Caesar IV Updated Hands-On - City Building in the Ancient World

The Caesar series returns after an eight-year hiatus, and we check out what Caesar IV will have to offer to fans of historic city building.

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City-building strategy games are among the oldest strategy genres, stretching back to the venerable SimCity in 1989. And while modern city building can be fun, several other games let you try to re-create the grandeur of Rome and other famous cities from antiquity. Case in point is the Caesar series, which started in 1992, though the last chapter in the series was released eight years ago. The series is coming back in the form of Caesar IV, which is being developed for Sierra by developer Tilted Mill, the makers of 2004's Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile. (Incidentally, many of the folks at Tilted Mill used to make the Caesar games while working at the now-defunct Impressions.)

Instead of simply repackaging Children of the Nile with Roman-style graphics and calling it a day, it appears that the developers at Tilted Mill have recognized that the Caesar games have a different style of gameplay--thus, Caesar IV doesn't quite feel like a Children of the Nile clone. Where Children of the Nile focused on each individual character and family in the game, letting you follow their everyday lives, Caesar IV focuses on the broader picture, that of creating a grand Roman city.

Rome wasn't built in a day, but you can build a Roman city in a few hours in Caesar IV.
Rome wasn't built in a day, but you can build a Roman city in a few hours in Caesar IV.

As with any complex city-building games, Caesar IV is about trying to build a thriving, healthy city, which means that you have to integrate dozens of systems. For instance, your plebs (the virtual citizens of your city) need houses, and these come in basically three different sizes to house the poor, the middle class, and the elites, respectively. Then they need food and water. Food means allotting arable terrain to growing grain, grapes, and vegetables, as well as raising sheep and cattle. Each of these food-producing structures needs an accompanying farmhouse to house the workers who work them. Water, on the other hand, can be provided by wells, but it's better to develop one of the most distinct of Roman inventions, the aqueduct, and the system of pump houses, reservoirs, and fountains needed to distribute the water. Pretty much every aspect of everyday life must be accounted for in this manner, including the health care system (clinics and bathhouses, mainly), industry, religion, education, entertainment, and more.

The challenge, of course, is trying to make all of these structures and systems fit within the confines of your ever-growing city. There are more than 100 different buildings to account for in Caesar IV, and you don't have an endless amount of space to build upon. City layout must be carefully thought out, not only for efficiency's sake, but also for aesthetic reasons, as ugly slums can drag the desirability level of your city down. You can counter this with intelligent city design and by putting up plenty of decorative items, such as trees and bushes. Then everything has to be tied together with roads. This proved to be a somewhat tricky process in the version of the game that we played, as the controls were a bit sensitive, making it easy to misplace an object. Hopefully, this will get addressed before the game is finished, and even if you do make a mistake, the handy undo button lets you go back and try again.

Advisors can fill you in on the state of your city and its citizens.
Advisors can fill you in on the state of your city and its citizens.

You'll fund most of this through taxes, and yes, tax collectors are structures that you'll have to build throughout your city. To support larger and richer cities, you'll need to create richer citizens, and that's done by improving the economy and building luxury goods that those citizens crave. While the poor can do with the basics, such as clothes, olive oil, and pottery, the affluent need larger houses, as well as furniture, jewelry, utensils, and wine. Creating these goods means building up little industries unto themselves. First you need to harvest the resources through mining, timber cutting, and other means, and then turn them into goods at various factories.

Trying to build a thriving city is a challenge and a juggling act, as there are so many needs that you need to address, but only so much space to build in. We discovered that if you do a poor job, the game has many ways of letting you know. Buildings will collapse if you fail to ensure there are enough engineers to provide maintenance; fires can erupt if you don't have an adequate civil protection system in place; and even the divine wrath of the gods can appear in the form of various natural disasters, such as lightning bolts. Your citizens can get sick and epidemics can break out if you fail to provide enough sanitation or health care; the list goes on and on.

Building a vast, complex city that works can be a rewarding challenge.
Building a vast, complex city that works can be a rewarding challenge.

Caesar IV's 3D graphics engine (a first for the series) appears to build upon that of Children of the Nile. The engine supports pretty graphical features, such as high dynamic range lighting, real-time shadowing, and water reflections, though the focus isn't so much on delivering eye candy as it is on presenting a clean look. You can gauge the health of your city often by just looking at it, as information is presented through the state of the buildings. If things are going well, you'll notice buildings will get upgraded on their own. Or, you can just look at the activity of your citizens. Tiny little plebs wander around the streets, pushing carts and doing various tasks, and you can click on them for a short little verbal comment about how they're doing, as well as glean more information about their general status.

There's a lot to do in Caesar IV, and it looks to be a fairly challenging city-building game. The game will ship with two campaigns, in addition to the tutorial. The first campaign will task you with being a Roman governor of various cities, and finishing it will unlock the more challenging second campaign. Caesar IV will come with a scenario mode that will let you focus on building a stand-alone city, and players can create and share scenarios using the built-in scenario editor. The game will also ship with a multiplayer mode, though we didn't get a chance to test it in action. It will be interesting to see how it, and the rest of this strategy game, pans out. Caesar IV will ship later this year.

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