There was a brief moment during my time with Rise of Venice where I thought it may have the potential to be a sort of Renaissance-era Elite. Tired of my eighteen hour slog through the overly-guided, buggy and frankly rather tedious campaign, I dipped into the scoreboard mode. These are shorter, goal-focused scenarios that seem to encourage you to meet a certain target in whatever fashion you see fit. You can’t save, but there’s the tantalising promise of a leaderboard entry if you can succeed.
Selecting “From the Bottom,” I was given a lone Sloop, a handful of coins and the task of earning 150,000 gleaming gold pieces. After a bit of basic coastal trading from Venice to Zara to Ragusa and back again, I’d saved up enough to arm my crew and gear up for some piracy. This was how I’d earn my coin; through daring raids on superior shipping.
Pouncing on an unsuspecting lone trader (who nonetheless was larger and better equipped than my own vessel,) I eked out a gruelling victory and sent my hardy sailors to capture the now-stricken ship. Victory was mine … until it was ripped away. For reasons best known to Rise of Venice, the captured vessel did not change hands (as it usually does.) Instead I was left with a paltry pile of plunder and a large repair bill.
What should have been a reward for a deft, successful assault against a superior force in a sandbox scenario was instead a slap on the wrist and a disapproving glance from a game that clearly didn’t want me to play that way. The way that might actually have been engaging. Or exciting.
That sense of weary disappointment runs through Rise of Venice like the desire for power through a 15th Century Venetian noble. It’s a game that takes an incredibly rich, exhilarating period of history and, at almost every turn, interprets it in most mundane way possible.
Rise of Venice is not-entirely-dissimilar to Gaming Mind’s previous trading sim efforts, Patrician IV and Port Royale 3. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with iterative game design. After all, FIFA gets away with it almost every year. The question is always this: is there enough on offer here to tempt me away from a previous installment?
The early signs were quite promising. Cities and world map now share the same ‘space’ instead of being separate entities. If you zoom right out, you’re effectively seeing a third or so of the world. Zoom in, and you can see city details like marketplaces, town halls and other important buildings. This makes keeping track of your trading convoys, and navigating around the world, a great deal smoother and more intuitive than in previous titles. Individual building functions can be easily accessed from high above through a radial menu, as can docked convoys. It’s a smart, unobtrusive piece of streamlining that works extremely well.
Unfortunately I’ve now pretty much run out of positive things to mention, unless you include the rival Venetian trader whose voice actor seems to be attempting a bit of a David Bowie impression (which you should, as that is indeed a positive thing.)
The campaign started going downhill with a bugged treasure map quest that kept the actual location of the gold invisible and prevented any further progress along the linear narrative path. I’m told that the developers are aware of this bug and are fixing it (indeed, the treasure’s mysterious and sudden reappearance in my game may have been the result of a stealth Steam update,) but it’s far from alone in the list of bugs and non-triggering quest events I encountered.
Perhaps in an effort to make amends, the game then gave me thousands of trade resources completely out of the blue on two separate occasions. That was probably just another bug, but thank god it happened because these magical resources alleviated the dreadful grind of having to trade enough goods to be allowed to trade more goods.
You see, your character has a level rank and only the highest ranks get access to all 22 tradeable commodities. To rise in rank, you have to secure votes from five of Venice’s Council of Ten, and to do that, you have to keep them happy. Later in the game it’s possible to deploy a family member to exert influence, but early on your only recourse is (relatively) expensive bribes or going on missions for the Council members. The former means more grinding, while the latter is sometimes just impossible. More than once, my only Council mission option involved securing goods that I wasn’t a high enough level to trade in.
Effectively, the campaign mode is an eighteen hour tutorial on the fundamentals of the game. It is astonishingly drawn out and full of more dubious padding than a cheap mattress. It alternates between sending the player out on wild goose chases and setting mundane, tedious tasks to eat up more of your precious time. What it does teach you often isn’t even a very good idea. The first trade route it taught me to set up was unprofitable, and the first production chain it encouraged me to build hemorrhaged money until I just gave up and demolished it.
Automated convoy routes, so crucial to the flow of goods, seem to be quite dysfunctional. The theory is this: you develop a settlement by constructing production buildings (for grain, wood, hemp and the like) and housing for the workers, sell any excess goods to the port for a profit and shuttle the rest to other settlements that require the raw materials. The campaign/tutorial has you set up a chain whereby wood and metal go downstream to be made into tools. You then set up an automated trade route for a convoy to load up the raw materials, offload them at the tool factory and pick up any produced tools for sale at other ports.
Except what actually happened is the designated AI captain picked up the raw materials and then sailed around with them in his hold forever like an idiot. No amount of “unload raw materials” options being checked at the required port would make him let go of his cargo, even when said port was literally crying out for them.