There's always a catch. When someone hands you a game for free, tells you that you can play it on any PC, and that it requires no download you know there's going to be a catch. CVG is at the Ubisoft Bluebyte studio in Dusseldorf, sat in front of the latest version of empire-building sim Anno Online. It's free, it's browser-based, and it... well it looks really good - great even - for a browser game. So what's the catch?
"We delayed the game twice to make sure we had something that was high quality right from the start," says Tai von Keitz, Game Designer at Bluebyte. "The reason is this: when a player logs in to a browser game for the first time he or she will have a look around. And if they don't like it for any reason - say it's incomplete - then they'll switch it off and never come back again. So we have to make sure that the game offers something great right from the start."
There does seem to be stacks of stuff here. It's due to hit open Beta in the next few months, but already Anno Online has 120 different building types, massive islands to colonise, and around four to six months worth of content. The concept is simple: build a mighty empire out of a small group of initial colonists, expand to new islands, and manage your people to keep them happy.
"Anno has a real economy behind it," explains von Keitz. "You can't just produce infinite resources because the population realistically consumes them. You need to manage the economy efficiently." Unlike Civilization or The Settlers, Anno is a more peaceful game. There's no war, no natural disaster, no alien invasions (that we know of). For some, peace equals boredom, but for dedicated strategy fans the prospect of careful micromanagement brings the equivalent joy of knifing the dog-tags out of a massive douche-bag in Battlefield.
Just because there's no-one to kill, this doesn't mean Anno Online has to be a lonely experience. Sure, you can play the whole game on your own, but it's better if you trade with other players and join guilds to tackle bigger, more prestigious building jobs.
"In Anno Online we've created a deep trade system, where you can trade all kinds of things with other players," explains von Keitz. "When they buy something from you, they actually have to come to your harbour with their ships to collect these goods. So if you buy something from me, I'll see your ships arrive on my island and I'll know it's you because our ships are completely customisable."
It all sounds very promising, and hands-on it plays, well, as you'd expect. The learning curve is gentle, and progress is broken down into tiny chunks so a) you're constantly being rewarded, and b) you can choose to dip in and out whenever you've got a spare ten minutes. So what is the catch? Some will say it's that Anno Online is essentially Anno 1404, which is three years old. Others will claim that peace bores them, and that a city-building game is nothing without purifying fire or the risk of a random tsunami.
Another group will scoff at the fact you can buy in-game resources to speed up building projects. Us? We're yet to find a reason you shouldn't at least try this handsome browser game when it hits open Beta later in 2013.
Want more FREE games? Check out CVG's guide to the 30 Best Free Games right here.