Caesar IV (PC) review
"If Caesar IV is better because it focuses on the smaller details, then itís also true that itís better because it forces you to do the same. You have to worry more about things like hygiene now. More importantly, you understand why that is in a tangible sense. When you neglect the bath houses, youíll see filth spreading through your city."
Jupiter is a vengeful god who torched one of the tax collection buildings in my city for no reason other than the peopleís apathy toward his divinity. Black storm clouds swirled while misty rain drenched the city and in the distance, the rumble of thunder provided bass accompaniment to the downpourís tinny patter. As the crackling flames reduced the office to kindling, I knew one thing: I didnít want to stop playing Caesar IV.
Itís the little touches like Jupiter that really set Caesar IV apart from the crowd. Sure, there are all the neat names youíd expect from a game that lets you simulate the days of ancient Rome. Theyíll make the nerds happy. And thereís the familiar segment of map that looks like a boot. Thatís cool, but its inclusion hardly means anything because any game of the sort will get such things right. Itís hard not to; theyíre all over the history books and maps weíve been reading since we could put together ĎJuliusí and ĎCeasar.í Whatís impressive is when the developers nail the small details and make a better game for their efforts.
Even without Jupiter, Ceasar IV is an excellent example of that concept in motion. When you first begin building, your city will look like one from any other game of the sort. Youíll see a road and some structures, as well as a menu on the right that lets you decide what to build where. Youíll probably start with some apartments for your workers, and a well or two. Then youíll add a place to work, maybe a field or a timber camp. Thatís all well and good, but then you need some way to make use of the materials youíve just gleaned. So you build a warehouse and a store and suddenly the same people that build the products you want start buying them.
So, youíre probably thinking that Caesar IV sounds an awful lot like CivCity: Rome, right. Well, youíre right. How very astute of you! There are a lot of the same buildings, after all, and a lot of the basic strategies that served you well there come into play here. Youíre still going to do poorly if you focus on making straight streets with perfect little rows of houses. Youíre still going to find your population departing if you get so busy making big moves that you forget to tend to the small details.
If Caesar IV is better because it focuses on the smaller details, then itís also true that itís better because it forces you to do the same. You have to worry more about things like hygiene now. More importantly, you understand why that is in a tangible sense. When you neglect the bath houses, youíll see filth spreading through your city. Youíll hear the people coughing and youíll try to build a few clinics to fix the problem, but theyíre just a Band-Aid. There are tons of cases like that. Forgetting one little thing has a ripple effect on your whole city, which suddenly makes a little city simulation game feel exhilarating. To truly dominate, you have to remember that a massive mural is nothing more than a bunch of brush strokes. Some are broad and some are short and to the point, and thatís how you have to play the game.
If you do, youíll find yourself rewarded in a big way. Past games have promised to take you deep within a Roman city of your devising. Caesar IV actually does it. You can zoom into a ridiculous level of detail and things still look great without taxing your graphics card beyond a reasonable point. As one example, I was watching over my city and I saw the huge bath house Iíd just built. The people looked tiny, almost like ants, so I zoomed in and suddenly I was checking out some guyís loincloth as he lay soaking in the water. The game lets you get as close as youíd ever wantÖ and then some. Learn from my mistake and donít look too closely at the bath house.
Since you have so much control over everything, and because getting a personal glimpse into the lives of your cityís residents is so easy (if you want, you can follow them all around town as they go through their daily routines), youíll be pleased to learn that support is constantly available. If youíve decided to go it alone, you can click on buildings to learn just what problems your residents have and how you can address them on a house-by-house scale, or you can go for the broader picture by visiting your advisors. Theyíll tell you just where you need to improve your performance and you can adjust menus until you feel like every single element in the game is under your control. If youíre playing well, thatís mostly true.
Of course, the familiarity youíll need to truly master ancient Rome doesnít come without effort and time. Fortunately, there are tutorial maps that help you get the hang of things. They begin by introducing simple concepts, with most of your options on the menus grayed out for later use. Here, youíll learn how people interact, how the classes are important and each serve their own purposes. Youíll come to grips with issues like taxation and sanitation, culture and good old-fashioned efficiency. Then you can put everything to use in the main campaign.
Really, thereís only one area where Caesar IV isnít the best darn city builder Iíve had the pleasure of playing: its camera. While the control scheme sounds great on paper, its execution feels the slightest bit flawed. Holding in the mouse button and rotating almost never leaves the map positioned where you mean for it to be, and scrolling to the side of the map sometimes feels more cumbersome than it should, particularly if youíre looking to remodel an area in the corner. Still, thatís made up for in the way you can get so close to the action one minute, then zoom out the next without anything suffering for your voyeurism. A goofy camera is a small price to pay for that.
At the end of the day, Caesar IV is a great game that anyone can play, one that keeps you coming back because itís so careful to get all the important things right. Even when youíre not doing particularly well, youíll be tempted to keep going because you know that the next time around, you wonít make the same mistakes. Youíll remember to build roads to your sheep farms. Youíll tax the heck out of your richer citizens and give them theatres so they donít mind sticking around. Maybe youíll even build more temples to Jupiter so that he doesnít fry your buildings. It might not be a bad ideaÖ
Staff review by Jason Venter (October 09, 2006)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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