Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Grand Ages: Rome Review

Grand Ages: Rome, developed by Haemimont Games and published by Kalypso Media and Viva Media on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Outstanding minimal interface, online competitive multiplayer, non-linear campaign with varied objectives and meaningful character upgrades, straightforward resource relationships, quality graphics and sound design
The Not So Good: Repetitive starting build orders, abbreviated tutorials, can’t add AI competitors to multiplayer games, average military component
What say you? Third time is the charm in the Roman city building series: 7/8

They say that Rome wasn’t built in a day. They, of course, never played Glory of the Roman Empire or Imperium Romanum, where you can clearly build Rome in a matter of hours (sweat free, in fact). This series started out promising enough, but took a step back last time, where each new feature was coupled with a disappointing shortcoming. Developer Haemimont Games is back with yet another sequel-without-a-sequel-name in the form of Grand Ages: Rome. Has the developer learned from previous pitfalls, or is history doomed to repeat itself?

Grand Ages: Rome is, not surprisingly, the best looking game in the series, and it’s quickly approaching photo-realism in terms of quality. All of the buildings look like they were taken straight out of Imperial Rome, with a distinctive architecture appropriate for the time period. The structures do become repetitive in large cities, as all non-houses have only one model (so the four Temples to Mars all look identical) and houses only have three (or so) models that cycle in choice. A little more variety would be welcome to deliver a pleasingly varied city landscape. The surrounding landscape is presented well, with detailed trees, rocky mountains, and flowing streams. It is easy to visually identify whether you are in northern Europe or Africa, although some of the land elements are recycled. Still, Grand Ages: Rome looks very nice and is quite competitive against any other city builder in terms of visual quality. The sound design maintains its usual level of quality, with completely voiced tutorials and mission introductions, proper auditory indications of events, and background music I actually enjoyed this time around. The military training effects are annoyingly repetitive, but this was the only irritating aspect of the sound design, so that’s not so bad. Overall, Grand Ages: Rome delivers in terms of graphics and sound.

Grand Ages: Rome centers around the single player campaign where you take odd jobs as city governors, building relationships with prominent leaders by successfully running towns across the empire. In order to get acclimated to the game, Grand Ages: Rome features two tutorials that cover the city-building and military aspects of the game. Unfortunately, both tutorials are quite short and does not explain the more advanced buildings and economics present in the game. This is less of an issue with the military portion of Grand Ages: Rome, since there is nothing terribly “advanced” about it. The game does compensate with in-game help: short explanations of every aspect of the game, accessible from each window by selecting “help.” The campaign features forty non-linear missions with varied objectives: you might be tasked with developing a military in one town, constructing temples in another, and conducting trade in a third. This variety goes a long way in making Grand Ages: Rome feel less stagnant. In addition, each scenario features optional secondary objectives that, if completed, will grant some sort of bonus for later levels, such as increased amounts of starting resources. Also, your character will receive upgrade points that can be spent on a variety of areas: city (start with more money, lower crime), military (more experience, faster production), and family (a whole bunch). There are about fifteen city and military talents, and fifteen for each of the game’s five families: that’s a lot of upgrades. Wisely choosing upgrades can not only help in successive missions, but you can customize your strengths and then choose missions that reflect your advantages. It’s a well-designed system that is far more engrossing than simply building a set of cities. If you are not in an objective mood, you can freely build on any of the game’s maps (all initially unlocked, thank you) with no time constraints. Lastly, Grand Ages: Rome actually features multiplayer. Typically a single-player-only affair, a city builder with a multiplayer aspect is very unique. Essentially, it’s a competition to accumulate enough resources to raise an army or achieve an objective: pure military, accumulated wealth, constructing monuments, defeating a neutral third party, occupying a map location, or the “all in one” mode that allows any of the previously mentioned victories. You can either have your own town, or team up with another player and divide and conquer. Despite how potentially awesome this aspect of the game is, the servers for Grand Ages: Rome are woefully under-populated: I never saw more than two others in the lobby and never actually got a chance to play. The lack of AI opponents really hurts less-popular online games, and Grand Ages: Rome is no exception.

Pretty much all of the gripes I had about the interface in Imperium Romanum have been solved. The right-click build menu has returned, and the menu items are listed in economic order (producer then consumer), making the game mechanics easier to digest. Rather than having a mini-map, Grand Ages: Rome zooms out to a full view with the press of the spacebar, similar to Supreme Commander. The minimal interface still does an excellent job showing pertinent information without crowding up the screen, and this is done through the two collapsible panels on the top and bottom of the screen. At the top, you get information on employment, religion, entertainment, hygiene, and crime; clicking on a category clearly indicates buildings with good and bad values (and those in between), so it’s easy to access which parts of your city need the most assistance. This was something that Imperium Romanum sorely lacked, and it’s a fantastic addition. Along the bottom of the screen are your resources, materials, food, squads, and any current events. Again, clicking on any particular resource clearly highlights buildings that produce and consume that particular item; this makes up for lacking a list of all buildings. The interface in Grand Ages: Rome is marvelous and informs the user quickly on the status of their development.

What would a city builder be without buildings (very boring, I would imagine)? Grand Ages: Rome spits up potential constructions among several categories: basic (housing and fountains), production (farms and mines), food (farms and processing), commerce (inns and trade), public (baths and schools), military (troops and weapons), monuments (providing income and religion), and various decorations. Although the aforementioned structures are poorly explained in the tutorials, the flow of resources and needs are fairly straightforward, and once you play a couple of games, you get the basic mechanics. Basic materials (wood, bricks, stone) are used for construction, and food is farmed and turned into goods (bread, meat, clothes) that are used by your citizens. In addition to the basics, citizens also need entertainment from taverns or arenas and religion from temples. Building radii, especially temples, are quite small, so you need to do an efficient job planning your city or the expensive, necessary buildings might not reach those who need them. Resources are shown as a permanent balance (similar to Kohan 2) instead of a set amount; the tutorials don’t mention this as far as I can recall. It does make it easier to manage the game since you don’t have to predict when a particular resource will run out, instead just maintain a positive balance and everything will work out. You must keep your monetary balance above zero, however: living in the red results in bankruptcy, and if you don’t accumulate 1,000 denarii in 10 minutes, you lose. Other assorted calamities include fires set by disgruntled citizens and the plague (always unfortunate).

Grand Ages: Rome has a fairly abbreviated building list, and the game features a very repetitive early build order once you learn the best path to go. This is alleviated somewhat by the varied map designs (limiting certain resources), but your first ten minutes in each city will generally be the same. Since you must be conscious of placing the appropriate citizen type in specific building and using placement bonuses, layout does matter. You can activate a number of city states (as opposed to city-states) that can provide some temporary bonus, both positive and negative. For example, constructing several buildings in quick succession triggers “building frenzy,” which makes construction faster. Also, “famine” makes newly constructed houses empty if you have a food satisfaction rating below 25%. These varied states are a nice way of rewarding good players and penalizing poor designers. Finally, you can conduct trade with other cities to acquire needed resources, and conduct research through your schools for increased production and new buildings.

Grand Ages: Rome also features military units. This part of the game is very light compared to a typical strategy game, but being primarily a city-builder, this can be forgiven to an extent. The warfare has both positives and negatives: you get a wide variety of historical units to play with (archers, hastati, raiders, berserkers, triarii, equestri, warriors, maidens, highlanders, ballista, guard, secutores, gladiators, war elephants, catapults), but you are limited in your interaction with them. Units can be told to move, attack, or use their unit-specific special action, but that’s it: no facing options, formations, or other advanced tactics at your disposal. Units can gain experience through battle or training (which costs money), making them more deadly on the battlefield. Although battles can be entertaining when matched troops are fighting, barbarians are typically very underpowered and never become a challenge, unless you are unprepared for an attack or completely outnumbered. It just feels like the military pie of Grand Ages: Rome is a bit undercooked and never reaches the grand, polished presentation of comparable titles.

Grand Ages: Rome is a clear improvement over Haemimont Games’s previous two titles, and the developer is quite close to crafting an excellent game. Perhaps the most striking improvement this go around is the interface, a very important aspect of any city builder. Grand Ages: Rome has removed much of the uncertainty in dealing with the demands of your citizens, clearly highlighting areas of your city lacking in entertainment, cleanliness, religion, and employment. Other city builders have exhibited this feature before, and it’s about time that Grand Ages: Rome came to the party. Putting all of the resources along the bottom of the screen is a great design decision that goes well with the rest of the minimal interface, making it quite easy to determine where your resources are going. The interface isn’t the only area of improvement in Grand Ages: Rome: the campaign features RPG-like character upgrades that provide starting bonuses, and multiplayer would be quite fun and unique if people were actually playing online. The lack of online players, of course, would be partially solved if you were allowed to add AI bots to the mix, but Grand Ages: Rome does not offer that option. The game does become repetitive after a good deal of play time, since the starting build order is fairly linear, but the varied objectives in each scenario tend to differ the action at least a little bit. The military portion of Grand Ages: Rome is very light strategy, consisting of only movement and attack orders with the occasional special ability. Since you can always overpower neutral barbarians, things really only get interesting online where you can utilize all of the troop types. I’m not expecting a fantastic RTS game inside of a city builder, but the military part of Grand Ages: Rome seems to be still a bit underdeveloped. Still, almost all of the major shortcomings from previous games have been solved in Grand Ages: Rome, so any fan of city builders will find a pleasing title here.