Saturday, August 12, 2006

CivCity: Rome Review

CivCity: Rome, developed by Firefly Studios and published by 2K Games.
The Good: Extensive citizen needs, region interaction through trade and military operations
The Not So Good: Extensive citizen needs require extensive rezoning, important feedback could be better presented, inferior sound effects, house building exploit, trivial military and research, bugged object selection is way off
What say you? Yet another respectable city builder, but it doesn’t offer anything dramatically new or innovative: 6/8

The popularity of certain kinds of computer games certainly goes through cycles. Recently, we’ve been through the World War II game, and now we’re in a Roman city building game phase. First, there was the previously reviewed Glory of the Roman Empire, and the future holds a new version of the Caesar franchise. Today, we are presented with CivCity: Rome, developed by the people responsible for Stronghold, the game that made defending pretty fun. How will Firefly do in changing their focus towards Rome?

The graphics of CivCity: Rome are fairly standard fare for a city builder. There is nothing overwhelmingly awesome about the graphics in the game, but they do a good enough job in presenting a semi-realistic visage of what Rome might have looked like back in the day. The buildings look authentic and there is enough variation in the different building styles to create a realistic looking city. You can peer into the buildings and watch your citizens perform different tasks (sleeping, cutting meat): this is probably the highlight of the graphics department. The game is played from a fixed isometric perspective, so you won’t be seeing anything from a citizens’ perspective. CivCity: Rome falls slightly beneath Glory of the Roman Empire in terms of overall quality: CivCity: Rome has more varied buildings, but the effects of Glory of the Roman Empire are much better. You should be warned that if you plan to play the game in 1280x1024 (like all good LCD monitor owners should), there is a bug when trying to select objects in the game: if you press the left mouse button, what is actually selected is several inches away from your mouse. How this bug escaped testing is beyond me, and it’s rare to see such an obvious flaw in the release version of a game. The sound of CivCity: Rome is less than decent but very reminiscent of Stronghold: each of your citizens has a funny saying when you click on them, although I miss the heartfelt thanks of your people when you increase rations or wages that was present in Stronghold. The background music is pretty decent, although a lot of the time it’s off and it seems to come back in at random times. The sound effects are sparse: there seems to be some actions that have a sound tied to them but not others, so you might be hearing meat being cut even though you are looking at the bathhouse. The sound could have been a lot better in the game.

CivCity: Rome is a single player only affair where you lead your city towards specific goals, usually collecting a certain amount of materials or leveling-up a number of houses. The main campaign is a series of linked missions where you will usually control the same city for several tasks in a row (just like Glory of the Roman Empire), building up your town and then moving on to bigger and better things. The campaign gradually introduces new types of buildings to the player, and because there is an extremely large number of structures in the game, this is a good thing. There are also some stand-alone games with varying difficulty levels and types of games (sandbox, economic, or military). There is a small number of included stand-alone scenarios in the game, but CivCity: Rome includes an editor where you can create your own maps (a random map generator would still have been nice). CivCity: Rome doesn’t have any multiplayer; for once I’d like to see some sort of competitive online city building in a game, but I guess I’m still waiting for it.

Money earned from taxing your houses are used to construct buildings in the game, which is your main task of CivCity: Rome. The game features an impressive list of buildings to construct, far more than the competition. Like that other game, houses level up into better structures (producing more taxes) by having access to certain goods and services. They will automatically upgrade until they turn into “insulae;” since they are smaller than houses, you need to manually place the location for the insulae on the map (which removes the old house). This leads to a pretty good exploit in the game, as you can then build a new house directly on the old location and just wait for it to become another insulae. When houses are ready to be upgraded, a green intermittent arrow appears over them, which you won’t notice unless you are specifically looking at the house. This shows the outdated interface of CivCity: Rome, with its full-screen menus and data screens instead of the stylish building tools of other games.

Probably the best aspect of CivCity: Rome is the sheer number of buildings available. This may be daunting for the new player, but since the campaign only introduced a couple of new structures at a time, it doesn’t really become an issue. There are transportation structures (roads, aqueducts, ferries), resource structures (wood camps, iron mines), farms (olives, grapes, fruit, dates, geese), commerce structures (carpenters, mills, wineries), shops (bakeries, fruit stands, tunic shops, barbers, glass blowers), entertainment (piazzas, theatres), spectacles (sweaty gladiatiors and their animal opponents, including alligators and giraffes), city services (hospitals, schools, libraries, trade markets), military structures (forts, weapon makers), and wonders (pantheon, coliseum, circus maximus). All of this means that CivCity: Rome requires a lot of demolition, especially of the overly large farms, to fit in all of the buildings you need for your high-class citizens. The best way to approach the game is to construct a central business district with all of the needs, surround it with houses, and put farms out on the edge, in order to maximize the access of your citizens to their shops.

Unlike Glory of the Roman Empire, CivCity: Rome doesn’t have a 1:1 ratio of people on the screen and living in your city (one person represents 100 people), which is odd and really unnecessary. You can “track” families in the game (reminiscent of Tropico), but you’re really tracking 100 families, so it’s an implausible dynamic. The amount of time your citizens work is determined by you, and they use the rest of the time to fulfill needs. There is a citizen happiness rating that is determined from the wages, rations, work time, time since the city was founded, unemployment, housed workers, wonders, research, and random events. As long as you have a positive happiness rating, people will immigrate to your city. Your civilization rating also has an affect on the happiness of your population, which is based on the available entertainment, religion, civil services, and splendor (like gardens and fountains). Your people are almost never satisfied with your city’s rating for some reason, and it always makes maintaining positive overall happiness that much harder.

You are not alone in CivCity: Rome: you can create trade routes to other cities in the region (necessary because of arbitrary restrictions the game imposes on constructing certain buildings). You can even go so far as to invade neighboring villages with your military. The military is a pretty minor part of the game: all you really need to do is build a fort, build some weapon makers, and then keep your troops stationed where the enemy units spawn. Your forces will automatically engage enemy troops, so there aren’t really any strategic or tactical decisions on your part in the game; the military just acts as another thing you must build in your city to maintain a good economy. Research is also available in the game, where you invest some money and gain some small bonuses, like faster roads or more efficient woodcutting. Like the military, the research of CivCity: Rome is very superficial and just seems to be tacked onto the game as just something else to do, rather than an integral part of the city building process.

So where does CivCity: Rome stand in the register of city building games? Well, it has more buildings and a focus on the overall region, but average graphics and an inferior user interface. Plus, the military and research are not as important as they could have been in the game. Everything cancels each other out and CivCity: Rome becomes merely average and overall about the same as Glory of the Roman Empire. If there were a way to combine the best aspects of both games, then we’d have a real winner on our hands. But both Roman city builders have flaws along with their unique advantages, but neither game ends up being worth the money for anyone other than those most interested in the time period or city buildings. You’re better off getting one of the Stronghold titles (my pick is Stronghold Crusader) and paying a lot less for a similar game.