and that’s really where Settlers gets its difficulty from. The further away a resource is, the longer you’ll need to wait to move that resource around town and for it to get to the facilities that need it. This slows progress down and hey presto! You’ve got a higher difficulty. Because the AI is really constrained by the same limited development path as you, the higher-difficulty AI simply tends to be more efficient at collecting resources, so they can send stronger forces your way more quickly. All of this is fine, but the tight constraints over tactics and strategy do become stifling, and quickly.

That’s not to say that Settlers is passive, however. There are a fair few things you need to be juggling at once. Several buildings can be tuned to develop different items, and all buildings can be “boosted” if they’re “fed” excess resources. You can also improve roads and recruit a network of donkey carts to help get the all-important resources moving around your city more efficiently. While you’re micromanaging all of that, you’ll need to keep an eye on the defences and ensure that they’re enough to push back the enemy incursions, which become steadily more potent.

But busywork is still not variety, and it’s really hard to shake the feeling that the developers were simply timid when creating this thing. It’s like they were concerned about giving players choices, worried that one particular strategy might prove to be too potent, and unbalance the game’s meta. It’s like they set out to make an esports game where the balance was so utterly perfect that there’s no way to give yourself a strategic advantage… and in doing so they kind of lost sight of the fact that the point of strategy games is to find the strategic advantages.

A screenshot from The Settlers: New Allies. This shows a desert-themed town

You’ll be further convinced that “esports” was the exclusive focus of the development team when you settle in for the single-player campaign. This thing is really awful. You play as a band of refugees that flee a war and decide to set up a new home/empire on a new island, only to discover there are already people there. So what do they do? Set about killing the people and taking their land, of course. There would be room for commentary in the game, except of course this comes from the “apolitical” Ubisoft, where colonialism is a totally apolitical fun time. It’s okay. Most of the natives that you’re dealing with are “natives”, after all. Then again, even if the developers were to try and make something substantial about the theme that is sitting right there, the writing is poor and the performances are even poorer. It’s hardly Shakespeare, let alone a campaign to take seriously.

Related reading: Anno Vs. Cities Skylines Vs. Tropico: Which is the best city builder for your PlayStation?

Playing the campaign leaves an overwhelming impression that it was really just a tutorial for preparing people for competitive play. There’s little effort to give players interesting objectives or do anything other than learn the specific pathway to take to victory. There’s little reason to experiment, because once in multiplayer you won’t be creative in how you play, and there’s little sense of reward for getting through it, because it was really just the funnel to the multiplayer. The multiplayer itself is fine, but the static strategy makes it less interesting in the long term than it needed to be. I can’t see this earning a large or sustained player base, even if Ubisoft desperately wanted it to be competitive.

However, for everything that I’ve written above, perhaps the most disappointing thing about The Settlers: New Allies is the shift to militarism. That side of things was always so simple in the Settlers series, and really just the end game climax. You build a horde of units, click on the enemy building, and watch as they claim victory for you. The bulk of the game was the city building stuff. With New Allies, though, there’s a very clear push to get active with the military conquests early, and the city building is just a process to get there. It is entirely the wrong way to go with this series.

A screenshot from The Settlers New Allies. This showcases the game's combat.

Ubisoft’s city builders tend to be good: Anno was released on console just last year and it is a genuinely good time. But then Anno respects the player’s intelligence and allows them to make mistakes and try things along the way. The Settlers: New Allies wants you to play like an automaton, and the inflexibility and lack of variety in this game become draining far too quickly. It’s a treat to look at, but it’s a sour thing to play, and it’s immensely disappointing that we’ve waited 13 years for this.

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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