Time will tell if this approach to marketing CivCity works out for the publisher. Regardless, the actual game inside the pretty box only partially lives up to the image conveyed by the outside of said box. Needless to say, if you’re not already into historically-flavored city-planning games, this one is not for you. That said, strategy game fans should read on.
CivCity: Rome is an offline, single-player-only city-planning game set in Ancient Rome circa 400 B.C. It features two basic lines of gameplay: the campaign and individual missions. The campaign is easily the more atmospheric and rewarding game type, as it puts the player into a storyline of sorts and features a good progression of increasing difficulty levels, while also gradually teaching the game’s concepts. The premise is something like this: Rome itself has already been established, but it needs various resources and military achievements from its surrounding cities all around the Roman Empire, while the player is one aspiring city planner who is being assigned progressively more important and difficult tasks by established Roman government personalities.
Each campaign mission is preceded by a briefing from a Roman politician or military commander, together with an extremely important hints & tips screen outlining the best strategy for accomplishing the mission. A given mission may drop the player into an already established town suffering from some kind of problem, or it may present a totally empty map to be populated from scratch. A list of mission goals is given: mine X units of some resource, build Y units of sufficiently advanced housing, reach Z population, etc. The way to accomplish the given goals is always the same: grow the city to as high a population as possible while maintaining a positive income level by upgrading the housing quality. Put simply, the player puts a shack onto the map, having it generate a very small amount of tax money. As the shack upgrades to more advanced housing types – hovels, insulae, and so on – the tax output of the house increases, allowing for further construction and growth. However, a house will only upgrade if given access to necessary consumer goods. For example, every house needs a well for proper operation; a hut needs tunics to clothe its inhabitants in order to upgrade to a larger hut; a large hovel requires sanitation and bathhouses to upgrade to a small insula; and so forth. On the other hand, just because a citizen wants commodity X in order to upgrade his/her house doesn’t mean that person will trek all the way across town to get it. All required needs must be within the house’s “radius,” which is not very big, to be accessible. Moreover, if the house does upgrade, but the good later becomes unavailable for whatever reason, the house will either downgrade to a lower level, or will become dilapidated. Thus, it quickly becomes very important to apply sound geographic planning so that everything needed is always available to the city’s residences. While realistic, this can become a tall order as the game goes on – with literally dozens of goods to keep track of, it becomes hard to keep everyone satisfied. To counteract this realism, the game allows one to manually move a given house to any location on the map for a minimal cost, which is a rather cheap way to make the game more manageable. There are no transportation systems (other than roads) to speak of, so this aspect never becomes easier in later missions.
Nevertheless, if you are a smart player, you will learn to be methodical about grouping farms, shops, and houses into clusters, always leaving room for more; eventually, keeping housing upgrade levels up will stop being a big hurdle. Given that, the mission more or less wins itself, since in Rome, the formula for success is Money = Victory. With a few missions under one’s belt, the average player will figure out a sufficiently successful placement pattern, making each mission about the same as the next from that point on.
Therefore, to give the game challenge and variety, Firefly introduced various obstacles into the different missions. These are as follows:
Despite the very limited size of the game’s maps, the combination of terrain and available resource restrictions makes for surprisingly varied campaign missions, given how basic the game’s mechanics are at heart. The challenges also feel realistic, as it’s very easy to imagine oneself as a Roman governor trying to keep the delicate balance between trade and domestic production so as to maximize domestic income.
The same, however, cannot be said of Rome’s military mechanics, which are as arbitrary as they are poorly explained. In a nutshell, a fort costs a lot of money and produces three legions. Each legion consists of at least one soldier, but beyond that the fort can produce as many soldiers as the city is able to produce weapons for (up to a certain maximum). Finally, each legion can contain one of two types of soldiers – legionnaires and velites. Now, none of this is made clear by the interface, but it’s nothing compared to the bother of actually trying to make the soldiers fight. Left-clicking is suddenly replaced by right-clicking, and only two of the three legions want to leave the fort no matter how hard one clicks. Worse, trying to control these guys feels like playing a turn-based game, while the AI gets to play in real-time. In particular, it’s not clear where a given legion is, since it’s graphically represented by both the commander and the little individual soldiers. There’s nothing more frustrating than struggling to control your troops while the enemy’s soldiers are razing your city at 3 different points.
The combat gets downright comical when it tries to go strategic. It’s possible to send troops onto the world map, at which point the combat loses all the drama it never had. One would think that the battle against another city would be a climactic event, but actually it’s represented by either the Rome icon replacing the Barbarian icon (victory) or vice versa (defeat) on the world map, and that’s it. (This is especially disconcerting if you lose.) In fact, if you’re not looking at the world map at the time, the dramatic icon-on-icon combat will just happen in the background with no on-screen notice whatsoever.
"The combat gets downright comical when it tries to go strategic."
The one feature that could have distinguished CivCity: Rome from existing city builders like the Caesar series is the research tree, which superficially resembles Civilization’s. It is, unfortunately, an afterthought. The benefits of each technology are statistical as opposed to game-changing. For example, Mathematics increases tax revenue by 10% while “Highways” make road travel 10% faster (even though visually they stay exactly the same). You won’t be researching your way to a better troop type, that’s for sure. So, while helpful, the researching feature is a far cry from the beautifully implemented tech tree of Civilization IV, X-COM, and other strategy games.
All-in-all, CivCity: Rome is a formulaic experience, but it’s a formula that works. Micro-managing city-building game fans won’t have much to complain about as far as the basic game mechanics go. On the other hand, some of the interface problems will frustrate anyone without endless reserves of patience. For instance, at the higher resolutions, a bug prevents one from clicking on a building by hovering the mouse over it; instead, one has to aim down and to the side – this gets annoying really quickly. The game’s citizens also have a frustrating tendency to ignore commodities within their reach, which leads to an inexplicable lack of house upgrades, even though all the needs seem to be in order. This, in addition to the awful combat mechanics, is the last straw for this reviewer. 6/10
The best words to describe Rome’s visual presentation are “workman-like” and “detailed,” but definitely not “beautiful.” The camera has a fixed vertical angle against the ground which gives a good view of the proceedings, and it can be rotated and zoomed. While the terrain, including water, looks like something out of a 3-year-old game, at least it’s guaranteed even a halfway-decent computer will be able to run this game flawlessly. (However, if you have a large LCD, beware that Rome can go no higher than 1280x1024.) So while the game is utterly devoid of eye candy, the graphics do an impressive job of showing what’s actually happening in the city; this is very useful. Each and every citizen of the city can be seen doing exactly what he/she’s doing’s to contribute to the city’s economy at that moment, and the same extends to the various shops. For example, a citizen is seen sleeping or attending a temple during the allocated free time, hauling wood from a wood camp to the mill during work time, etc. Thus, if you’re wondering when that pesky meat shortage will be resolved, it’s possible to literally look at how many slabs of beef are hanging at the butcher’s and how far the granary worker and his cart are from reaching it and hauling the beef to the granary. This makes the visuals, which are admittedly bland, more than merely window-dressing. The detail extends farther, as one can see – for example – individual animals slay or be slain by individual gladiators in the Coliseum. Unfortunately, I do wish the game’s visuals would scale better to gamers with better hardware, or at least to higher resolutions. For a look at what I mean, give the just-released Caesar IV demo a spin (just make sure you have a good PC before you do). 6/10
Much like most everything else about CivCity: Rome, the sound work in the game is solid and average, with some issues that bring it a notch below that. Soothing orchestral music? Check. Competently voiced briefings? Check. Buildings making relevant sounds when zoomed into? Check. But did they have to make your advisor’s warnings so unbelievably grating? Perhaps I’m just an angry person, but the words “Governor, people are leaving the city! We need to do something about city happiness!” spoken in cheesily-accented tones about 30 times in a row left me barely able to contain my rage. It’s interesting that the game chooses to tell the player about good events (like making a trade sale in a far-away land) only the first time they occur, but spams the speakers with bad news without stopping. It wouldn’t have been that hard to keep some things just visual if only to keep the rage factor down. 6/10
On paper, any freeform strategy game like CivCity has almost unlimited replay value. Unfortunately, a Replay Value score is not calculated from the number of hours one could theoretically sink into the game – it only takes into account the time one would actually find enjoyment in it. The bottom line is Rome loses its fun sometime around the ten-hour mark of the campaign. The gameplay settles down without any radically new concepts, and each map looks about the same as the next. That’s when the bugs and the annoyances take over to the point where playing the game feels like a chore. History buffs may find solace in the fact that some of the later stages will allow for the building of great fixtures of Roman civilization like the Coliseum, complete with gladiators. Unfortunately, this loses much of its effect, since the Coliseum will likely be surrounded by a flax farm and a goat pasture due to the game’s economic setup. In any case, any such rewards are buried too deeply into the lengthy campaign, and I will confess I couldn’t bring myself to finish the whole thing. 6/10
"The bottom line is Rome loses its fun sometime around the ten-hour mark of the campaign."
The bottom line is this: CivCity: Rome doesn’t set the bar much higher than its predecessors in the genre, and then just manages to miss that bar due to a smattering of bugs and design issues. If you’re just itching for a micro-managing city builder, your best bet is to wait until Caesar IV comes out later in the year and review your options at that time.