When you think of city building sims you really only think of Sim City at the top of the tree. It's odd to actually play another title like City Life or any other game that happens to have city building in it. When I ended up with Imperium Romanum, I wasn't sure what to expect since I had cut my teeth on any sim-style game I could get my hands on. I followed the tutorial to the letter and soon learned that the game is pretty fun as it taught me the skills I required to create my first city, to make it grow and prosper as well as to make sure that the populace were happy and crime was at an all time low.
There are numerous game modes in the game, along with a historical timeline mode that allows you to play through various scenarios. One of my favourite so far has been managing the huge city of Rome from its early infancy into the thriving metropolis and centre of knowledge it should become. There's a plethora of buildings and the system to choose them is simple. I love radial menus so being able to drop a building down just with a few clicks of the mouse was a god send.
In fact before you go any further, check out the preview of the game. It'll help explain the things that I will somewhat expand upon.
It's a veritable tight-rope of choices and decisions when playing this city builder, it only takes the wrong investment to watch your hard won fiscal prosperity to take a tumble and the citizens to turn into an angry fire-wielding screaming mob that need to be taken in hand and pacified (beaten to within an inch of their miserable lives!) by your sublime rule. It's a nice relaxed game at times but there are moments when you might be pulling out your hair and screaming blue murder at the PC when things go terribly pear-shaped.
What may put people off the game is the lack of direction. It's an arm-chair general's kind of game where you can sit back and relax, perfect if you want to cultivate the Roman city of your dreams. If you want a gripping story of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire however, you're out of luck since the game doesn't ship with any kind of campaign. What it does give you however is hours of fun if you're into building cities like I am. You can fine tune your neighbourhoods with just the right placement of buildings and help to upgrade your town hall into something worthy of Ancient Rome.
The more you upgrade, the more you have access to the right kind of technology and the better buildings you can put down. In that way it parallels the seminal Sim City. It doesn't quite get there though; it falls at the wayside when it becomes more tedium than anything else to slog through yet another objective to find that something else has gone wrong. Don't get me wrong, I like the game. I would have liked to see more to bring the player into the actual game itself. The tutorial is fantastic really and it has more than enough in the way of gameplay to keep you going city wise.
It's when the barbarian invasion begins that I start to get annoyed as the rts side of the game hasn't really been developed beyond a few options. There's something missing. Perhaps I was expecting to command mighty legions, to be able to have the kind of finite control I have in other games where I can choose various options, many kinds of formations, aggressiveness and build up a suitable army of diverse units. Here I'm relegated to picking a couple of things, clicking on a point on the map and sending my pitiful forces off to battle the raging barbarian hordes in mediocre combat.
It's such a let down compared to the city building/management side of the game that I wish there was an option to turn the combat off completely or totally ignore it.
What the game loses in the appeal of the combat, it does more than make up for it in the city design and graphical lushness. I was able to crank all the settings to maximum and enjoy an ambient background of little details, flocks of birds, rippling water and so on. It's all brought to life very well with lots of attention to detail. This is the kind of thing that I like to see in my games, especially now when we have powerful processors and graphics cards to support fully 3d buildings and proper 3d characters.
Imperium Romanum's attention to architectural detail is likewise pretty good, the buildings look period and they have a good feel to them. I particularly like the Gladiatorial Arena and the way your town hall evolves as you upgrade it to a Senate and so on. The game is also brought to life with layer upon layer of excellent animations for the various people, workers and life in the city. Every building supports some kind of animation, especially as day passes into night and the various lights come on around the city.
The whole thing can be described visually as beautiful.
The sound work is good, it's packed with ambient sounds and spot sounds, there's little in the way of voice acting which probably is a good thing since games of this type tend to suffer from badly portrayed voices by actors who should never work again in anything. At least they're not as bad as RPG's though, that odd breed of game where the voice acting (Two Worlds anyone) is even worse than some daytime TV or Soap operas.
I feel that Imperium Romanum is a decent step forwards for this kind of genre, it's nice to see a city building game where there's a lot going on visually as well as under the hood as the various AI systems manage the day to day lives of your little Romans. It's just a shame that the lack of tactical options in the war side of the game detract from the actual game itself, the battle animations for this particular segment could have been done a whole lot better as well.
I say this time and time again but people could learn a thing or too by adding synch kills, random death animations and combat animations to defeated units. A little bit of thought in that area wouldn't go amiss and might make a so-so game even better. It isn't always about eye candy and fortunately Imperium Romanum has the depth of city construction gameplay to support it. It's not a game that you will like if you're into core RTS or just core Sim City style games. If you want a combination of a basic RTS tacked onto a great and functioning city builder, then Imperium Romanum could be the ticket for you if you're into your history and especially the Roman culture.