The thing I remember most about this review was a comment on the games official forums after we left our link there saying that my review had convinced this one guy to buy the game. You don't tend to get a lot of online feedback on reviews unless you really try hard to go out and push people for it, so hearing that even one guy had his opinion changed or at least informed by my writing gave me a strange sense of pride. Lame pride, perhaps, but pride nonetheless.
I’m not much of a history buff, and I’ve never really been into the Total War series as much as other people, but I did recently watch a BBC docudrama series on the Roman Empire. It hasn’t exactly left me with an encyclopaedic knowledge, but it did rekindle an interest in the Romans which I hadn’t paid much attention to since the days of playing the very first game in the Caesar series, in all its 2D DOS glory.
It’s the Caesar series that looks to be the closest comparison to Imperium Romanum, and indeed both fit neatly into the “historical city building simulation genre”. In fact if you just look at a few screenshots and read the feature list of both games, it would appear that Imperium has borrowed quite heavily from Caesar. Luckily for fans of both Roman History and City Building alike, for everything that Imperium seems to copy there’s something else that makes the entire game feel different. The only safe assumption for people who’ve been playing the Ceaser series for years is that you almost certainly love Imperium, but once you leave behind setting and genre, they couldn’t be less alike.
You don’t have to read much to realise the general idea, here. You take command of a town, and spend most of your time placing the right buildings in the right places, and watching over different groups of people to satisfy their needs while managing your budget and resources. If you manage everything correctly, more people will move in and you’ll have access to bigger houses, a higher class of citizen with their only higher expectations, more industry and a wider variety of choice in how to make and keep your citizens happy.
If you’ve not tried a city building sim outside of the modern day SimCity style games, you might be a little surprised to see exactly how differently Imperium works. Just as ancient Rome and New York are both large, prosperous cities that could both not be more different from each other, Imperium could not be more different from any number of modern city clones. The two big changes here are industry and basic need. Keeping your city running in Imperium is only as difficult as you can imagine running a 2000 year old settlement to be. Satisfying your citizens basic needs is not as simple as placing a grocery store or supermarket nearby. You need to build a pig farm, then a butcher, then optionally a marketplace to distribute the food, and sausages are not the only thing on the menu. Many of the buildings here don’t function independently, so when you’re building a city in Imperium; it really feels like a city rather than a collection of unconnected buildings only linked by their relative distance from each other.
Unfortunately, it’s also this mode that forces you to engage in a fair amount of combat. Combat is far and away the least appealing thing about Imperium. A small selection of military structures can be built, supported by several other military economy structures. Providing your military structures are well stocked, they automatically produce a constant stream of soldiers, up to a limit of 36. The only way to increase this limit is to build more buildings, which means you can find yourself building three or four of exactly the same building rather than simply being able to upgrade your older ones. Visually, this doesn’t look great, and from a gameplay angle, it’s frustrating having to control 4 small squads than one or two big armies.
The combat itself is very basic rock paper scissors style affair, and your only enemies are the barbarian hordes which reside in villages and will occasionally come to attack your town. You can deploy your squads, set them to attack or retreat, set a few different formations and that’s it. The most annoying part is that it’s all down by buttons in a sub menu rather than RTS style selection and movement, which makes it, feel even more automatic and removed from the rest of the game. It actually turns out that running the economy to keep your military running is more enjoyable than using them.
Luckily, there aren’t too many times when you need to focus on your military strength – in certain scenarios you can all but turn it off - and the combat section of the game seems much more forgiving of mistakes than the city building parts. The Roman Empire was obviously a pretty bloody time and warfare quite an essential part of that, but while it is by no means terrible in Imperium, it does hurt the games otherwise excellent pace and addictiveness to add a feature that other, non city building games can do far better. Imperium feels like it should either have given the option to turn combat off, or focus on it more, making it less about sheer numbers and more about strategy, with research options, terrain advantages and everything else we’re used to seeing in RTS games.
Outside of combat, there are very few criticisms that can be made of Imperium. Lack of originality perhaps, but the game is so aware of its genre and has such a refined sense of style that it would seem unfair to punish to for not adding features that it doesn’t need. The way the game displays information about your resources is initially a little confusing, and the interface which uses a radial system a little like that from Neverwinter Nights isn’t going to be too everyone’s taste, although it’s a good quick way to navigating once you’ve worked out where everything is. The games modes are different enough to offer more replay value than most of games of its type, but it would have been nice to see more customisation on the sandbox mode.
Perhaps the weakest part of the main game is the way it deals with emergencies. Items requiring your attention appear at the top left of the screen, and must be clicked on in order to bring up an information box. Worse, many of these want to tell a story instead of just immediately telling you what’s going wrong. These stories seem pointless and are very few in number, so you’ll end up hearing the same thing over and over again as you make the same mistake, especially while you are learning how to play the game. You can of course not click on them, but then you’re leaving yourself at a disadvantage. This is really such a small thing, and the fact I’m pointing it out as something that frustrated me probably does more to prove that Imperium has so very few problems.
Imperium’s graphics certainly aren’t a problem. Obviously the style has been set in part by history, but it’s in the detail and animation you can really enjoy. Zoom in outside a bakery and you’ll see your slaves bringing flour and leaving it in a pile of sacks outside, then your baker will come out take those sacks and turn them into bread. Zoom out, and you’ll see a varied and bustling town set into a dramatic landscape. These details come with a price however. The game offers plenty of graphical options but if you want to play the game on max settings, you’ll find one of the best looking city building games ever to also be one of the most system intensive.
If you’re interested in the Romans at all, this is an absolute must purchase, even if you haven’t played this type of game before. As well as of being incredibly solid as a simulation, Imperium is happy to include the historically accurate slaves and sexism in its canon, and there's any number of facts about the Romans that are interesting and unobtrusive. If you’re not so excited about history, Imperium obviously won’t be able to offer you quite as much, but it’s still a very complete game that seems to understand its players and its purpose far more than modern/futuristic setting of games like SimCity Societies. The only people who are going to be disappointed here are people looking for depth in combat and a proper fictional story, but even those people might be surprised just how good Imperium is.
Food is the simplest example and a basic need. Basic needs in Romanum are not simply things you need to look after or your city won’t grow as fast; fail to feed to poor or supply enough water to your fledgling town and your citizens will riot. Larger buildings even require a steady stream of materials to maintain their upkeep, and not supplying this increasing their chances of catching fire. The actual wants of your citizens are never that complex, but actually finding a cost effective and quick way to resolve them involves working out how everything feeds off everything else, and maintaining an economy. One missing link in your economy that’s ignored or not sorted out in time can totally cripple your game.
This might sound like enough micromanagement to scare anyone off, but actually it’s not about managing every building and every member of your population, it’s just a shift in focus that puts you more in charge of your industry and resources. There are plenty of resources to manage, however all of the different resources only require recognising a need and then constructing the right building in the right place. Workers are hired automatically and buildings convert resources in their own time, providing they are staffed and close enough together. It’s a satisfying return to old style RTS resource gathering without any of the worry about spending more time focusing on mining or farming then on actually running a city.
The game offers three modes of play. Rome, which puts you in charge of building some of cities more famous buildings, Scenarios, which despite the name are generally a freeform sandbox style game with certain settings to make things easier or harder, and History, which runs through various key points of Rome’s history. It’s this latter mode that is the strongest of the three and contains the most appealing gameplay, combining the satisfaction and structure found in objectives with the open ended decision making of the sandbox mode.
Timeline mode unlocks different stages as you progress through Rome’s history. You start with anything from a small to large settlement, and while maintaining and continuing to expand the settlement as you would in sandbox, victory is achieved by using the games tablet system to complete objectives. Tablets can contain compulsory orders (build a farm, make this much money), optional orders which will reward you if completed, and different chance scenarios, both negative and positive. This is a welcome change to simply being told exactly what you need to do in order to continue the game, and probably one of the games most unique factors.