Ubisoft is taking an interesting step with the Anno franchise. The city-building strategy series is jumping into the online realm with Anno Online, a new installment that takes players into colonial times. Unlike its predecessors, however, Anno Online is a free-to-play browser-based game. To learn more about it, I grabbed a closed beta code and jumped in.
Anno Online starts in a forest-laden area within the American colonies. A friendly tutorial will teach players everything they need to know about building their new civilizations. This portion of the game is extremely friendly to newcomers and explain in great detail each building's function. It didn't take long to learn about attracting pioneers to my settlement and how to keep them all happy.
With the tutorials out of the way, Anno Online demonstrates just how complex a city-builder it can be. To create a bustling civilization, the player must learn to build efficient supply chains. That means connecting pioneer settlements with marketplaces and building farmland and harbors along roads and accompanying settlements. The game will helpfully point out the effectiveness of certain building placement by displaying efficiency percentages, though I had hoped to see more of an explanation of what determined those numbers.
Micromanagement quickly becomes key in Anno Online and players will need to learn to balance resources, such as goat farms, distribution centers, and lumber yards. Fall short on any resource and pioneers will begin to leave your settlement. Helpful tool tips will help keep players apprised of what resources need refilling, making this an easy city-builder to jump into. The downside, however, is that resources build up at a snail's pace, a product of the game's free-to-play nature. Microtransactions will help players build up their resources faster, which can become a costly venture. While the game feels like a great time-waster, the slow rate at which resources rebuild means that sessions typically won't go beyond a half-hour.
If players do need a diversion while waiting for resources to fill back up, they can also check out their friends' settlements, thanks to an intuitive friends list feature. While I didn't fully jump into this part of the beta, I was briefed on it during the opening tutorial and I was able to check out an example city, which was a bustling metropolis compared to my menial forest village. Multiplayer features will include trading with friends and forming guilds, which will give Anno Online plenty of life following its release.
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Anno Online does many things right, while only suffering from some nagging issues. Building roads is a bit of a hassle, as it's difficult to tell where they've been laid out. The building process often creates a giant red grid, which makes certain parts of the settlement difficult to see. It more often than not resulted in me building some settlements away from roads, which was a bit of a hassle. Those faults don't outweigh a greatly user-friendly presentation and intuitive design.
Most of all, though, it's the lag-free functionality within the confines of a Chrome browser that could potentially make Anno Online a great alternative to many of the retail city-building games currently out there. A release date has not been given for the final version of Anno Online.