Empires Strike Back
Since most folks never have the opportunity to become a president, a mayor, or an omniscient and all-powerful deity, the opportunity to construct and manage an entire civilization from the ground up rarely presents itself – other than in the virtual realm of gaming. Last year, Haemimont Games’ Roman-centric empire management RTS sim, Imperium Romanum, gave players a taste of power without as much of the intense micromanaging associated with 4X strategy games. As a redesigned sequel, Grand Ages: Rome brings some improvements to the table and offers some compelling reasons to put your empire building cap on.
Grand Ages: Rome lets you pick a patron noble house and embark on a branching, open-ended campaign set in the 1st century BC. The story and objectives fluctuate based on the missions you choose to take on and associations with other houses you form. While nearly all missions are a mixture of real-time city construction, empire management, and combat, each mission has multiple primary and secondary objectives. Straying from the more battle-heavy RTS titles, the game’s many quests revolve around achieving specific economic or social goals within your city. A military victory is sometimes necessary, yet you won’t be able to sustain an army if you don’t take the time to foster a strong empire and economy to support it.
Creating a successful empire revolves around keeping your citizens safe and happy. Constructing numerous types of buildings to fulfill citizens’ needs in the areas of food, entertainment, religion, employment, hygiene, and numerous other areas is primarily how you’ll accomplish this task. Grand Ages: Rome applies the carrot and stick approach to city planning. You’ll receive production and popularity bonuses for placing certain buildings together and slowly expanding your empire in a calculated, well-thought out manner. On the other hand, slapping buildings down willy-nilly without paying careful attention to the delicate balance of citizens’ needs, the flow of resources, and spatial considerations will quickly hamstring your operation. Indeed, even momentarily overlooking something as small as making sure you’ve got enough lumber flowing to meet building needs and upkeep can cripple the city, causing you to have to start over from a previous save. In essence, balance is the key to success; creating and maintaining that balance can be frustrating at times, yet it’s easily the highlight of the game.
The diverse HUD system lets you easily get a closer look at the flow of resources and the success of your efforts without having to get bogged down digging through endlessly complex, stat-filled menus. This streamlined approach is perfectly suited to the gameplay, which requires you to frequently make quick adjustments to your city when things start to get out of whack. Also, navigating your building options and selecting from different tiers of construction types is effortless, thanks to a slick radial building menu that pops up with a single right-click of the mouse. The circular menu lets you switch between different types of buildings; selecting a tier changes the circle to display all available buildings in that category.
Simply building and managing your city is an engaging and challenging pursuit that will easily consume many hours of your attention. Though it is incorporated soundly into the objectives and is necessary to progress through many missions, the game’s combat element almost feels worked-in as an afterthought. In most cases you won’t even be able to begin thinking about growing a sizeable force until you’ve built up a robust economy and balanced the food, entertainment, religious, and other needs of citizens. This can take quite a long time to accomplish, and trying to lay the foundation needed to muster a sizeable force while being attacked early on is particularly trying. There are numerous economic factors that can cripple your city with a single, poorly-planned misstep; cross your fingers you don’t get torched by brigands in the midst of sorting everything out during the expansion process. You can produce and have one freebie army at a time at your city’s outpost, but even veteran soldiers are no match for larger numbers.
The variety of soldiers you’ll have at your disposal is fairly lackluster, but this is more excusable since the emphasis is not solely on warfare. Units primarily fall under only a small handful of categories, including foot soldiers, archers, horsemen, and siege machines. Recruiting anything but the basic soldiers requires special buildings and higher caste citizens that can’t be attracted to your city until you’ve got a solid handle on the economic balance and expansion.
Different unit types possess special abilities to help turn the tide of battle, and you can have them train to level-up rather than simply stand around waiting for a fight. Selecting a unit opens up an action menu with important info on your troops. Issuing orders is done with a simple click. The problem is the orders menu that pops up when an army is selected obscures a third of the screen, making it particularly difficult to get a good view of what’s happening on the battlefield while tracking the stats of your troops and issuing commands. Adding just the right flavor of RTS combat into the mix is a necessity in a 4X game. However, the warfare aspect of Grand Ages: Rome doesn’t quite pass muster.
Though the camera can be finicky at times, you’re afforded a good level of flexibility in watching your city grow from a birds-eye view or down at street level. With the graphics boosted to their higher settings, the game’s visuals are quite impressive. Even at a distance, your city bustles with life as the ant-like citizens move back and forth throughout the streets, enter buildings, and go about their daily lives. Zoom down to just-above street level, and you can watch them in closer detail. The same goes for battle, and the animations are believable. Weather will change as storms roll in, and the visual changes in day and night cycles are well done. There are plenty of pleasant finishing touches applied to the game, but there’s going to be a noticeable tradeoff in performance when using machines that aren’t above the minimum system requirements.
War-minded players will find some aspects of the battle implementation in Grand Ages: Rome to be severely lacking. In contrast, achieving economic balance and social bliss through careful layout and design of your empire is extremely rewarding. It’s enough to mostly make up for the game’s other shortcomings. Though Rome wasn’t built in a day, you’ll certainly find yourself building for days.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.2 Graphics
With the right hardware, the visuals are quite beautiful. 4.0 Control
The radial building menu is awesome, though handling troops can be a pain. 3.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Your cities bustle with realistic sounds. The voice work and musical score are pleasantly done. 4.3 Play Value
An expansive campaign, numerous multiplayer options, and excellently varied mission goals give this title a lot of mileage. 4.1 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.