Ubisoft and free-to-play -- words that are enough to make a great deal of people turn around and walk the other way immediately. Yep, Anno Online is Ubisoft's newest foray into the world of free-to-play, taking a storied, deep franchise and turning it into a browser-based game with microtransactions.
If you were looking for the next true Anno game, this isn't it. But if you have a few minutes here and there to waste on a free browser-based game, you really can't go wrong with Anno Online.
Anno Online (PC)
Developer: Ubisoft Blue Byte
Released: TBA 2013 (currently in open beta)
Like most city-sims, you start off with next to nothing other than a tiny settlement and one house. The way the game work is pretty simple: houses earn you income, and all other resources are earned by constructing the appropriate building, such as a stone mine, wheat farm, or apple cider refinery. Slowly but surely, you'll build up a lumber hut to construct marketplaces, and create communities. From there, you'll move on to distribution houses that gather said lumber, and eventually, you'll have to start meeting the needs of your township by way of food, entertainment, and basic necessities. Then, your people will feel like they're entitled to the smoothest satin and silk, and the finest spices (that you literally have to travel to obtain), and you'll begin to loathe them.
All of this continues until the game "ends" -- when you reach the last possible upgrade and don't feel like expanding any further -- and it gets increasingly complex as time goes on. You'll have to constantly place buildings in strategic locations to please the highest amount of citizens, and so forth. Around 15-20 hours in you'll encounter your first opportunity for expansion to a new island to gather hemp -- a resource your citizens eventually demand to make better clothing. At that point, you'll have to juggle different resources on different islands, ship transport, supply and demand problems, eventually find new islands, and deal with all of the placement issues.
It sounds stressful, but with Anno Online, it's really not. There are no disasters, no battles or wars, and you can't really lose anything. The game makes special concessions towards the beginning in fact, offering you up a subsidy and a loan of 100,000 gold (that you'll pay back later) if things go really wrong. You may take longer to progress if you don't manage your finances, but your city won't go up in flames for any reason. Many hardcore strategy fans will probably scoff at this notion (which is fine), but for a free-to-play casual game, I didn't mind it.
Speaking of a casual focus, newcomers to the city-building genre will be delighted to know that quests will help you figure out what to do next, and they've been vastly improved since the beginning of the beta, offering up more instructions on how buildings work and what to upgrade to progress. If you need help, the in-game chatroom is full of helpful people, and from what I've experienced, the community is very welcoming. You can also friend and trade with other players, but there's no true multiplayer experience outside of that, which can make Anno Online feel a bit insular from time to time.
I've been playing Anno Online for around the last two months, nearly every day. For approximately 30-60 minutes day in and day out, I've been experimenting with the game, occasionally hitting a wait-wall, but for almost my entire experience, I never really felt compelled to purchase "rubies" -- the real-money currency that can be used to speed up construction, buy buildings, and purchase new islands and upgrades. While the game doles out a few rubies here and there, it's mostly enough to purchase small upgrades or time savers, and never major islands or goods.
As you "rank up," so to speak, you'll gain access to new buildings, resources, islands, and unlock bits of your home island for expansion. Early on there's going to be a bit of waiting involved, but if you build a ton of homes and up your income it's actually not so bad. On any given day in early or even mid-game progression, I could spend around an hour or two per day consistently playing.
Eventually, after a period of two months, I hit a wait-wall that outweighed the effort of logging in. Buildings go from a 300,000 gold average to well over 700,000 each, and often times you need five or six of these brand new buildings/resources to break even with your city's production load. Considering the bank limit at this stage of the game is generally 1.5 million gold before you progress to the point where you can upgrade it to a higher limit -- you do the math on how much waiting you'll have to engage in before you can progress to the next rank. At this point, the game feels like it's incorporating a pay-wall -- but thankfully, it took around 100 hours to get to that point.
In the end, Anno Online is not an evolution of the genre, and frankly, it's not even a real Anno game. But if you find yourself sitting at a computer at home or at work and have a free 15-20 minutes on any given day, it won't hurt to check the game out; it takes a long while to get to the point where you feel pressured to pay for anything. Anno Online is one of the simplest strategy games I've ever played, but it's also one of the least stressful and easy to get into, which is why I spent so much time with it in the first place.