Caesar IV Hands-On

What's old is new again, as we check out the fourth game in this long-running city-building series.

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It's been eight long years since the city-building strategy game Caesar III was released, and since then, the game's publishers have been known as Sierra, then Vivendi Universal Games, and, just recently, Sierra again. So, in the spirit of old things being new again, we come to the latest game in the heralded city-building series, Caesar IV. At a recent Sierra press event we got to play a fairly complete build of the game, which is due for release in just over a month. While a game of this magnitude obviously requires more time than we were able to give it in a short play period, we like what we have seen so far.

The Caesar series returns for the first time since 1998.
The Caesar series returns for the first time since 1998.

One of the biggest upgrades for the game has been the move from 2D to 3D. The change is dramatic; now you are able to view your city from any angle, and really gain an appreciation for the outstanding building architecture that is a highlight in the game. Even the lowly insulae--tenement housing for the lowest social class in Rome, the plebs--have a fine amount of detail. As you move up the social ladder and build residences for the equites (the middle class) or the rich patricians, you can expect to see some truly intricate building design adding to your budding city's skyline. There's more to the graphics engine than simply 3D buildings, however. The game also features day-to-night cycles, weather effects, and an excellent draw distance that lets you view far off into the horizon when zooming around your city.

This being a city-building game, the essence of Caesar IV is in the tools it gives you to create and maintain an ancient Roman city from the ground up. The game will feature a number of single-player campaign modes; we began our play period with kingdom mode, which acts as the training tool in the game. Here, you're given a small plot of land, a few roads to build around, and a general idea of your goal (which in the first mission is to simply build a base population of 500 plebs). As you progress through kingdom mode, your goals will change to encompass different aspects of your city and its population, including culture, security, prosperity, and favor. When it comes to simply building a base population, though, there are a few requirements.

The first, of course, is a place to live and water to drink. Insulae buildings handle the shelter, and a few well-placed wells will let your plebs get water. Next, it will be up to you to provide food; by placing a field and farm house in hospitable areas on the map, your plebs will get straight to work with the business of growing food for themselves. The level of independence demonstrated by the artificially intelligent citizens in the game is something the development team at Tilted Mill has been focusing on. You won't need to tell your citizens to go get water if they're thirsty, or to go seek out entertainment if they're bored--if it's around, and accessible via a major road, they'll seek it out and take care of themselves. While cutting out the micromanagement of peons is a good thing, it still makes your job as a local governor that much more important; if your citizens aren't provided with the necessities of life, it won't be long before things start going wrong.

Thanks to a new 3D engine, your cities will be impressive-looking creations.
Thanks to a new 3D engine, your cities will be impressive-looking creations.

The virtual folks living in the various social strata will have their own individual needs, and each will provide services to the community as a whole. Plebs, for example, will provide food and manual labor, and won't ask for much more than a roof over their heads in return. The middle class is the backbone of your market economy, providing goods and services as well as entertainment. Finally, the patricians, as the richest and most finely bred of your citizens, will require the best food and drink, the most access to various religions, and the highest form of culture available to them; in return, they'll act as the most powerful and affluent portion of your tax base. Keep them happy, or your city's coffers will suffer.

To help you avoid that ugliness, however, you'll have a group of trusty advisors to glean knowledge from. A chief advisor will offer tips with matters such as lowering unemployment or dealing with the crime levels of your fair city. Other, more focused advisors will guide you along their areas of specialty, including finances, entertainment, and so on. In addition, a handy overlay window in the main screen of the game will give you crucial information on things such as land desirability, water distribution, and more. By paying close attention to your advisors, the overlays, and the general actions of your population, you'll always be kept abreast of your city's status at any given moment.

Whether you choose to rule with the fist or with the dollar, Caesar IV should fit your gameplay style.
Whether you choose to rule with the fist or with the dollar, Caesar IV should fit your gameplay style.

When it comes to the game economy, raw goods will play an important role. The second training mission, for example, requires you to help your equites sell pottery. To do that, however, you'll first need to gather raw clay materials by setting down a mine near a clay pit to gather the necessary raw materials. Once that's up and running, you can set up a pottery factory to convert those raw goods into something sellable. Finally, to get these goods into the hands of your citizens, you'll need to build a basic goods market.

Once you have made your way through the tutorial missions in kingdom mode and have risen up from local provincial governor on your way to becoming Caesar, you'll have the choice to move to new areas of ancient Italy. Which area you choose to rule will depend on which style of gameplay you choose to explore. If you're the type who prefers swordplay to diplomacy, you can take the military route, which will let you use many of the new military units found in the game, including catapults, infantry, cavalry, and bowmen, as well as facing down barbarian hordes intent on conquering you before you do the same to them. Conversely, if you wish to rule with finances instead of military might, you can choose the economic path. Here your road to immortality will be based on your ability to not only make beneficial deals with your neighbors, but also to keep the notoriously fickle patricians well-fed, happy, and perfectly willing to keep paying their hefty tax bills. It's important to note that you'll have the option to switch back and forth between economic and military missions on your road to Caesarship, should you become bored with one style or the other.

While the majority of Caesar IV's gameplay is focused on the single-player experience, the game will include an online component as well. Essentially an expanded leaderboard system, the game will let you upload your created city to a central server to compare your city (and its associated overall score) with those of other players who have been playing in a similar province. The player with the highest overall score in a certain province will be named the governor of that province in the larger Caesar IV online universe. If one particular player manages to control 70 percent of the provinces in the game, he or she will be named Caesar, until someone is able to topple him or her from that post. It's not exactly Caesar Online, but at least it's something.

As we said earlier, the game's true character comes through in its 3D engine and the handsomely designed and modeled buildings. After only a few minutes with the game, you'll have a reasonably sized city complete with working aqueduct system and, as your campaign progresses, many of the buildings in the game will evolve. The patrician mansion, for example, can evolve through nine different stages in order to model the increasingly opulent lifestyle of the game's leisure class. In addition, the game will provide a number of new buildings and objects to place in your city which were previously unavailable, including obelisks, plazas, and a healthy variety of new shrubbery to help beautify the surroundings.

Your plebs aren't just mindless automatons. Okay, they are, but they won't really act like it.
Your plebs aren't just mindless automatons. Okay, they are, but they won't really act like it.

Caesar IV looks to match the in-depth gameplay found in previous versions of the series, with a 3D graphics engine that is firmly grounded in today's technology. With an engaging and easy-to-use interface and multiple approaches to city management, the game seems as if it will appeal to any budding Caesar, whether they wish to rule with an iron first or an open palm. Caesar IV is set for release in late September, and you can expect to see more on the game in the coming weeks.

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