Anno Online hands-on preview: the next-generation of browser games?

While the problems inherent in demoing such a deep, city-building strategy game like Anno Online should be abundantly clear by now, so should the ambition and scale of the game. If not, here are some stats for you. There are 120 different types of building in Anno Online, and you can place 1500 per city. Each starter island contains up to 20,000 decorative objects, and a single playthrough can see you populating up to six different islands. There's even a story running through the game, although we suspect it might be a little fusty. Still, mighty impressive, considering it's all running in a browser with absolutely no download to your PC or cost to your bank account.

Ubisoft are constantly referring to Anno Online as a next-generation browser game, and while that might be an oxymoron to some, it's tough to argue from where I'm sitting. While it's based on Anno 1404 (which came out back in 2009) it looks great. No, it can't match the level of detail in titles like SimCity or Rome 2: Total War , but the intricacy Ubisoft Bluebyte has achieved is impressive.

“It's certainly our plan to try and change perceptions of browser games,” says Tai von Keitz, Game Designer at Ubisoft Bluebyte. “Anno is much more complicated than most other browser games, but to balance that we try not to overwhelm the player at the start. We don't give them too much all at once.” The introduction to Anno Online is very gentle, a world away from the terrifying sprawl of the mid-late game. Much like Bluebyte's other world-building browser title, The Settlers Online, your knowledge is layered up one quest at a time.

First you build a residence, then a marketplace, then a road between the two – all the while the game explains everything clearly, dishing out rewards every time you complete a task. “We've made it so that players can decide when and how they progress. It's not mandatory that you spend hours playing Anno during every session,” adds von Keitz.

That, for me, is the true beauty of what Ubisoft Bluebyte are aiming for with Anno Online. Sure, the game looks brilliant for a browser title, but it's the ability to appeal to a wide variety of players that will make it a truly 'next-generation browser game'. While hardcore strategy types will spend hours micromanaging every aspect of their city, the gentle pace of missions will ensure the more casual 'lunch-time' crowd aren't intimidated. There's a tendency for regular PC gamers to dismiss browser titles as 'fluff', but Anno could well build a bridge between less and more demanding players.

There's no doubting that the substance is here. The developers say there's about four to six months of content in Anno Online so far, and the open Beta is likely to start very soon (they wouldn't give a specific date, but it was originally due for release in autumn 2012). Once it's up and running, new content will be fed in, potentially expanding its lifespan even further. They've also got big plans for cooperative play and guilds. At the moment you can trade with other players and chat to them via a window. When you buy goods from another Anno user, you actually send ships to their harbour to pick them up. According to the developers, ships are extremely customisable, so your fleet will be unique and easy to spot. And no, you can't be pirates.

“You can also help other players by buffing their production line and things like that,” explains Daniel Schaefer, Junior Producer at Bluebyte. “Plus, we've got more features to come, especially when it comes to guilds, where players will come together and focus their efforts. Having a chat window is nice, but we want our guild interactions to have real meaning; we want to have content that you can really work together for.”

Thankfully, you won't be forced to interact with other Anno players. 1404 was always a solitary experience, and you can recreate that in Online if that's your thing. “It's very important that players aren't forced to interact with others,” says von Keitz. “There are a lot of players out there who simply don't want that. One thing we definitely won't do – and there are other games out there that do - is force the player to invite friends into Anno in order to access new content. That's not the way we develop free-to-play games.”

“If you want to play alone that's fine, but if you want to interact with others there will be content to support that. We have, for example, 60 resources in the game so you could group together with friends and say, 'Ok, we want to make our production more efficient, so you produce this kind of resource and I'll make this other resource and we can trade.' We give the player the choice about how they want to play, and I think this is very, very important,” explains Schaefer.

We couldn't agree more. Even the free-to-play aspect of the game is in keeping with this all-inclusive philosophy. While you can buy special resources that speed up building processes, it's entirely possible to 'finish' Anno Online without paying a penny. The only downside is that this game is launching into a market already full-to-bursting with city-builders, and the original 1404 has been available for three years. Perhaps the next-generation of browser games really begins when something truly original comes along. Anno is impressive, but not revolutionary. For now, though, I'm thinking of more important things, like where the hell am I going to place these vineyards? My people demand the finest wine known to humanity and… you know the rest.