Casual sim/strategy fans (and anyone who enjoyed Virtual Villagers or My Tribe) take note: Westward III: Gold Rush has arrived! Following last spring's release of Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier, the third installment in the series continues the new 3D visual style and basic premise introduced in the second game. Take control of three new heroes as you collect resources, construct farms, saloons, granaries and more to keep your settlers happy and healthy.
Each new game begins with choosing a hero. Heroes bring unique backstories and bonus abilities such as unlocking the ranch or allowing you to build tanneries right away. After selecting a character you'll go through a tutorial that teaches you the basics of gameplay one step at a time. It's a little slow, but newcomers to the genre/series will greatly appreciate the assistance.
Controls are mainly mouse-driven, though there are several keyboard shortcuts that make things easier. Assigning tasks, moving villagers, building structures, etc. is a point-and-click affair, and moving through menu screens is simple and straightforward. Just about every bit of info you need to know is one click away, and once you get familiar with the icons you won't have any trouble with the interface.
The meat of the game takes place across a number of scenarios, each divided into a series of connected quests. These challenges gradually build your skills and your town as you go, introducing tons of fun tasks like battling bandits or blowing up mountain passes with dynamite, and simple necessities such as constructing wells, farms and other buildings. These quests are usually steps that lead to a larger goal, offering an excellent sense of progression and accomplishment. Everything is rather streamlined but with just enough wiggle room to give you a sense of freedom.
In addition to completing quests, you also have to consider the well-being of villagers in your settlement. Everyone needs food, water, and a job.
Analysis: The Westward series had a humble beginning back in late 2006 when it rode in just as the Virtual Villagers craze was beginning to subside. Sandlot Games took a chance with a wild west-themed village sim that sent players on journeys straight out of a classic western. The gamble paid off, and Westward has exploded as one of the most recognized casual realtime sim games around. With its excellent production values and smooth blend of missions and town simulation gaming, just about anyone who picked up the game was quickly hooked by its simple charms.
Westward III sticks to its guns and closely resembles Westward II in every way, from visual style to using the hero set-up to push the story along. Unfortunately you'll find few differences beyond that, though the quests and scenarios are unique and challenging even if you're a long-time Westward fan. There are also a few minor difficulty issues where it seems to spike at certain points in a scenario, leaving you lost and clueless as to what to do next. And would it break the gameplay too much to be able to speed up time while waiting for resources?
Westward III does what its predecessors have done quite well - deliver an evenly-paced wild west adventure in the form of a casual simulation. It's got a great sense of humor evident at every turn, and the gameplay itself is about as captivating as it comes. It doesn't innovate far beyond its predecessors, but who says every game has to be a pioneer? Enjoyable, challenging and fun down to the last nugget.