As vast as it is rich, Anno 1800 is a visually stunning return to form. It isn't a great teacher, but players of all skill levels will be hooked.
A return to historical form for the empire-building Anno franchise, Anno 1800 is a visually stunning and engrossing journey back in time to the 19th century. Letting players loose to forge their own way in a world of unfettered capitalism, longtime series steward Blue Byte's latest entry brings a select mix of old and new to Anno 1800, and the end result is the most compelling game that the Ubisoft studio has produced in a decade. Though it can't help but stumble over one of the less-than-welcoming sim genre's most common caveats, hardcore fans and dedicated newcomers will each discover themselves putting an unprecedented amount of time into Anno 1800.
Veteran players of Anno's flavor of real-time strategy and simulation will launch the game for the first time to find three expected modes: Sandbox, Campaign, and Multiplayer. These all play as one would expect, with the sandbox unleashing players onto the world to reshape it as they see fit, the campaign consisting of a series of goal-oriented tutorials masked in a rags-to riches plot that ultimately evolves into the sandbox mode, and multiplayer pitting players against one another in a race to be the first to dominate the game world.
On a level only matched by the most ambitious city builders like Cities: Skylines and older SimCity titles, every game of Anno 1800 lets players grow from humble agrarian beginnings to full-scale industrial imperialism through its deep mechanics and immense breadth. Between these two distinct phases of prosperity, player focus will slowly shift away from carefully attending to every citizen, road, and piece of production and come to rest on the much colder, calculating management of multiple colonies that span the game world. For some players, it will likely feel that something has been lost between the more intimate early game and the big-picture late game that requires tireless number crunching and market watching to avert disaster, but this is more attributable to genre than to Anno 1800 on its own. Plus, each phase is plenty enjoyable in its own right.
As for other genre mainstays, Anno 1800 knocks it out of the park both mechanically and thematically. Similar to Tropico 6's citizenry, every denizen of Anno's world is fully simulated and (to a lesser extent) distinct, meaning that what pleases one group may do little to address the needs and demands others. Players that fail to please the populace will have an inefficient labor force, which could hamstring the entire society's ability to progress and produce vital materials and, in turn, quickly coalesce into financial ruin when players are unable to keep up with the game's intelligent AI competition.
However, players that make it out of the early game through trial and error will discover just how far down the rabbit hole goes when wrestling with the many heads of the commercial beast that they've created along the way. By far the game's most impressive achievement, the impossibly deep roots but clear logic of Anno 1800's production chains provide the tools to make every save completely unique and unpredictable. This heart of the game is far from forgiving, but, with a keen eye and a little luck, players that master their bustling dominions won't be able to stifle a strong sense of self-satisfaction when admiring the vast networks of logistics, trade, and war they've created.
The Anno series is all about setting, and it's here where this year's offering also shines. Finally giving up the future, the 19th century is the perfect backdrop for players to radically restructure the world around them. Because of this Industrial Revolution-era setting, the slow transformation of ugly but charming peasant settlements into huge, upscale cities that (presumably) reek of pollution couldn't feel more natural. A fledgling, semi-free press is even there to document all player achievements and follies, informing and influencing public opinion, holding would-be despots at least somewhat accountable. Luckily, being capitalist overlords, players have means of swaying these published detractors, at a cost.
At times, Anno 1800's depiction of unglamorous 19th century life can be so immersive as to make one feel like they've stepped back in time to oversee the early state of some real-world population center. These moments are never as immersive as when taking advantage of the game's novel first-person view mode - something absent from most sims since the bygone RollerCoaster Tycoon era - which allows players to roam the streets of the communities they've built from the perspective of their constituents. Visually, Anno 1800 is abberantly stunning for a game of its type and scope, and its dedication to graphical detail shows best from this unique viewpoint.
Though it's understandably contrived and rife with contemporary camp, the story found in Anno 1800's campaign also helps to drive home the game's sense of historicity. A tale of familial betrayal and revenge following the death of the player character's father, the campaign shepherds the player on their journey to pick up the game's key mechanics. This story is lent further character from a full voice cast and impressively animated character busts, which go a long way to give Anno 1800 something that many other titles in this genre lack: a personality. That said, hardcore players that opt to play through the campaign will likely find it to be too hand-holding for their tastes, meanwhile newcomers will doubtlessly walk away still confused about what they're persistently doing wrong.
The latter result is due to the campaign's unfortunate failure to properly explain some fundamental and advanced gameplay tidbits. While often not entirely vital, these gaps in player knowledge are sure to hamper even players who are familiar with real-time city builders, and each segment of Anno 1800 players will find themselves annoyed when they discover that a link in their production chain wasn't functioning properly because of something the game never bothered to point out. It's an all-too-common mistake made in this genre due to its inherent depth and scale, but it's nonetheless a negligent oversight on the developer's part.
This typical misstep aside, Anno 1800 is an otherwise excellent history-themed simulator that excels at drawing players into its satisfying gameplay loop and keeping them there. It may not be the best point of entry for those inexperienced with the genre, but those willing to keep at it are sure to find in it the same intoxicating appeal that will keep Anno fans who have been waiting for the franchise to return to its roots busy with the game for years to come. As strikingly beautiful as it is mechanically deep, Anno 1800 is easily the most distinguished of its class in 2019 so far.
Anno 1800 is now available for PC. Screen Rant was provided a Uplay PC code for review purposes.