Sunday, March 09, 2008

Imperium Romanum Review

Imperium Romanum, developed by Haemimont Games and published by Kalypso Media on Gamer's Gate.
The Good: Multiple simultaneous campaign objectives, numerous scenarios, straightforward resource relationships, online high scores
The Not So Good: Limited historic and Rome campaigns, progressive campaign is absent, partial tutorial, confusing soldier controls, imprecise building placement, high score list rewards time over skill, not many overt differences from the previous game
What say you? The city builder series is back with some improvements and some issues: 5/8

Once an extremely popular genre, the city builder went through a sort of recession, but it’s back on its feet again with a number of recent releases. The developers of Glory of the Roman Empire are also back with a sequel of a different name in Imperium Romanum. The basics are still there: develop a thriving Rome-era city, balancing resources, providing for the citizens, and repelling incoming foes. What will (almost) two years of additional development produce?

Imperium Romanum looks, not surprising, like a slightly improved version of Glory of the Roman Empire. While the basic graphics are very similar, it appears that the level of detail has been cranked up with two more years of work. The individual buildings have higher-resolution textures. The environments look great and even more life-like, with reflective water and realistic mountainous terrain. The time of day effects are also well-done, and the graphics seem to perform well even at high settings. While the graphics are certainly reminiscent of Glory of the Roman Empire, the game does have an appropriate number of enhancements from that previous offering. The sound is functional: all of the tutorials and in-game missions are voiced, and the game gives recognizable indicators for events. The oddest part of the presentation is the background music: it doesn’t fit the Roman theme of the game well at all and seems extremely out of place. It almost ruins all of the work put into making a plausible gaming environment, but you can always turn it down and tune it out. While Imperium Romanum may not have the obscene level of detail present in other city builders, it does perform well for the price.

Since I did review Glory of the Roman Empire, I will spend most of the time noting the improvements (or lack thereof) in this title. For newcomers to the series, there is a tutorial that does a very bare-bones job at explaining the game. A lot of stuff is never explained in the tutorial, basically assuming you played Glory of the Roman Empire or read the manual (and who does that?). While the basics of the game are noted, the resource relationships, advanced citizen needs, and higher-level buildings aren’t even touched upon. Thankfully, the game includes a lot of tool-tips, but it’s still odd to leave a lot of the game out of the tutorials. The game modes are changed around a bit: instead of having the old campaign structure of linked scenarios (which I really liked), you are given a set of historical missions that are unlocked. In Glory of the Roman Empire, you would do a scenario in Rome, and then come back to your actual city with the buildings you placed two or three scenarios later. Imperium Romanum just features a bland, uninteresting, and typical campaign we’ve seen so many times before. There are a lot of free scenarios where you are not given specific goals other than creating a well-functioning city. You can also play the “Rome” mode, where you must place famous structures (the Coliseum) in an already-developed Rome; I found this to be quite boring, since you can do much (all the resource collection is already in place) and you just sit around and trade for resources to afford the large structures. Imperium Romanum does have an online high-score list that records global achievements for each scenario. The problem is that you can continue to play a scenario after you have fulfilled all of the objectives, so the online high score list is dominated by people who played a single scenario ten hours it was actually over. Thus, the high scores simply reward play time instead of skill. They should have locked the scores to be at the point at which you finished all of the objectives, but, alas, they did not.

The high-quality minimal interface present in Glory of the Roman Empire is back and slightly enhanced, as small icons for each of the building types are now accessible from the main right-click menu, so everything is now one click away. You do need to mouse over the category before seeing the mini-icons, but it’s a nice addition that further streamlines an already robust system. The overview of your community still uses the archaic economy and settlement windows; on-screen color-coded indicators would have been much more helpful. You cannot ascertain resource needs or citizen needs by just looking at the map, instead you have to click on a building such as the tavern or the forum (and you have to find them first). This should be a lot better, especially with two more years of refinement. I should be able to see how my city is doing from the main screen without having to delve into uninformative overview windows. It’s odd that Imperium Romanum has both great and poor features all in the same interface.

The best addition to the game is the tablet objectives. In the historical and Rome scenario modes, you can have up to three objectives at a time, displayed (with helpful tool-tips) in the corner of the screen. These objectives may range from placing specific buildings to optional missions that will grant a bonus. An advantage of this system is that completing objectives is now instantaneous (something I complained about before), helping the pace of the game immensely. You can also get events as an “objective,” like extra funds from the Senate or fires. It appears like these events are sadly not random, as playing through the same historical campaign produced the same events in the same order. Imagine how unpredictably cool that would be to have random events: are you sure you want to click on another tablet? The other disappointing thing is that tablets are completely absent from the free scenarios. Just like a lot of things in Imperium Romanum, the tablets have awesome potential that is only partially realized.

The core gameplay of Imperium Romanum is identical to Glory of the Roman Empire (so go read that review if you haven’t already): same resources, same buildings, same citizen needs. There are a couple of new wrinkles, but most of these are relatively minor enhancements. You can rush construction by investing money, sad and poor citizens will become criminals, families have income you can tax, and the military aspect of the game has been improved. You will generally play the game the same way, though: build houses, then build farms, then build factories, then build support structures (like altars or police or troops). The clear-cut resource management makes Imperium Romanum easy to play once you learn all of the needs the tutorial did not address. Like before, most of the game will be played at an accelerated pace since construction takes a while. Speaking of construction, making a realistic city is very difficult, as buildings do not “snap” to roads. In fact, you can build roads through houses (and any other building, for that matter); cities in Imperium Romanum just look messy as there is a lot of empty, unusable space. While not having a grid-based system gives the player more freedom in their designs, having a grid-based system would result in much more space-efficient designs.

The military aspect of the game gives more control to the player, but it seems like the developers haven’t played a recent strategy game. You can issue simple move, attack, or retreat orders to your troops by clicking on their building or themselves when they are deployed. You cannot, however, use a selection box to choose more than one squad of troops: if you have a large army, you need to click on every…single…group one after another in order to move them. The result is a stream of infantry marching towards the barbarians instead of an organized attack force. The other problem is the information card for the military units. In pretty much every real time strategy game ever made, the info card will show the unit’s current orders and current stance. But not in Imperium Romanum! Instead, it shows what order or stance it will have if you click on the button. So the unit information box says “box” formation, but they are actually in “wedge” formation because by pressing the button they will go into “box” formation. Huh?! Talk about confusing; it took me a good couple of hours to figure out that my units were holding their stance because the icon said “attack.” And I play a lot of strategy games, imagine how confused a new player would be. In addition, you can’t even attack specific enemy units as the stance (“attack” or “hold”) determines when your units will stay put or go after an enemy unit the computer determines is a good target. I’m all for having good automation of combat, but giving the user essentially no control over their units is just wrong.

For every improvement made in Imperium Romanum, one new issue has cropped up. There are so many things in the game that are almost fantastic if not for one key error in design in each area. There are plentiful historical, free, and Roman missions, but no progressive campaign. You can recreate the city of Rome, but only the major monuments. There is a high score list, but it rewards play time instead of skill. The tablet objectives are terrific, but they are not purely random and aren’t in the free scenarios. The right-click build interface is excellent, but it should be easier to gauge citizen and resource needs. The resource management is straightforward, but it’s identical to Glory of the Roman Empire. Placing buildings is easy, but they are difficult to place in an aesthetically pleasing manner. The military combat is improved, but the icons are backwards and subsequently confusing and specific unit control is effectively absent. Imperium Romanum certainly has a lot of “buts.” If you missed out on the original and enjoy city builders, then certainly give Imperium Romanum a shot as it is a fun game despite all of the shortcomings. However, there is, like most games, certainly room for improvement.