I struggled coming up with an acceptable way to start the review, because this is a wonderful game, and it deserves something wonderful to be said about it. So let the lameness of this intro speak to the overawing greatness of Anno.
If you're unfamiliar with the Anno series of games, they have all been (1404 is the 3rd sequel) colony-builders that take place in vast archipelagos filled with pirates, natives, treasures, and rival colonies. Typically, players start with a single ship packed with essential goods with which they colonize a single island. From there they gather increasingly large amounts of increasingly diverse materials (pearls, coal, bread, and fur coats are later-game trade goods, for instance), process them in factories, ship them between islands, trade, build armies, and sink pirate vessels until they complete the scenario's objectives – which can be either elimination of all opponents or something more peaceful like amassing a giant hoard of coins or building an impressive structure.
What drives expansion and complicates the picture in Anno is the player's population, which is constantly clamoring for different types of goods, which, of course, the player must supply unless he wants riots in the streets. At the most basic level, citizens need food and little else. Later on, your people require clothing, cider, spices, beer, those fur coats I mentioned, beef, leather jackets, and a host of supplementary buildings such as churches, fire stations, surgeries (for healing the sick), and so forth. This by itself eventually requires serious organizational moxie. By the end of the game it's not unusual to have a half-dozen islands feeding essential supplies to one another to keep your high-level citizens fat and happy. If a corsair squadron sinks your trade ship bringing in next month's supply of wine, head for the hills because the dainty aristocrats will soon shed their civilized veneer and start calling for blood. Of course, there are other players with their own whiny spoiled brat cities, so these challenges are multiplied by competition for scarce resources.
The rewards are the satisfaction of running a giant inter-island empire and having high enough population levels to support large armies, massive fleets, and the building of monuments to your success, such as giant mosques (mosques?! stay tuned...) and cathedrals.
Like a good little sequel, 1404 doesn't take giant leaps into the unknown. But it does bring the Anno idea further than it's ever been brought before.
The big new idea in 1404 is the Orient. Previous games divided the maps into climactic zones; you would grow wheat and hops in the north and you'd have to colonize southern islands for spices and sugar. 1404 takes this idea much further and adds an entirely new peer civilization in the Orient, with its own buildings, unique resources, population dynamics, etc. After you ingratiate yourself to the Grand Vizier, you can construct rudimentary Oriental towns and harvest low-level Oriental resources like spices, dates, and milk. Of course, things get much more complicated later on, and if you want to you can entirely abandon your Occidental civilization and pursue the needs of your Oriental people. This means growing coffee, creating large mosques, and bringing in a steady supply of carpets and necklaces.
The most interesting thing to do, however, is to take the middle path. Running both a successful series of Oriental and Occidental colonies is the best way to succeed. Some later-game goods, such as glass, require that resources from the north (potash) be combined with southern resources (quartz). And without glass a lot of higher-tier Occidental buildings can't be built. Also included in the Orient are Assassins (who will fight for you if you pay them), corsairs, and even an Islamic seminary where the learned will, if supplied with food and drink, invent cool stuff for your settlements to use. The entire idea of the Orient, right down to the music and the color palette, is really well executed. It's probably the most interesting addition any Anno game has included, ever, and one of the most interesting ideas (from a boring-ass historical perspective) ever tried in a strategy game.
Aside from the Orient, there's the predictable slew of tweaks and additions one can expect from any update to a long-running franchise. Some trade goods have been phased out, the trade-route planner has been made easier to use, there are some new buildings, etc. The only major change worth noting over the previous version is the concept of Ascension Rights. It used to be that if you had 500 low-level pioneers, you could make them all citizens (or whichever level was next) by providing all of them with enough resources to do so. That's not the case anymore. For a certain size of a population, there will be a certain amount of titles available for each rung on the social ladder. So, not everyone gets to be a noble, or a patrician, or even a citizen. There will still be peasants in the late game. You can increase the amount of titles there are by increasing the population, but you can't do much about the fixed ratios. It makes more sense, again from a historical perspective, but it also means that your cities have to be larger than they were previously.
Also new is the single-player campaign, which follows the player as he embarks on a crusade against the Orient and winds up siding with the Sultan and fighting against the malevolent Cardinal Lucius and his minions. The political overtones shouldn't be overestimated, but it was hard to ignore the fact that the Church is invariably depicted as a power-mad evil empire and the Orientals as peaceful innocents. What made it even more obvious was the fact that the game ends with the Sultan and your Occidental allies crushing the Church's army and ringing in a new era of amity and respect while the Holy Fleet is on fire and slipping beneath the waves.
The other new thing is the graphics, which have never been a real strength of the Anno series. This time around they're very good-looking and rather cheap in terms of system resources. I run everything on high with no slowdown whatsoever and my rig is pretty modest.
Anno 1404 is the best Anno yet and one of the best strategy games in a long time. Tons of games are addictive, very few of them for the right reasons – but this game is both. The hours you spend coordinating trade routes and planting hemp fields in 1404 will be caused by the ingenious nature of the design and not the cheap exploitation of the one-more-level phenomenon. For that reason alone it's worth a try.