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Comparative Review: The Three Romes

December 22nd, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 4 Comments · Ancients, City Builder

It’s a good thing that Heart of the Empire: Rome was delayed till 2007. It would have had a hard time finding room on my schedule. I must have built more acqueducts, plazas and temples this year than in any other, and that’s not even counting the hundreds of hours I sunk into Civilization.

2006 saw three Rome themed city-builders, and not one got universally good reviews. In the “opinions that matter” index, Glory of the Roman Empire peaked at 76 at IGN and bottomed out at 50% from PC Gamer. (I gave it a 5/10 at Gamesradar, but 5/10 is not the same as 50%, especially from PCG.) CivCity: Rome earned a high 82 from IGN and a low 5/10 from 1Up. Caesar IV was the not-so clear winner, getting three 4/5 scores from major outlets (Gamespy, CGM and Yahoo) while reaping the scorn of PCGamer with a 54%. Going by the straight Gamerankings score – a poor practice, but one that captures the point – both Glory and CivCity got 68 while Caesar IV got 75. But this includes a lot of sites that few people trust or visit regularly. The major outlets tell a story of three games clustered around the “not bad” middle of the spectrum.

The remarkable thing is how nearly identical the games are in basic design. Each is structured around a campaign that requires you to move from city to city. You only leave a city once you have met the goals of the mission. All scenarios have socioeconomic criteria for success, but some may have a military component. All display success through increasingly elaborate housing. Any military stuff is tacked on and almost incidental to the game itself. This is the formula of the historic city builder, for the most part. Clearly designers aren’t in the mood for radical rethinking of the subgenre.

How that basic design gets translated is the difference between good (Caesar IV), okay (CivCity) and meh (Glory). We can almost forget about Glory of the Roman Empire, since it doesn’t even feel like a city builder most of the time. It’s too easy, you rarely get anything that looks remotely like a city, and there is a sad sense that you’re just connecting resource nodes instead of really making a working urban center. Buildings could never degrade in quality, so every neighborhood ended up looking the same. It is noticeably inferior to both of the other games, both of which were created by former Impressions employees – exiles from the center of the city building universe.

And when you compare Caesar IV to CivCity: Rome, it gets harder to separate why one works really well and the other just trundles along. It’s not just the silly tech tree stuff in CivCity. That, like the military component, is more stapled on to give some foundation to the Civ part of the name.

CivCity does some really interesting stuff with housing by letting you relocate homes as the dwellers work their way up the ladder of society. You will end up creating wealthy districts since even nobles need to go to the bakery (or hire a slave to do it), plus relocating middle class families to insulae above a shop allows creative use of limited real estate. CivCity also looked busier than Caesar IV. You were more likely to see a variety of citizens pacing the streets or going to the temple. It looked alive.

The big problem with CivCity, for me, was the lack of feedback. How many people does a farm feed? Why aren’t citizens using this warehouse? Plus there was the bigger problem of imperial overstretch. Why do I need a separate ostrich trainer? Sure, ostriches look cool in a doofus sort of way, but there is too little payoff for that building.

By keeping the archetypal onward and upward system of class mobility, CivCity also fell victim to yo-yo economics that were typical in the Impressions games. One minute you’d have too few workers, the next minute too many. And then there would be a riot.

Caesar‘s big advantage? Important decisions have to be made from the very beginning. You will eventually get some downtime to enjoy your city, but Caesar IV requires immediate resolution of major problems. What would you do with the cropland? Who would you trade with? How many equite residences would you start with? It’s not often that I praise a game that forces you to start a scenario paused, but this made Caesar IV for me. Yes, it looked great. Yes, the modifications to the class system were novel and significant. Yes, walkers are dead – thanks be to Jupiter Walkerhaterus. But every placement in Caesar IV matters more than it does in the other games.

This is not to say that there are “right” and “wrong” answers, like there were in Caesar III – a game I admired, but grew to resent for its cruelty in forcing a certain economic path. You can usually make do with whatever you choose in Caesar IV. But the choices you make at the beginning may constrain you later. Take housing placement. You want it near markets, which you want near warehouses. But this could drop desirability unless you plop a bathhouse or temple nearby. Now all of a sudden you need equites, who want a different market which you need to supply. But that could intrude on cropland or timberland you need for commerce. All three games have chained decisions like that, but Caesar IV encourages forward thinking and planning better than the others do.

I’ll throw in with those who don’t get the complaints about the military part of the game. Ryan Scott’s Games for Windows review, for example, calls the army management an “attempt to masquerade as a real-time strategy game” which could be, no offense to Mr. Scott, the silliest thing I’ve read about Caesar IV. It is no more an attempt at real time strategy than the near identical system was in Caesar III, or even Caesar II. It’s a standard click and point thing, with zero illusions to appearing as RTS combat. Complaining that you can win by fielding larger forces than the enemy, as Scott does, is equally pointless because, hello, this is not a tactical wargame. The tricky part is maintaining those larger armies – they need to be armed (consuming iron and wood) and fed (less food for your people) and can be called away by the Emperor at an inconvenient time.

I will note that the system requirements of Caesar IV are pretty steep. To see it at its best, you will need a honking big system and even then there will be slow downs. I’m not sure this is necessary for a city builder, but that’s the way of the world.

So, I need a break from Rome. I can happily say that there is no ancients game on my play queue for the holidays. It’s all muskets, wizards and tanks. I’ll enjoy it while I can. Heart of Empire: Rome is only two weeks away.


4 Comments so far ↓

  • jason bergman (2K)

    The best CivCity strategy I ever came up with was to be a slum lord. If you create a large district and keep it isolated, you’ll always have a happiness bonus from housing, without having to worry about constantly upgrading those poor people. Just concentrate on one or two extremely wealthy districts, while keeping a large area of slums.

    It works great. It’s kinda evil, but it works great. :)

  • Troy

    Maybe they can work in alignments for the next one.

    There will be a next one, right? CivCity: London? CivCity: Ur? CivCity: Macchu Picchu?

  • Bruce

    “5/10 is not the same as 50%, especially from PCG.”

    I look forward to the conversion algorithm.

  • Krupo

    Bruce – it’s pretty obvious: 5/10 is a range of 10 points (0 to 9), whereas a 50% = 50%.

    Depending on the reviewer, a 5/10 can be akin to a 55%, or a 45%, depending on how you interpret the results.

    It could even be akin to something crazier, like 20 or 30% if the 5/10 is, for a given site, the effective “low end”.