Getting to talk at length with the developer of a game is a wonderful thing. Rise of Venice, an impressive new offering from Kalypso Media, lends itself extremely well to this type of dialogue, given the layers of complexity involved in its development, and by extension the remarkable ambition of the people who created it. You learn about the challenges that went into making it, such as writing a new gaming engine, deciding whether or not to include land combat, or how to improve different camera modes so players don’t have to sit through a loading screen every time they want to switch views – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s what I gathered during my comprehensive look at this upcoming title:
Rise of Venice is a brand new IP that draws heavily on two other series by German developer Gaming Minds, those being the popular Port Royale series and Patrician, both of which feature complex trading systems, a lavish visual presentation, and exciting gameplay situations such as naval battles. This time around, Rise of Venice will put you in the boots of an ambitious young trader looking to make his fortune in 15th century Italy.
Developer Sebastian Walter eloquently introduced the campaign to the writers gathered around him for the preview, speaking better English than I do in his charming, thick German accent:
We’re looking at Venice at the peak of its power during the Renaissance, and at this time it was viewed as a city of decadence, beauty, and intrigue, and it was also renowned as the lynchpin of civilization, and the cultural center of Europe.
You take the role of a young man striving for success, wealth, and power, and you’re coming originally from a mercenary’s family, which was very common at this time, although they didn’t have much prestige. So, it was the wish of your dying grandfather [here a cutscene unfolds for us as the introduction to the campaign] to break with the mercenaries and advance your rank in the Venetian society by becoming one of the famous traders in Italy, by setting up your very own trading empire.
Badass. Who doesn’t enjoy striving to get rich? I certainly do. You start the game with a small fleet of ships, but family is everything, and you can rely on a wealthy uncle or two at first to help you gain a little traction in the trading community. Sebastian introduced us to the ruling families of Venice, a council of extraordinary power and influence in the city, and it will be up to the player to decide who can be trusted, whose favor to seek, and whom to scorn.
There are multiple game modes to choose from, with easy options to create a custom game, link up with friends, or head online for some competitive multiplayer. Most players will start with the campaign though, which is estimated to run about 12-15 hours. At the end, you’ll receive a score based on how successful your efforts proved as a merchant of Venice (someone should write a play about that), which can then be viewed on a global leaderboard. The developers decided to add this feature in response to feedback from the gaming community, who desired a way to play competitively without going head-to-head with human opponents.
Once in the actual game, you’ll have the pleasure of navigating a 3D map that is gorgeously rendered, and I don’t say this lightly. The tremendous level of detail in the game comes from a brand new engine that the studio built specifically for Rise of Venice, and the hard work they put in is more than evident. The ocean sparkles a magnificent blue-green, while tiny flocks of seagulls coast lazily overhead. The city center of Venice bustles with life as people go about their daily routines, while gondolas cruise leisurely through the world-famous canal system. Around the city, a stalwart wall keeps its promise to dissuade would-be invaders and barbarian hordes, and the rolling hills of Italy stretch off into the beautiful countryside, studded with lush green trees whose leaves whisper softly in the warm summer breeze. It’s love at first sight, and given the time period that it depicts, when the best artists in the history of the world were doing their thing, anything less would be a disservice. I firmly believe (and I suppose few would argue) that this level of visual excellence plays a crucial role in immersing the player in the world that Gaming Minds has strived so hard to create.
Other major cities dot the continent, stretching across a huge map that includes North Africa and parts of Asia as well. In order to build your empire, you’ll need to interact with multiple neighbors using carefully selected trading routes. The developers have included 25 commodities that were traded regularly at the time, such as hemp, silk, spices, and so on. The last two could only be obtained from Asia at the time, usually in exchange for salt, as well as cotton, and these little flourishes of historical realism are frequently employed to great effect. While demonstrating how the cinematic view combined seamlessly with the strategic view, Sebastian showed how real world events could also play a major role in the game with a catastrophic volcanic eruption that showered lava and fire down on Naples. Keeping an eye on fluctuating populations, which can be a significant result of such disasters, plays an interesting role during your campaign in the sense that you can effectively profiteer from the needs of a recently ravaged community.
Perhaps my favorite part of the demonstration involved the naval battles, which acted as a kind of mini-game, but featured highly polished graphics and an extremely fluid system that made for thrilling combat on the high seas. Commanding a modest armada of ships outfitted with dozens of cannons each, Sebastian bore down on the enemy with notable confidence, unleashing repeated barrages of cannon fire at his opponent’s ships. The computer fought valiantly, but in the end he was able to outmaneuver the marauding caravels and secure the victory, leaving the enemy fleet as little more than scraps of timber and tattered sails bobbing on the ocean surface.
Now, my favorite part within my favorite part involved the aftermath of a high-stakes battle, where in addition to the debris from sunken ships you’ll find surviving sailors struggling to stay afloat. You can pick them up by carefully sailing close enough for a rescue crew to toss out a rope, but you’ll have to hurry if you want to save them – dorsal fins all over the area suddenly appear near the survivors, slicing on a murderous trail through the water as they circle their prey. Once they start to circle, as anyone who has watched their share of Shark Week can tell you, it’s suppertime, and when the hapless sailor meets his fate, the shark makes a charge from below and bursts straight up out of the water, shaking the poor guy like a rag doll and leaving a sizable cloud of blood in the water as it drags the lifeless body down to those murky depths. We were informed that the developers drew inspiration from a well-known documentary that featured Great Whites exploding out of the water as they hunted seal, and the effect left a great impression on everyone there.
Imaginative animations like that are simply one more indicator of the talent that has clearly gone into this project, and I’ll be excited to try out the final version. If you’re not familiar with the earlier series, but have played and loved games like Civilization, Anno, Total War: Shogun 2, etc., then Rise of Venice is a title you won’t want to miss out on. Look for a release in September on Steam for PC, and head over to the official website for screenshots, videos, and plenty of additional information. Buona fortuna!