Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Children of the Nile - Enhanced Edition Review

Children of the Nile - Enhanced Edition, developed and published by Tilted Mill Entertainment.
The Good: Advanced resource and needs relationships, right balance of automation, quick tutorial for those itching to play, many small improvements from the original release, scenario and campaign editors
The Not So Good: Almost trivially easy because buildings don’t cost anything other than basic collectible resources that can’t permanently run out nor require upkeep, sluggish pace can become tiresome, no intermediate mission objectives, default tutorials progress very slowly
What say you? A city builder that has partially stood the test of time: 5/8

The city builder used to be a thriving genre, with many notable titles numerous enough that I don’t have to spend time remembering their names since you should know them already. Anyway, one of those titles was Children of the Nile, the first of Tilted Mill’s efforts (which include Caesar IV and SimCity Socieites) that was apparently pretty good (I missed out on it). Since the improvements made in the Enhanced Edition are available as a free download for owners of the original game, I’m going to write this review for people unfamiliar with the city builder and evaluate the title as a whole. Sounds good? Glad to hear it!

Children of the Nile looked OK back in 2004 when it was released (3-D graphics!), and with a couple of animation and visual upgrades, it looks, well, like an OK game from 2004. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, since the title will run on a wide range of systems, and I wasn’t really expecting a dramatic upgrade from a sub-expansion patch. You can get down to ground level and follow your villagers around as they do their daily tasks, which is a nice touch. Also neat is the small real-time view of the occupants when you click on a building. Voyeurism has never been so much fun! The terrain as a whole is pretty bland, with brown being the dominant hue. The user interface is essentially the same, with less-than-spectacular text menus for buildings and a lack of robust on-screen feedback. The sound consists of fitting background music with some quips by your residents and suitable construction noise. It’s not spectacular by any means here in 2008, but it’ll do.

Children of the Nile - Enhanced Edition comes with 20 scenarios that also comprise a campaign that unlocks an easy, medium, and hard scenario each time. The scenario list simply shows the name of the city you will control, and hides difficulty and objective information until you click on it: how archaic. Children of the Nile can be complex for beginners, so there are a number of tutorials to teach the basics of the game. The “normal” three-mission tutorial progresses very slowly since you can’t skip past instructions and the game is poor to detect when you’ve completed something. You’ll commonly sit there for minutes at a time staring at instructions on how to move the camera well after you’ve already done it. The Enhanced Edition adds a “quick start” tutorial that is far superior, as it quickly moves through the basics once you complete them, but it does leave a lot of content out you will need for the first easy scenario in the campaign. Children of the Nile comes with editors to make your own scenarios and campaigns, so it’s a bit odd that the Enhanced Edition didn’t ship with a bunch of user-created scenarios since the game has been out for four years. Each individual scenario takes a really long time to complete, so even with only twenty, you’ll be busy for a while.

Like most city builders, Children of the Nile gives you the task of constructing buildings to satisfy your citizens’ needs. The game is very well automated: all you need to do is place the appropriate buildings and your citizens will go collect supplies and manufacture their goods without intervention. This has benefits and drawbacks: while it makes the game easier to learn, you’ll commonly be sitting there waiting for buildings to finish and the basic game never gets more complicated than placing buildings. I suppose that’s all a city builder is, but a bit more variety is always appreciated. The reason why Children of the Nile tends to get boring is that you can’t really lose. Unlike most games where you have a budget to worry about, your buildings have no daily or annual upkeep cost and no purchase price other than bricks. You can plop down 100 buildings without penalty and simply wait for resources to accumulate, so as long as you place them in the correct order to satisfy needs, then you’ll do OK. Just spam a whole bunch of brick makers and bricklayers (which are both free) and sit back and wait. As you can see, strategy really has nothing to do with it, which is very disappointing. Maybe this is the problem with going back and playing a game after you’ve experienced more sophisticated sequels, but it is what it is.

Each citizen has a set of basic needs that must be fulfilled. Farmers grow food, shopkeepers produce goods, priests perform a range of services (medicine, worship, burial, education), military troops provide security, and entertainers are to be laughed at. There is a flow chart of education, as people progress from simple villagers to educated priests and scribes. Still, as long as you have the right structures close enough to the people that need them, you’ll be fine. Children of the Nile assumes you remember everything from the manual and tutorials, as tool-tips are short and the missions don’t provide any objectives other than the overall goal. One thing I liked in Imperium Romanum was the intermediate objectives that served as a sort of tutorial to guide you towards your overall goal. Sadly, Children of the Nile lacks this feature, so you are left having to remember all of the resource and needs relationships as you progress. The interface could be better designed: all of your citizens are organized in an approval list (a good feature), but it displays green even if they have one or two key areas of need. This makes it so that you need to constantly monitor each building in your village, something that the people report was supposed to eliminate. There’s a new icon that shows buildings that have no problems, but you still need to click through all of the others to see what the troubles are. For a game that features so much great automation, this annoying amount of micromanagement and tedium is quite unwelcome.

The basic mechanics of Children of the Nile can be quite interesting, with sophisticated and numerous needs by each of your residents. The game progresses very slowly, however: even at the maximum accelerated rate (2.5x), it was still sitting around waiting for bricks to accumulate with an entire city essentially queued up for success. There are some minor wrinkles to the time elements that make the game somewhat intriguing: you can introduce trade with outside cities, there are planting and harvesting seasons (along with damaging floods), and edicts can be issued to provide bonuses with a tradeoff. In addition to the basic suite of buildings, you can decorate your cities with plazas, gardens, and temples. These increase your town’s prestige in addition to usually fulfilling a scenario objective. Roads can also be constructed to make a more realistic town, and the Enhanced Edition’s roads make travel faster (surprising that they were merely cosmetic before). The Enhanced Edition also brings a whole bunch (48) of bug fixes, and I must say that playing Children of the Nile has been very stable with no noticeable problems whatsoever. How many games can you say that about? It also comes with a handful of new plazas and other decorative features and the brickyard to make construction even easier and faster.

I’m not sure what all the hubbub was about, because I’m not really that impressed with Children of the Nile. Maybe it’s because I’m playing the game four years after it came out, but the game appears to be too easy to provide much of a challenge. There are a lot of needs to attend do, but it’s simply a matter of choosing the right structure. The best thing about Children of the Nile is the amount of automation in the game, but it also holds the game back from being truly sophisticated. As long as you plop down the right buildings, everything will be run for you since villagers will collect resources automatically and all you need to worry about is proximity. Most buildings have no-cost, and the ones that do only cost bricks, which can be easily manufactured by placing no-cost brick makers and bricklayers. Where’s the challenge? I had the same problem with the SimCity series of games, but even they introduced some difficulty in balancing your budget early on. Children of the Nile removes any sort of trouble since most resource collecting buildings are free and those that require bricks have no other upkeep. The interface shows everything is OK with bright green lights even if there are a number of problem areas that need attention. The quick start tutorial is a great addition to the game, as it significantly speeds up the learning process. The twenty scenarios that are available either as stand-alone missions or linked in the campaign might not seem like a lot of content, but each one takes a long time to complete (thanks to the leisurely pace of the game) and the included editors allow you to make more. For $20, I might give this game a look at, but Children of the Nile – Enhanced Edition is too trivial for my tastes.