It’s a surefire way to sound really, really old, but we’re going to say it anyway: they really don’t make them like The Colonists anymore. Whenever a new city-builder or resource management sim comes out, it seems to be outdoing the last in terms of how microscopic the detail can get, how zoomed out the scope can get, and how much DLC can be pumped out. Often, we just want to strip everything to its basics and boot up a copy of the original Settlers or ANNO. If you’re of a similar mindset, well, The Colonists dunks your biscuit.
Like Settlers, The Colonists is basically a building-and-road sim: you place a handful of buildings onto a map, and then you look to connect them in the most efficient method possible. You’re not controlling any characters or maneuvering armies – that’s done automatically. It’s about tweaking transport networks so that your adorable robots can scuttle about and keep the city functioning. As your city expands, this job becomes more awkward, as bottlenecks appear and various manufacturing nodes, like lumberyards and factories, grind to a halt.
The Colonists looks, initially, like it might be cutesy and simple. The characters are all discarded prototypes of WALL-E, and the world seems to be made out of LEGO. We love how the robots are all 3D-printed at the main shuttle, emerging in a form that’s suitable to their task. There are only 14 campaign levels to play, and you’d be forgiven for having the impression that this is a throwaway, extremely simple, Kingdom of Keflings-style management sim. Well, we can tell you that it 100% isn’t.
Should you let it, The Colonists will harvest your free time and take it away to be manufactured into energy cubes. While it has 14 campaign levels, they are extraordinarily long, and completing them all will take you into the many dozens of hours. Each has multiple objectives, and you will be far from completing them; at the start of a level, you will need to build residential areas, which power your resource and manufacturing stations, which then unlock towers to expand the fog of war and find more resources. But your city will keep you on a tight leash, and if you cut corners on gathering resources or building shoddy infrastructures, then you will fail and have to overhaul everything. So, it’s a slow progression, as you create an efficient complex that can sustain a much bigger city in the long-term.
The Colonists is happy to make you wait. Things are built or manufactured in real-time and, while you can speed things up, you will often be hit by a blockage on your roads, or a shortfall in logs, rocks, ores and more, so you’ll be returning to normal speed frequently. Get things wrong, and often it’s best to start from the start again, as you can get into a doom-spiral, with everything in gridlock and no robot able to unclog it.
As a result, The Colonists is not for everyone. There is a huge amount of patience and persistence required, and we found ourselves swinging between love and hate for it. More often than not, we were in the zone, getting into the rhythm of building and expanding, and our Settlers itch was getting well and truly scratched. For a game that thrives on PC, it feels intuitive on console, with clear radial menus and well-organised tabbing structures. Everything can be fine-tuned to a satisfying degree, from the type of tree you want to grow, to the checkpoint-placement on roads. There are a lot of things to twiddle in terms of options, and The Colonists does a great job of introducing you to them.
But, very occasionally in the Campaign, we hit a ceiling of tedium. Levels can go on too long, but need to be completed if we want to progress (the levels are linear on two tracks: one that’s resource-focused, and another that’s combat-oriented). Since you mostly need to start from scratch on each level, we got frustrated that we were going through the same motions and making the same choices. We were eager to stick with one city, rather than Etch-a-Sketch and do the same picture over and over. The Campaign can feel a bit stop-start in this way, and does create moments where you stop to wonder whether it’s worth it.
In anticipation of this, The Colonists comes packaged with a Sandbox Mode. It’s awesome, frankly, and there’s an argument for ditching the Campaign to dedicate yourself to it (if the Campaign didn’t teach you vital skills and tactics). There is an incredible number of options before you even start up, as you can fiddle with the procedural seeds to generate the island you want. The Sandbox Mode also doesn’t stop once you’ve hit all the objectives: you can just keep growing and perfecting your city. For many, that’s the spirit of a Settlers, Sim City or ANNO, and it’s appreciated that it’s here on launch (on PC, the feature came much later in its life).
The Colonists is fully featured enough to also offer you scenario-like Challenges, which require you to complete tasks that you might not have bothered with otherwise, like unlocking all of the technologies at your Workshop. Frontiers are similar to Challenges, but open to the whole community; there’s a global leaderboard that tracks everyone’s progress, as everyone strives to reach the goal as efficiently as possible. These Frontiers highlight a lack of multiplayer, which is something of a miss. While combat is automated in the Campaign, which might not immediately lend itself to multiplayer, it’s not hard to imagine a land-grab version of the game. Checking forums for The Colonists, there are plans to introduce this later, but it’s a shame that – for the moment – your skills are only recognised on high score tables.
It’s testament to the tightness of The Colonist’s design, and the many ways that you can optimise your city, that we would want to play The Colonists in multiplayer. Slowness aside, this is a game we can see ourselves returning to plenty in the future, as we think of a new layout or new efficiency. In Sandbox in particular, there’s every opportunity to lose umpteen hours, and not many games make us daydream about them like Colonists does.
If you value your free time, or have a backlog of games to get through, then be warned: The Colonists can put you under the same magical spell as the original Settlers and ANNO. While its slowness can be occasionally irksome, particularly in the Campaign, it has a habit of dragging you back in. Book a week off, find a log cabin with wi-fi and no intrusions, and watch the time disappear.
You can buy The Colonists from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S