Imperium Romanum: Gold Edition (PC)

Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed? Probably pork if Imperium Romanum is anything to go by.

But what great feats lie in store for those who want to buy such a game?
Find out in my review, originally written for the lads at Acegamez.

Full text written below the cut:

Imperium Romanum: Gold Edition

It’s always a tad unusual heading back to a game’s gold release, less than a year after it first came out – and in the case of Imperium Romanum, which only hit the shops in February, this winter re-release seems more like a case of repackaging for a Christmas buck than an honest summing up of the game’s completion. As is the standard for a Gold Edition, the pack does include the Emperor expansion, nicely complementing the original game and making for a far more expansive experience. Not that the game on its own was exactly short but the more the merrier, and a further four campaigns never hurts when you want to try your hand at building a city under different conditions.

The gameplay in Imperium Romanum is a curious mixture of The Settlers with a touch of Sim City. At its heart it’s almost as if the developers decided to build a game where the object was to pander to the whims of a legion of spoiled brats, then decided later on to throw in a historical setting for flavour. You control the Praetor of a settlement and it’s up to you to build it up to the level of a flourishing metropolis. Usually starting with little other than a forum and a few houses, it’s up to you to make sure that your city functions and makes money, while still providing the comforting lifestyle befitting the Patrician upper-classes as well as catering for the lowly plebeians.

Depending on how you want to try your hand at governing an ancient city, there are several modes to explore. Before jumping into the deep end, there is a short but competent tutorial for both the mechanics and the warfare aspects of the game; however, these are both feather-light, with the gameplay trainer walking you through the technical aspects of the interface without ever really showing you how it works in practice, and the battle tutorial only demonstrates that it’s fairly easy to win if you use underhand methods like… say, tactics? Still, it is enough to get you started and the fairly detailed manual neatly encompasses everything else, providing a useful method of remembering much of the necessary information that the interface hides away.

Considering how nice everything looks however, it’s possible to overlook the spartan amount of information and let the gorgeous majesty of Imperium’s rolling hills and dales wash over you. It’s a remarkably good-looking game, with individually modelled buildings and people wandering hither as yon and they go about their business. In fact, each citizen can be followed on his daily commute to work, then to the tavern and home again via whatever temple he feels like praying at that day. Not only that but the fully 3D interface lets you swoop down over your city from any angle, even if it never gets quite close enough or sufficiently far back to let you really truly free. The ability to zoom out to several thousand feet would have made a huge difference and the mini-map serves as a poor substitute for this, especially as it is frequently covered by obtrusive pop-up messages.

The amazing graphics sadly only contrast the utterly terrible musical choices in the game, as the background music flits from semi-period drums and horns to lounge music and zippy little ditties that have no place in the game. Better to turn it off completely, leaving you in the hands of the firm but informative instruction of the game’s narrator, who sounds suspiciously like an uncredited Kenneth Brannagh, leading you through the tutorials and then dryly informing you of any problems that may occur on your mission to cater to your voting public’s every need.

The more basic of these needs are obvious; everyone requires food, water, clothing, shelter and employment. The easiest of these provisions is the shelter, because without housing, you simply don’t get a population, so the usual first step is to build the odd cul-de-sac, then get everyone working, which not only gives your filthy peasant subjects money but also supplies their other basic needs. Farms produce wine, wheat, meat and linen for spinning, while mines, clay-pits and wood-huts all provide the basic blocks to construct more buildings. This, however, is where things become a little more complex.

You can plant as many crops as you like but for the populace to get the food, you need butchers, bakers and markets within a short distance of their homes. Not only that, but because most businesses require several workers – some male and some female – you soon find the need to build further houses to keep all of them producing optimally. To further compound the problems, each building has an upkeep requirement, which varies from timber to marble, without which it will fall into disrepair and burn down. It’s a fine balancing act and until you get to grips with, and memorise exactly, what is needed in each case, it can be a struggle; if not carefully monitored, the interconnected need for supplies, workers and housing can become a vicious cycle that, as the city grows larger, might spiral out of control as you discover, to your peril, that it’s now impossible to build any houses close enough in the gridlock to satisfy the demand.

Luckily, you can always stick a warehouse out in the countryside somewhere and start a mini-colony there, which often proves to be the saving of the city, because much like real life, the centre becomes an area of commerce with the outlying lands turning to agriculture. Not that you’ll get to marvel at the lifestyles or at the quite lovely graphics though, as you’ll probably be getting hammered by complaints and demands from your citizen body. As the vulgar masses are never quite able to look after themselves, they thrust their every desire and problem upon you. Not content with simply eating and working, they pepper you with demands for more wells for water and altars at which to pray. As the game continues and the city rises in stature, their needs turn to theatres, public baths and other decadences, as well as luxuries such as wine and olive oil, most of which can be grown locally but in some cases must be bought using sea-ports or trading huts, which can also add a much needed revenue supply as you can sell your surplus. Depending on the scenario, managing all this can prove difficult. Pericles of Athens may have observed that “All good things of this earth flow into the city,” but he probably didn’t have any idea of what the market value of gold and marble would be five hundred years later, or that some idiot would decide to build a province on a barren island with no trees and have to import all the wood with nothing to trade for it but stone.

Somewhere in this intriguing miasma of spinning plates, there also comes the problem of poverty and criminality. Here, unfortunately, is where one of the game’s first major flaws rears its ugly head; you see, the Romans were a fickle lot, and when they got angry enough, they rebelled. Imperium Romanus represents this by having a building burst into flames now and then, with greater frequency should the populace become more displeased. This proves tiresome at best, as the fire-fighting Prefects that you can install round the city are next to useless, because even with plenty of wells and a Prefecture built in proximity to every main group of buildings, an angry populace can still manage to eat up most of your funds when repairing the damage. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the greatest threat against ancient Rome isn’t the marauding nations of some other shore but instead the pyromaniac citizens of Urbs herself. The game’s AI unfortunately doesn’t seem to understand that when the citizen body are angry about the lack of temples it makes little sense for them to start burning the few existing ones down, with the added issue that should they set fire to the Forum then the game is over – and it can easily happen.

Thus the only way to keep your citizenship happy is to placate its every whim. How do you do this? Irritatingly with either ridiculous ease or absolute frustration, as neither the tutorial nor the in-game menus make clear at a glance what the average person needs. While you can easily glance through the manual for a summary, the lack of an easy in-game list of needs is a notable design omission.. Instead there is a near-endless supply of screens that, although informative, tend to provide utterly useless data. The game does let you know if a citizen is about to turn criminal and allows you to pay them a donation from the public coffer to save them from villainy-inducing poverty. Bizarrely, you can’t simply declare them a dissident and have them killed, yet you can constantly do this to rich households as a neat way of gaining some coin. This puts you in the uniquely bizarre situation where you occasionally start punishing the innocent rich to pay off poor criminals, like some psychotic Roman Robin Hood.

This brings us to the game’s weakest element – the combat. The invading barbarian hordes live in villages that are scattered around the land and they decide to attack you every now and again. Usually this is the result of the event card draws that litter the campaign or instigated by aggressive action by the Roman expansion. In any case, a horde of troops floods out from a village and burns down random buildings if not checked by Legionaries – but here is the rub: larger numbers always win, and in a situation where you are struggling to placate the fire-happy plebs, there often isn’t enough money for more than one training ground, meaning that not only are you unable to defend your city against a superior force, but your own citizens still happily burn down whatever buildings the barbarians leave standing. The combat is a non-event; the AI is ridiculously stupid and can be defeated on almost every occasion by a feint. Drawing the enemy forces away from the villages leaves them undefended and easy pickings for another unit, should you be lucky enough to possess two. At best the combat is a mildly amusing diversion, but more often an irritant and a waste of precious time and resources.

As mentioned earlier, Imperium Romanus is split into a few distinct modes; the main campaign, Scenario mode and Rome. Picking any one of these leads to a very different experience, as they each have a separate goal that’s designed to draw more out of the playing experience. The campaign is really just as you’d expect; a semi-chronological series of Roman cities to build, beginning with Urbs itself (although thankfully omitting the apocryphal city of Alba Longa, from which Romulus and Remus supposedly sprang). Starting with the foundation of Rome, there are a series of other historical locations to play through, each unlocking further maps to play. In each case you begin with only the barest of essentials; a few houses, a forum and maybe, if you’re lucky, a warehouse somewhere far off near some rich metal deposits. From here it’s up to you to develop each small hamlet into a thriving Roman city with every mod con and happy citizens dancing in the streets. There is also a set of event cards that need to be played to complete the mission. Each one either gives you aid, a gift from Rome or a turn of bad luck such as an attack or a city fire. Completing these gives the campaign mode a more structured aim and stops the game seeming too open while letting you complete each map a their own pace. It does mean that occasionally you’ll drop a clanger and be stuck with a task such as destroying all the barbarian settlements though, which can be very tedious if you’ve barely built up a military force.

In case the boot of Italy has lost its shine, the campaign also provides access to the additional content of the Emperor expansion, allowing you to enjoy the conquests of Britannia, Germania and Africa, and even play the major cities involved in Caesar’s civil war against Pompey, a personal highlight of which had to be the frantic struggle to build a great length of Hadrian’s wall across the Scottish countryside whilst being pelted senseless by Pictish catapults and arrows

The Scenario mode on the other hand is a more interesting twist on the idea; simply put, it lets you build up a whole host of ancient cities across the world but without the constraints of the box-ticking campaign setting. Here you start from scratch and you can attempt to perfect a city in most of the game’s locations, doing it all your own way. The final game mode, Rome, is to most intents and purposes really a glorified final campaign mission. You still have to complete set tasks but these consist only of building the fabulous monuments while you control the Imperial city of Rome at its wealthiest and most powerful pinnacle. As a result, it’s an easy and quite fun bit of construction; you can hardly fail, with each task card giving you either an order for a new monument or a heap of cash from a province, all the while earning the achievement laurels that the game bestows upon you for pre-assigned acts of largess or feats of construction.

Imperium Romanum is a flawed but thoroughly entertaining romp; while lacking the grand prestige of larger strategy titles or the power to affect the minutiae of politics offered in some, it is a very immersing experience and once you’ve gotten to grips with the many controls and rules binding each interaction together, it’s a rewarding and entertaining game where the few niggles can’t detract from the sort of genuine satisfaction you feel after building your first Colosseum.

 

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