Have you ever been playing any of the Civilization games and just wished you could see the inner workings of why your city of BomberLauncherVille has just blossomed from a 13 to a 14? Well, the folks at Firefly have taken the basis for Civilization, stuffed a dash of SimCity into it, and kicked it out the door.
Despite the name, you won’t be getting anywhere near Rome. You will start off a governor of a blank slate of land. Caesar has seen fit to let you succeed or drown at the building and management of a city. Make no mistake, the Emperor expect you to spread the glory of the Roman Empire, and fast.
Civilization sets a pair of very large shoes to fill at the foot of CivCity: Rome. Can a title not made by Firaxis rise up and stand on its own marble dais, or will it stand in the shadow of the Colossus? Let’s find out.
Let’s be perfectly honest – Civilization IV was not blisteringly cutting-edge in the graphics department, but it was clean. The characters you encounter in the game, and the places you build or visit are certainly above par. The detail required by a city-builder like CivCity: Rome should bring a relatively powerful graphics engine to the table to make sure it looks good up close, right? Well, something about CivCity: Rome just seems…off. It looks like Firefly developed the game graphics first, and then spent two or three years making the game. Point of fact, the graphics often feel ‘dated’.
The icons and interface are fairly simple. Click on the crossed swords for combat and protection units, click on the rose for beautification objects, and click on the shovel to delete objects. Sadly, even at the 1280×1024 maximum resolution setting, you can see the jagged lines on the interface, buildings, and near everything else. The ground textures suffer as well, looking like the low resolution surfaces you might see in Flight Simulator on low settings. On the other hand, the water looks nice. It surges on to the beach, ebbing and flowing along the shore. Despite the rough textures, there are a lot of smaller details that help pull the graphics off the floor level. When your farm harvests a particular commodity, it is carted to the relevant processing facility, unloaded, and processed. If that commodity is meat, you’ll get steaks lined up on a table. Similarly, your water master will pull water from the well and put it in jugs.
There is another issue that really hurts CivCity: Rome, and it harkens back to the bad old days. The game features some massive buildings, including the wonders that you’ll eventually be able to build, but sadly you’ll be very hard pressed to click on them. The camera is set very close to the ground, and it can be zoomed back a little bit, but when you do, it makes it almost impossible to click on anything. You’ll have to hover around and try to highlight a particular building, then you can click on it. It is frustrating that you can’t simply click on a building and manage it. This is doubled by the fact that eventually you’ll have massive aqueducts running into your city to provide piped water. They are in your way no matter where you put them. Other wonders are just as bad. On one particular mission I ran an aqueduct through the heart of my land, only to find that I was spinning around like a top to try to manage both sides of the city from then on. You’ll really feel the crunch when you have to nuke a path from your city, or a smaller building like a hovel or doctor’s office.
Unfortunately, the graphic issue also persists in cutscenes. When you are treated to a cutscene, it is rendered in a tiny box that shows pixilation and tiling that shouldn’t be present in a game at this point. There had to be room on the disc, so where are my full screen cutscenes to wow me? Caesar is displeased.
Nag, nag, nag! The voice work in CivCity: Rome isn’t bad, but by the end of the first level you’ll probably be turning it off. Even with literally hundreds of tons of food in the warehouse, you’ll constantly hear about how your granaries are low, and then moments later, empty. I tested this theory throughout the game, putting my granary next to my mill and warehouse. Even with all three buildings within feet of each other, the constant whining continues.
The clanks, water pouring, fire crackling, and the like are well done. They add a little bit of life to the jagged landscape. Similarly, your citizens will add a bit of life with their voiceovers for requests, as well as comments about the city in general. If only it wasn’t punctuated by your advisor who just won’t shut up.
If you are comfortable with any city building simulation, you’ll be right at home with CivCity: Rome. Clicking on an object brings up context-sensitive menus at the bottom of the screen. When you click on a citizen it’ll show the balance of their work and free time, as well as their current destination. Clicking on a home will show you how much of a tax contribution that home makes, what needs are satisfied, and what needs are left unfilled. Hovering over those unfilled items will give light suggestions on how to rectify the situation. Clicking on your town center will tell you your unemployment levels. Hitting the smiley (or frown) icon in the upper right will lead to a screen that explains why your city is popular, or why people are leaving. You can manipulate the city food rations, work hours, and wages. This will have a direct impact on the overall money intake, but more importantly, your immigration. More people mean more taxes, so keeping this number positive is important. Sadly, that is almost the extent of the economic power you have over your city, and often you can pay your people nothing, work them almost constantly, and still keep them happy if you’ve kept all of the other categories straight. It would have been nice to see more control, and better balance, in this area.
One thing you do have direct control over is the research in your city. A Civ-lite version of a research tree is present in the game. Researching The Wheel, for instance, will lead to Chariots. Chariots lead to Public Spectacles such as the Chariot Races. You are never given an overwhelming number of items to research, and you can often research everything in the tree long before you finish the overall mission. These research items will have a direct effect on your city. For instance, Mathematics raises tax revenues by 10%. This can be stacked with Coinage and Banking for even greater effect. Once you get the hang of these, you’ll be racing for particular tech upgrades over all others, and picking the rest up simply to raise your citizens’ view of technology.
Like the graphics, there are some rough edges in the controls. We talked about the issues with the item selection, but we need to talk about the camera. While it is true that you can zoom the camera, it is the reverse of what you’ll want to do. Despite the cityscapes getting progressively larger as you move through missions, you simply can’t zoom out to any reasonable level. You always feel like you are directly on top of your citizens, and you can’t back up to get the 10,000 foot view needed for battle. This is compounded by the fact that there is no way to rapidly select your soldiers should you select the warrior missions instead of the peaceful builder missions. Given how fast the enemy can move through your city and destroy buildings, speed is key.
So I’ve talked at length about some of the shortcomings of CivCity: Rome. Now I’ll talk about why I couldn’t put it down.
I’m a sucker for builder games. Civilization, SimCity, RTS titles, Tycoon games – I just can’t get enough of building stuff. Taking the peaceful or the war missions in CivCity: Rome will give you plenty of room to stretch your building legs and create a city as you see fit. You are given some objectives before your mission starts, but ultimately you are not pressed to accomplish them in any particular order, or in any timeframe. The focus of the game is the production of goods. These goods start off simple – build a rock quarry and drag stone back to your warehouse. As the goods get more complex, they may require a secondary building to prepare and distribute them. For instance, if you plant a grape farm, your farmers will collect the grapes and cart them to a winery. The wine maker will pour the grapes in to a box and stomp them into wine. Those wine casks are stored for use by your citizenry, or sold through your trade routes. As your city expands, so will the demands of your citizens. Sure, they may need only well water to move from a hovel to a large hovel, but they’ll demand tunics, olive oil, plumbing, and access to a doctor and more to expand to a large house. The larger the house, the more tax contribution you’ll get from that family, so it literally pays to listen to the demands of your citizens.
Speaking of demands, you citizens are blind. I say this as there are times when your citizens will refuse to expand their home as they need access to religion. This would normally be easily rectified by adding more temples, if that citizen wasn’t already across the street from 5 temples! Similarly, you’ll find that your citizens will often require obscene redundancy to finally ‘see’ the item they so desire. Those issues are one thing, but the real frustration is when they can’t find water. You may have put the overly large aqueduct right up to their door step to provide running water, but they may still complain that they need more. Rome was known for its greed, but this borders on the criminal!
The game starts off very simply, with tutorial missions that walk you through the basics. As your city reaches maturity, you are often granted a new title and a new stretch of land to expand into in the name of Rome. Some of the objectives border on the ridiculous. There is one particular early mission where Rome will require shipments of 80 tons of Wheat every few months. There is only one catch – you are in Africa and cannot grow wheat. This means you must import the wheat, starve your people, and ship your goods to Rome. In fact, it is surprisingly late in the game when you actually get to build farms for food. That said, it is very satisfying to not only meet Caesar’s demands, but ship them as soon as he sends his request instead of waiting out the 24 month maximum time frame. It is the only way you can thumb your nose at your ruler, and still keep your head attached.
Accomplishing the objectives, whether they be monetary or military, is often very challenging, regardless of selected difficulty level. Often, I was required to run myself down to less than 100 coin, including two loans from Rome, to get my economy going. Once the economy clicks though, you can almost walk away and let it run itself. At one point I had to earn 20,000 in coin to accomplish the mission. I simply left the screen open and went into the front room to watch TV. Since this was a peaceful mission, I simply came back in about a half hour to the congratulatory screen. Properly setting up your city can make it completely self sufficient.
So here we are, looking at the blend of two genres, and two games. Both legendary in their own right, how do they combine? In the end, it isn’t as bad as it could have been, but it is also not as good as it could have been. CivCity: Rome has an incredible amount of potential. Here is the best part though – reaching that potential, graphics excluded, would be easily accomplished through some well tested patches. As it stands, it is merely a decent city builder with a Roman twist.There is no denying that this game has an addictive quality, despite the bugs. Unfortunately, there is little to no replay value in the game as you will have built and researched everything possible in the course of any mission. It isn’t like you’d really take a different strategy and have a different outcome. That said, there are quite a few missions in the overall campaign. It’ll keep you playing for a few weekends. Also included is a very powerful editor with which you can create your own scenarios, if you are into that kind of thing.CivCity: Rome – part SimCity, part Civilization. Unfortunately not enough parts made the conversion to really ensure that it lives up to both of those legendary titles. While there is an addictive quality to the game, the bugs and bizarre behavior of your citizens can sometimes pull the game into the realm of frustration instead of enjoyment. Let us hope that CivCity: WhateverCityIsNext lets Firefly really balance their concept and bring the full concept together in a tidy package.