Dawn of Discovery
Back in my younger gaming days, one of my favorite games was Populous, where, for those who don't know, you play a god crafting a civilization that would serve as your forces against your enemies. To do this, you manipulate the land and provide resources, while keeping an eye on the status of your people, and adjusting in response to any negative changes, while also providing opportunities for your civilization to grow and prosper. Perhaps I'm a born bureaucrat, but these planning games really spoke to me, and I would go on to enjoy titles like Roller Coaster Tycoon and Theme Hospital (but surprisingly not The Sims.)
It's been a while since I played a simulation city builder, but now here's Dawn of Discovery, an adaptation of the acclaimed PC sim Anno. Despite cover art that, though appropriate in relation to the actual game style, makes it look like a children's book, Dawn is a rather involved game of discovering and settling, set in the days of kings and sultans, as you are charged with finding the resources abroad that will help your family's struggling kingdom. Along the way, there are plenty of challenges, including environments that aren't helpful and ever-present and ever-threatening pirates.
There are two ways to play Dawn, and it's suggested you play them in order, otherwise you may as well skip the Story Mode, which, in many ways, is a guided introduction to the game, like a tutorial you'll actual enjoy taking part in. Broken into 10 three-part chapters, this mode lets you tackle Prince William Riley's quests to help his father, King George, return prosperity to their suffering kingdom by searching new lands that hold much-needed resources. As you progress through the prince's tale, the various gameplay tools are rolled out, a few at a time, allowing you to learn how they work on a comfortable pace. Thus, each level focuses on utilizing and understanding a certain technique or construction item, in essence leveling up your character, though it's all couched inside the main story of William and the crew you gather along the way (who will helpfully guide you in your efforts.)
Each level starts you with part of the local map, and the way to get the rest is to reach achievements, which mostly relate to your skill as a city builder, including the number of inhabitants you have and the size of your towns, though exploring is also important, as you can meet specialists who help enhance your resources and uncover sunken treasure to increase your funds and supplies (as long as you can avoid the pirates who will steal your booty and sink your ship if they catch you.) But as with most simulation games like this, the key is managing your people, and there are a ton of options to keep under control in your villages, including food production, resource harvesting, goods manufacturing and general life enhancements, like tea houses and hotels. When you start spreading out to multiple island settlements, it can get a bit difficult to keep track of everything, but on-screen prompts (which will show you where problems lie) help keep you in the loop. Eventually, a military aspect is introduced that allows you to defend your settlements and attack enemies, but it's not nearly as engaging as the more peaceful aspects of island life (possibly because there's not nearly as much control (though the sea fights are kind of cool.))
Once you're done with the hours of play in Story Mode, or if you somehow tire of being yelled at for not building a city port, there's the Continuous Play mode, which hands you the full construction toolbox and map, and lets you run with it. For players who want to just build a civilization and not worry about quests, it's as close to pure city-building as you're going to get and a solid way to challenge the abilities you learned as prince. When you start, there's a customization menu that lets you set a number of properties for your new world, including the amount of money you have to begin with, the level of fertility in the soil and the level of pirate attacks. You can choose to do it all the hard way, make life easy on yourself, or let the whims of fate decide and randomize the settings. Either way, this is not the Story Mode. Continuous Play is much tougher, throwing every challenge at you right off the bat, with none of the assistance, so it's not recommended to jump in until you complete Story Mode, which ramps you up naturally, or you're a veteran of the genre.
In what could have been a very nice touch, you can have a second player play alongside you, but their abilities are severely limited. If you think tending to the greenery and setting off fireworks is a big help or any fun, you might get a kick out of the second-player concept, but since it's nothing like that scene at the drug dealer's house in Boogie Nights, most will just pass.
No online settling is to be had in Dawn of Discovery.
The standard Wii-mote/nunchuk control scheme works smoothly when it comes to the kind of manipulation you need to do when building a city, as your control stick let's you navigate the land, and your Wii-mote points where you need to act. Everything about the controls feels natural, with some nice shortcuts when it comes to city building, allowing you to use your Wii-mote trigger to open your action menu (while the ability to copy and paste your creations is a helpful element when building a metropolis.) Oddly, this is yet another Wii game without a pause function, so you can't exit gameplay without resetting the game.
Now here's a game that just looks gorgeous on the Wii. There's a catch, of course, but honestly, no one could deny how good this game looks, with a simple, yet detailed art style that is bright and colorful, and holds up well, whether you're zoomed out to a world view or right on top of your subjects (with cute little touches like frolicking woodland animals and amusing icons, like the frowny face for disappointed villagers.) Everything looks great during gameplay, with no issues with frame rate or anything else for that matter. So, about that catch... You know how cutscenes always look better than actual gameplay, since they are essentially movies? Well, the cutscenes here still look great, but they aren't movies. They are still drawings that are zoomed and panned to create a sense of movement, delivering scenes that feel like a mix of motion comics and the old Illustrated Classics. Like I said, they look good, but they also feel low-budget.
The audio is similarly impressive, just without the catch. This game features some of the finest voicework I've heard on the Wii, with more than enough well-delivered colonial-era dialogue to keep things fresh (unless you get stuck on a goal or mission, which is when your crew can start to get repetitive.) Otherwise, thanks to the quality voice work, playing Dawn of Discovery is like enjoying a pretty good, if predictable period miniseries (or perhaps soap opera.) The rest of the sound is equally good, with lots of authentic sound effects and effective audible alerts, along with music that's pleasant and appropriate, and thankfully never a distraction.
And in the End...
Yet again, a game on the Wii that looks to be well below my level of interest surprises by focusing on the gameplay and implementing solid, intuitive controls. That it's extremely accessible thanks to the tutorial-on-steroids story mode is just another feather in the Wii's something for everyone cap. This experience is severely enjoyable, on the verge of addicting (a common trait of top "god games.") So much so, I'm now itching to find my old CD of Theme Hospital.