Friday, July 07, 2006

Glory of the Roman Empire Review

Glory of the Roman Empire, developed by Haemimont Games and published by CDV.
The Good: Good gradual tutorial and progressive campaign, straightforward resource management, helpful notification system, clear-cut goals, requires good planning, excellent graphics
The Not So Good: Sluggish pace, linear resource needs, slow citizen reaction to new buildings
What say you? A solid city builder for novice players: 6/8

Once a bastion of PC gaming, the city builder has seen a sort of renaissance lately. There are no less than 4,531 city building games slated for release this year alone (OK, maybe a little less (3,421)), covering various eras of human history: Rome, Rome, and Glory of the Roman Empire, which is about Rome. It seems there is a paradigm shift away from World War II and towards all things B.C. (before Chalupas). How will this title from Haemimont Games stack up against the competition? Well, since it’s the first to be released, pretty well I’d imagine!

Like any good city building game, Glory of the Roman Empire features some smashing graphics. All of the buildings look detailed, and although there is no variety among the same building type, you’ll be placing so many different kinds of buildings that the towns still shy away from that cookie-cutter look. The environments are detailed enough, with swaying trees and beautiful water effects. The people walking around your little hamlets look good from a good distance and hold up when more closely inspected, togas and all. The game also features some good time of day effects, complete with moon shadows (or a bug, I’m not sure which). While the game lacks any awe-inspiring moments, you won’t be disappointed with the graphics. The sound is along the same lines. All of the text during the tutorials is voiced in English or Latin (your choice), and the hustle and bustle of your town is good enough. There are also plenty of audio clues when something important happens in your town (like a new baby, a fire, or a baby on fire), something that’s missing in other city builders such as City Life. Again, there are no amazing points to the sound, but like the graphics, they do a more than serviceable job in the game.

Glory of the Roman Empire features three modes of play: a campaign, challenge mode, and free building mode. The campaign features a set of linked missions, beginning with some simple tutorials that introduce a couple of concepts at a time to get you acclimated to the game; these tutorials are excellent. You’ll typically have a choice of 1-3 cities to meet some goal in, which generally means fulfilling all of the citizens’ needs. The neat thing about the campaign is that you will go back and play previous cities in the state you left them in, so it’s important to keep future expansion in mind and not just rush through a mission to the goal without keeping all of the needs in mind. This is something that’s rare in games: your actions in one mission directly impact other missions. Other games have had units that have carried over to the next mission, but Glory of the Roman Empire kicks it up a notch. Bam! This is probably the most original part of the game, and it’s quite fun to revisit past stomping ground and see how badly you screwed the residents. Challenge mode gives you four random missions from the campaign with special restrictions and bonuses, and your overall score can be uploaded to the Internet. Free building mode just lets you control a city indefinitely without any general goals other than your own personal mark of success.

In Glory of the Roman Empire, you are charged with providing all of the citizens with their needs. Each citizen, depending on their stature in the community, has different needs that must be fulfilled or they whine like little babies. For example, an expert citizen requires bread, sausages, wine, cloth, a temple, and a well. All of these things are supplied by constructing various buildings that produce these resources. Glory of the Roman Empire features a pretty linear resource tree: there is never two resources needed for one end product; this simplifies the game greatly for beginners but may be too simple for expert players. There are a large number of resources in the game, however, and most of your buildings require a constant upkeep of basic construction materials (such as stone or timber) in order to not catch on fire. The number of needs that you’ll attend to keeps Glory of the Roman Empire from being completely boring. When you have to worry about clay and timber and linen and cloth and iron ore and weapons and olive oil and stone and gold and iron and ore and marble and wheat and bread and meat and sausages and fish and wine and all the buildings that produce these resources, the game gets amusingly semi-complicated.

There are a number of support buildings available in the game, other than the resource producing ones. Prefectures provide fire protection and herbalist shops can cure sick people. Although you don’t directly control military units in the game, you will need to build watchtowers and barracks to defend against barbarian attacks. You can trade with nearby villages using the trade post; this is good if there isn’t a particular resource available on your map and you have an abundance of a certain resource. All of your citizens reside in houses, and more advanced (and needy) citizens are born by constructing altars and temples near them. You can also build taverns that will tell you (through “gossip”) what the exact needs of your citizens in that neighborhood are. You can also pepper your town with aesthetics such as roads and gardens. When your city becomes large enough, several bonus buildings are unlocked, each of which provides some sort of incentive for building them. For example, constructing a coliseum raises the prestige of the entire town.

Most of your citizens will be employed at one of the resource-producing buildings around town. There are gender-specific jobs in the game, but it’s never really clear what they are or who they are for. While your citizens run the buildings, resources are actually transported around town by slaves, which can be bought from the town hall in exchange for some cash. You’ll need to have a good slave force in town, or you won’t be able to move resources around and your economy will collapse. Glory of the Roman Empire features a very minimal user interface. The screen is not cluttered with insane amounts of information, just available tables for economic and settlement overviews. These overviews give do an adequate job giving the status of your town, although the resource information is questionable: I was told the citizens needed bread, but when I checked the economic overview, it said the bread supply was abundant. Glory of the Roman Empire runs at an extremely slow pace; so slow, in fact, that I played the entire game on accelerated time. Complicating this fact is that your citizens react very slowly to newly constructed buildings. This can get annoying if you’ve fulfilled the requirements of the scenarios and the game doesn’t realize it. For example, I needed to provide sausages so I did. Fifteen real-time minutes later (on accelerated time, no less), the last citizen who said, “I need sausages!” found the butcher I had placed ages ago. You can tell citizens to go fulfill their needs, but that’s too much micromanagement, especially for a large town. It’s not too fun waiting for a scenario to be over when you’ve really beaten it already. Glory of the Roman Empire has a right-click build menu, where all of the available structures come up in a circular arrangement (a similar thing is used on the official site, just click on the purple circle). I like the minimal user interface and the build menu work pretty well to streamline the game, although I tend to forget which classification certain buildings are in. The notification system in the game is very helpful (unlike City Life), giving an audio clue as well as an icon across the top of the screen. Sick citizen notifications are annoying, however, especially if you have an adequate number of herbalists. It’s not my fault they won’t go to the doctor!

Overall, Glory of the Roman Empire requires good planning and anticipation of the buildings you’ll need in the future. Each building has an area of effect beyond which you’ll need to construct another building to service that area. Because of this, your cities really become different central hubs, with all the services citizens need, surrounded by housing, spaced far enough apart where you’re not wasting space. The areas of effect in Glory of the Roman Empire are large enough that you won’t have to tear down existing buildings to construct that brand new temple; once aspect I detested in City Life was having to tear down a neighborhood to raise a new shopping center and its limited area of influence. The game provides good information to help the player along, and its very friendly to new players, even those unfamiliar with city builders. However, once you figure out the key buildings, the game becomes pretty easy and just a waiting game until all of the unhappy citizens find their resources.

If you’ve never play a city building game, Glory of the Roman Empire is a great place to start. The mechanics are simple and the missions are straightforward. The simplified (relatively speaking) linear resources makes fulfilling citizen needs easy; the sheer number of resources keeps Glory of the Roman Empire from becoming too effortless. The game does require some planning to create a perfect city, but the lag time between building a structure and your citizens noticing that structure makes scenarios last longer than they should. This also makes the player unsure if they vineyard they just built was enough to satisfy the cravings of the people. Since the game is pretty straightforward, however, removes most of the guesswork when constructing a town. I like the campaign mode where you visit past cities, and the challenge mode and free form building adds a fair amount of replay value. Expert users will probably be turned off by the simplicity of the game and how easy some of the scenarios are, but that’s O.K. Glory of the Roman Empire is a good game that should appeal to a more general crowd looking for an introduction to city building games.