Platforms: PC and Mac
Developer: Gaming Minds
From the gameplay mechanics to the user interface and graphics one thing is very clear: Rise of Venice began life as a carbon copy of another Kalypso published title, Port Royale 3. Still, though I still have serious doubts as to whether it needed to be released under a completely different name, Rise of Venice makes some solid changes to the formula and even brings in some elements from yet another Kalypso title, Patrician, to create an amalgamation of sorts that works out pretty well.
But just in case you’re not familiar with the nuances of Port Royale 3, let’s just start at the beginning, shall we? In Rise of Venice you take on the role of a member of a fairly minor family residing in the beautiful city of Venice, and your goal is to raise the stature of your family name to prominence, done through sailing the high seas and trading goods. This is an economic game, one where you must navigate the ebb and flow of supply and demand, following the old adage of buying low and selling high in order to make a profit. At first you have but a single ship to click around the vast blue expanse, but as your little empire grows you’ll have multiple automated convoys on the ocean, each with escort ships to deal with pirates, and be producing your own goods in vast quantities.
Underpinning everything is the game’s economic system which dictates the value of every product within the world at any given time. Each of the many cities spread around the map produces five different goods, and so naturally they usually have a plentiful stock allowing you to purchase said goods fairly cheaply before moving on to another city to sell them at a considerably higher rate. The amount of produce in stock is always indicated by a bar made up four pips, and as you deplete the stock it becomes more and more expensive to buy, and conversely sell too much of something to a single city and the value begins to fall since there is less demand. Naturally occurring events such as famine or even fire can also alter the value of any given item, and thus you can seize the opportunity during such events to turn a quick profit.
Once you’ve got some money under your belt you can start to expand your empire, done first by getting yourself a few more ships. While adding another ship or two to your existing convoy gives you a bit more firepower and storage space, what you really want to do is use them to form a second convoy under the command of a trusted captain. You can then create an automated trading route, dictating which cities the convoy will visit and what actions it will take at each one, and even going so far as to manually choose exactly how much money the captain can spend on any given product and at what price he should sell it. Frustration did strike, though, when I realised that unlike Port Royale 3 Rise of Venice does not simply let you click a button to order the captain to buy and sell as he see’s fit, rather you’ve got to set that all manually, making trading routes just a little less smooth to use. Instead by default your captain will only pick up produce from any of your warehouses along the way unless you take the time to get everything set up properly. The good news is that once you figure out a good balance of buy/sell prices, you can simply hit a button to transfer those settings to each city on the route, and unless you really want to delve into the intricacies of trading in order to maximise profit you can use exactly the same settings for any convoy, regardless of where they’re going.
With a few convoys bearing your custom names sailing the high seas you can then move on to constructing your own buildings within cities, massively increasing their production of certain goods, and therefore your profit taking potential. To do this you first need to get a trading license for the city, which as the name suggests lets you trade there, and that can cost a pretty penny, especially in a city allied to Genoa rather than Venice. After that you’ve then got to acquire a license to build, which is another chunk of cash you’ve got to cough up, and that requires you to have gained a certain amount of respect within the city, earned by selling them items they have in short supply or by taking on missions from the city hall, which amount to nothing more than bringing them a certain amount of a given product by a specific time. Once that license is acquired you need to construct a warehouse, which is run by a steward who can be programmed to buy goods from the city for your convoys and such. Once that’s all done you’re finally allowed to construct production buildings within the city, as well putting up new houses, schools and even churches to help keep the local populace happy and ensure productivity is as high as it can be.
Building a trading empire is a slow, sometimes tedious but ultimately very rewarding experience. Once you’ve got your network created ships shall be sailing back and forth, picking up produced goods and selling them to those cities that have none while delivering the raw materials required for the production of more complex items, like clothing and metal tools, to your warehouse. It’s your own personal complex web of mercantile savvy, and its creation is immensely satisfying.
As you progress through the game you can attain new ranks and influence within the world, done by going before the Senate in Venice and asking them for advancement. Higher rank allows you to have more convoys sailing the ocean at once, purchase and construct larger ships that boast more firepower and trade in a wider range of goods, providing further potential for profit. However, gaining the Senates vote is tricky as each member has a percentage value assigned to them indicating how likely they are to vote for you. To curry favor with these people you can take on missions for them, which include constructing buildings in certain areas, plundering ships, taking out pirates, transporting goods and finding lost cargo, or you could simply offer them a large bribe. Much like trading, then, there’s an ebb and flow to the politics of advancement that must be carefully navigated. It’s a good idea to get some cash in the bank and set up a few automated trading routes before you really try to power your way through the ranks, though, as it can be a time-consuming process and without money coming in it’s incredibly easy to lose track of your funds and end up in debt.
As much as I like this idea of political advancement, though, I did find that gaining rank often felt like I was fighting a losing battle. It can be a tedious struggle to try to gain enough favour to advance in rank at times, and in some cases as quickly as I was completing missions for Senate members my influence with others was failing equally fast, creating an awkward juggling act where I was trusting my other convoys to keep my empire afloat while I ran around doing the bidding of these irritating fools simply so that I could advance the storyline. Manually controlling more than one convoy can help as you can fulfill two tasks at once (I never had an instance where more than two were available) but in certain situations it’s nearly impossible, as you might be having to hunt down a tiny mission goal which requires your full attention. Simply amassing a fortune and then bribing the Senate members proves to be a slightly more useful tactic as that way you can throw money at them just before you ask for a vote, but going through the entire game this way feels almost like cheating. In a future patch it would be nice if the developers tweaked it so that you don’t fall out of favor with each member quite as quickly.
There are also rival traders in Rise of Venice and they can actually make your life far harder, but this feature doesn’t feel all that fleshed out. Rival families can get you barred from ports and sabotage you in several ways, and you can do likewise, but they barely ever chose to do anything to me, and even when they did it wasn’t anything more than a minor inconvenience, when it should have gotten me into a minor fury and sparked an epic political war of sabotage and plundering.
Pirates also play a major role in the Rise of Venice. Not only can they ambush your convoys, plundering your goods, or in serious cases sinking your ships, but they have hideouts scattered around the map from which they plan their nefarious deeds, presumably while quaffing copious amounts of rum and saying “arrr” a lot, though I could just be stereotyping. Defeating pirates, and especially destroying their hideouts, earns you bonus influence with the Senate, giving you a small reason to hunt them down aside from simply making life a little easier for your ships. Naval combat is actually rather simple: from a top down view you can swap between any of your convoy’s three escort ships. By holding down the right mouse button you can direct the ship, while clicking the left button unleashes a vicious broadside. Other elements come in to play as well: chain-shot can be used to damage enemy ship’s sails, while canister shot lets you kill crew. Both of these things are useful for it you want to board the enemy ship, done by selecting the appropriate option and then keeping your ship close to the enemy’s vessel for a few seconds. At that point it comes down to the number of sailors in each crew, and how well equipped they are with pistols and swords, acquired in the various cities.
The combat system isn’t very deep, nor is it that well designed. Putting some thought into maneuvering can give you the edge in a fight, but other than that there’s little to worry about as most battles come down to sailing in circles, firing off broadsides as fast as you can. The friendly AI also means it’s pretty much impossible to try to catch enemies in a crossfire or anything of the sort except largely by pure luck. In fact, when the AI are left to their own devices I often found that both my ship and the enemy’s would simply sail side by side, blasting away at each other, and so by time I’d finished with my foe they would be miles away. Still, deep or not combat is sort of mildly amusing if not indulged in too often, and if it’s not your cup of tea then there’s a button to let the AI duke it out in your name while you sip tea.
However, I do have a couple of problems with some of the design decisions made in regards to combat – if one of your other convoys is attacked the battle is always resolved automatically, rather than letting you choose whether you want the AI to duke it out or take control yourself. Rise of Venice also doesn’t inform you should pirates happen to completely sink one of your convoys, as I sadly found out during play when my prized convoy, named Serenity, was sank during a pirate raid. It wasn’t until I opened up a menu to check the current average profits of each route that I realised the ships had been lost. Finally, why can’t I select my ships by simply clicking on them during a battle? Instead to select a ship you’ve got to choose it from the side-bar, where they’re only referred to by their class so if you’ve got more than one of the same type of ship confusion ensues for a few seconds. It’s awkward, and a surprising oversight on the developers behalf.
The game is fairly impressive on the graphical front with beautiful and convincing water effects being the highlight, which is important given that you’ll be spending a lot of time looking at the liquid. Unlike Port Royale 3 heading into harbors is now a seamless affair with no loading screens, and with a spin of the mouse wheel you can zoom right into the cities and then back out again to get a bird’s-eye view of the entire map. It’s a small yet significant upgrade to the game’s engine and makes everything feel much smoother. The cities have a nice about of detail to them, and during combat ships are equally pleasing. The map is small, though, so it’s no real wonder that the developers have managed to make the game look good, although please don’t read that as some sort of disservice to the developers. The only complaint I can deliver on this front is that when I zoomed out to the fullest all of the ships on the map began moving in short, sharp jerks rather than smoothly, which was a little strange.
The user interface has pretty much been copied from Port Royale 3 and pasted straight into Rise of Venice, so if you’ve ever sailed the seas in Royale then you’ll be right at home. A few tweaks have certain made things bit better than they were, but there are still lots of areas within the interface where things don’t feel very well designed. Information that could have been grouped together for ease is spread all over the place, and it would have been nice to have a drop-down quick select for your convoys. Likewise I would have appreciated the icons for my ships on the map being larger so that I could simply select them by clicking on them, rather than having to pop into a menu to do so, because as it stands they’re so small that selecting them on the map is awkward. There was also some detailed information that I would have liked to have had available that isn’t there, like what commodity in particular is my convoy making the most profit from. Other bits of the interface also feel a touch counter-intuitive, generally just making controlling the game a little more clumsy than it really needed to be. This is not a major criticism, however, because while I do feel there are many elements of the interface that could have been done far better, controlling the game isn’t much of a problem. It’s not like it’s an obtuse system determined to ruin your day.
The main mode of play for any new player entering the game is the campaign, which essentially acts like an extended tutorial designed to introduce various mechanics in the form of missions, but I’ve got some heavy nit-picking to do here. Where the main campaign does fall flat is in explaining many of the games mechanics, and specifically those relating to creating trading routes for your convoys to follow. This is a problem made all the worse by the fact that the trading route interface is a counter-intuitive mess that makes setting up a functioning route far trickier than it needs to be. Several times when first experimenting with this feature my convoys simply refused to work, and I had no idea why, leaving me to head onto Google to try to figure out what was wrong. Likewise the game never mentions that captains earn experience and can have points placed in several different areas, increasing their abilities. There were also a few missions that had objective goals requiring me to do something I had no idea how to do, with no explanation given. Happily as an experience gamer I could figure this stuff out, but the point still stands.
One thing that did irk me a little throughout playing the game is that while there’s nuanced and complex economic system going on underneath the surface, I didn’t feel like it was actually effecting me all that much. I didn’t ever need to actually put any genuine thought into what I was trading: I’d just turn up, buy whatever the town products and sell it to the next one over. Sure, you can take advantage of an erupting volcano or a famine, and closely examine the ebb and flow of the market to maximise profits, but you can also just brush that to the side. That’s mostly because outside of the goods they produce towns never seem to have very much of anything in stock, so there was never any risk of visiting a town only to discover it already had a load of wood and didn’t need any more. There are literally hundreds of ships sailing the ocean at any given time, but they never actually seemed to be doing anything What’s more once you’ve got some trading routes set up that are raking in a steady stream of cash the game becomes pretty easy. At one point that I had several hundred-thousand in the bank and with my ships sailing back and forth there was really nothing for me to do.
However, to be fair that does mean that newcomers don’t have to worry too much about delving deeply into the many little intricacies, while more dedicated players can examine every subtlety. But I must say that as satisfying as building my trading empire was, I felt less like a mercantile genius and more like a guy who just bought some stuff when the numbers were low and sold ‘em when they were high in any one of the indistinguishable cities around the map. It’s a strange complaint, but I would have liked it had it felt like I needed to pay more attention to the economy to become a wealthy citizen of Venice.
The problem with a game like this is by its very nature it’s inherently repetitive, and so after a while everything begins to blur together. The developers try to spice things up with different missions spaced throughout the singleplayer campaign but really you’re just clicking on places, buying stuff, clicking somewhere else and selling it, occasionally interspersed with blowing up a pirate ship or looking for something or transporting someone. Even these missions have some daft design flaws that irked me: you might suddenly find yourself tasked with intercepting and destroying a convoy, except that your only combat convoy is currently getting repaired and by time you get it fighting fit the mission has been failed. Or searching for a tiny little mission goal in a vast ocean by using a truly useless treasure map. Everything boils back down to doing pretty much the same things you were already going, except that now there’s a tiny star over whatever you’re doing because it’s a mission. To be fair to the developers it must be pretty damn hard to come up with any sort of mission that can really spice things up in a game such as this, but that does not invalidate the point. This is a game that needs patience to get through the missions.
Your reward for hauling goods around for hours on end is an empire running numerous automated convoys and buildings producing a range of goods. You go from having lots of really repetitive things to do, to having very few things to do that are still repetitive. Yet let me not be too harsh: this is a trading game and thus wall-to-wall excitement was never going to be in the picture. The game is nothing if not relaxing, especially with the wonderful background music, and even though I never could say I was having fun I definitely had a strange compulsion to keep playing, to watch my wealth amass and my little ships sail the vast oceans.
To the developers credit they do package a few more things in their for you to do. Freeplay is pretty self-explanatory and lets you get on with the whole world domination by trading thing without all the missions and tutorials getting in the way. In this mode you’re free to tweak a variety of settings in order to get the game you want. Happily upon completing the story mode the game automatically reverts to Freeplay so that you can carry on playing, although by that point your empire is already made. Meanwhile Score-board missions task you with achieving a certain goal like getting attaining a specific rank or earning cash in whatever manner you see fit. While you can’t save during these missions they condense the games mechanics into a lovely package that avoids almost all of the tedium of the tutorial/campaign missions, with a placing on the world leaderboard being your reward. Take for instance the mission entitled, “From the Bottom” – here you’re given a lowly sloop and some coins, and then told to earn a total of 150,000. You could, of course, simply trade your way to that fortune, but should you feel a little more irritable you could go down the route of piracy and simply plunder that wealth, although ship repair bills in Rise of Venice tend to be so vast that doing so is rather awkward. The simple truth is that while piracy is technically an option, Rise of Venice doesn’t really seem to want you to play that way. The rewards for plundering a ship almost never outweigh the repair bill, time it takes for your ship to be fixed and the potential loss of trust that comes with it. But I’ve ventured away from my original point: Scoreboard missions are good fun.
You can take both free-play and the score-board missions online in order to test your skills against real people. To be fully honest, however, the online portion of the game is almost dead even this soon after launch and I wasn’t able to get many games under my belt, so I don’t feel entirely comfortable talking about these modes in any great depth. However, the games I did play were quite fun, especially free-play with some good people as the mixture of sabotage and convoy plundering is very enjoyable. Freeplay mode has a time limit, sadly, but again that almost helps in a way as you race to amass a fortune or simply blow the hell out of everyone else.
At this point I’ve read everything I’ve written back to myself, and it sounds fairly negative. The truth is that the game is flawed, I feel, and quite deeply in some areas, yet make no mistake that I did enjoy my time with Rise of Venice. I’m not convinced that this wouldn’t have actually been better served as an expansion for Port Royale 3, but as it stands it’s an enjoyable trading simulator that should serve its target audience well.
+ Amassing money is satisfying.
+ Scoreboard missions are good fun.
+ A nice attention to detail.
– Campaign fails to explain some vital things.
– Campaign also drags on.
– Some clumsy design.
The Verdict: 3/5
Despite my many criticisms of Rise of Venice the game is enjoyable and relaxing to play, the blend of trading and mild political scheming creating the kind of game that can either leave you feeling bored after 30-minutes, or still clicking away hours later.