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Caesar IV (PC) artwork

Caesar IV (PC) review

"If Caesar IV is better because it focuses on the smaller details, then it’s also true that it’s 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, you’ll 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 people’s 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 downpour’s tinny patter. As the crackling flames reduced the office to kindling, I knew one thing: I didn’t want to stop playing Caesar IV.

It’s the little touches like Jupiter that really set Caesar IV apart from the crowd. Sure, there are all the neat names you’d expect from a game that lets you simulate the days of ancient Rome. They’ll make the nerds happy. And there’s the familiar segment of map that looks like a boot. That’s cool, but its inclusion hardly means anything because any game of the sort will get such things right. It’s hard not to; they’re all over the history books and maps we’ve been reading since we could put together ‘Julius’ and ‘Ceasar.’ What’s 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. You’ll see a road and some structures, as well as a menu on the right that lets you decide what to build where. You’ll probably start with some apartments for your workers, and a well or two. Then you’ll add a place to work, maybe a field or a timber camp. That’s all well and good, but then you need some way to make use of the materials you’ve 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, you’re probably thinking that Caesar IV sounds an awful lot like CivCity: Rome, right. Well, you’re 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. You’re still going to do poorly if you focus on making straight streets with perfect little rows of houses. You’re 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 it’s also true that it’s 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, you’ll see filth spreading through your city. You’ll hear the people coughing and you’ll try to build a few clinics to fix the problem, but they’re 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 that’s how you have to play the game.

If you do, you’ll 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 I’d just built. The people looked tiny, almost like ants, so I zoomed in and suddenly I was checking out some guy’s loincloth as he lay soaking in the water. The game lets you get as close as you’d ever want… and then some. Learn from my mistake and don’t 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 city’s residents is so easy (if you want, you can follow them all around town as they go through their daily routines), you’ll be pleased to learn that support is constantly available. If you’ve 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. They’ll 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 you’re playing well, that’s mostly true.

Of course, the familiarity you’ll need to truly master ancient Rome doesn’t 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, you’ll learn how people interact, how the classes are important and each serve their own purposes. You’ll 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, there’s only one area where Caesar IV isn’t the best darn city builder I’ve 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 you’re looking to remodel an area in the corner. Still, that’s 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 it’s so careful to get all the important things right. Even when you’re not doing particularly well, you’ll be tempted to keep going because you know that the next time around, you won’t make the same mistakes. You’ll remember to build roads to your sheep farms. You’ll tax the heck out of your richer citizens and give them theatres so they don’t mind sticking around. Maybe you’ll even build more temples to Jupiter so that he doesn’t fry your buildings. It might not be a bad idea…


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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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