Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile Hands-On

This debut game from Tilted Mill promises to take the ancient city-building strategy genre in new directions, and we check it out.

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Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile
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When Vivendi Universal Games shuttered Impressions this year, it closed down the development studio responsible for a decade's worth of ancient city-building strategy games, such as Caesar, Pharaoh, and Zeus: Master of Olympus. Unlike most real-time strategy games, the goal in those games isn't to crush your opponents in battle. Instead, those games task you with building a thriving, successful city in the ancient world. Though Impressions is now gone, its spirit lives on in start-up Tilted Mill, a development studio staffed by many veterans of Impressions. As such, Tilted Mill's debut game is Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile, a new ancient city-building game that looks to advance the genre in new directions, not the least of which is 3D. We've been playing around with a preview of the game to see what Tilted Mill has in store.

Build the ancient Egyptian city of your dreams in Children of the Nile.
Build the ancient Egyptian city of your dreams in Children of the Nile.

The folks at Tilted Mill are taking the opportunity to start fresh with the genre, and it would be a mistake to think of Children of the Nile as just an updated version of Pharaoh with a 3D graphics engine. In earlier city-building games, the citizens of your cities appeared in the game as a means of gauging the effectiveness of your building policies and rules, but they were mainly window dressing to make it look like your city teamed with people. But Children of the Nile takes the opposite approach, as everything in the game revolves around the state and welfare of your citizens. In other words, people are your most important resource. Each of the citizens in the game is modeled and tracked, and each has a house, a family, and wants and needs. And it's up to you as pharaoh to make sure that all their needs are met.

In order to take care of your people, your main task is deciding what kind of buildings to construct and where to place them. For example, you'll need to make sure that you have enough farmhouses to feed your city. Then you need noble families to oversee the vast farming estates. Nobles require luxury goods and diversions, so you'll have to construct luxury shops as well as homes for entertainers. At the same time, you'll need to ensure that there are plenty of common shopkeepers, like pottery makers and mat weavers, who will manufacture basic household goods that each family in your city requires. And then there's a need to build housing for priests, who run temples, hospitals, and schools; overseers, who oversee major construction projects and other labor-intensive jobs; and commanders, who lead the city watch. The list goes on and on, and as you can probably guess, each city that you build has a highly interconnected economic and social web that you must keep in balance.

Of course, trying to keep everything in balance is going to be the challenge. The workers in Children of the Nile aren't that much different from people today in that they all want things, from basic necessities such as food to being able to worship their gods and to having health care. If you fail to provide for their needs, their dissatisfaction will grow. If it grows out of control, then your city can grind to a halt as protestors take to the streets and picket your palace. Even a small strike by a handful of citizens can be disastrous due to the interconnected nature of the city. For example, if your bakers walk off the job, there's no one left to bake bread, which will severely affect the happiness of everyone else in the city. You can try to appease the people by issuing edicts that open up the granaries to the public, or ease their taxes, but there are just no easy solutions. Thankfully, you can avoid such problems if you take heed of the warning signs early on and address them.

One other thing you'll have to worry about as pharaoh is your reputation, especially after you die. That's because your pharaohs age, and it's important that you prepare for the afterlife by constructing a lavish tomb or even a massive pyramid if your city is big enough. Tombs and other major construction projects, such as improvements to your palace, will increase your prestige among your citizens. Not only will this inspire them and help to keep their dissatisfaction in check, but also it will allow you to hire more civil servants, such as priests and scribes (scribes collect taxes and run your merchant exchanges) that will allow your city to grow in size. You'll also be able to send envoys to other cities and locations in Egypt, to establish trade routes to import luxury goods to keep your people happy.

You can increase and decrease the passage of time in the game, but at the default speed Children of the Nile runs at a measured pace that lets you make decisions without feeling hurried by events. There's also time to appreciate the ebb and flow of daily Egyptian life. Tilted Mill is focusing on historical realism throughout the game, and there aren't any gods walking around the city like there are in some of the later Impressions games. The game itself has a built-in help browser that's useful as you're learning how to play the game, and it's also informative, teaching you a little something about the history of the game's subject matter.

Treat your people badly and they'll picket outside your palace.
Treat your people badly and they'll picket outside your palace.

Graphically, Children of the Nile is a big step up from earlier Impressions city-building games, as it takes place entirely in 3D. Tilted Mill licensed the graphics engine that powered the original Empire Earth real-time strategy game, adding a few enhancements along the way. The new camera lets you pan and rotate as well as zoom in close to the action. You can watch each of your citizens go about his or her day, whether it be digging up clay to make bricks, farming in the fields, or going to the hospital to get an ache or pain looked at. The city comes alive with dozens, even hundreds, of people walking about, and a careful eye will catch little details, like a noble family conducting a funeral procession or the entertainer balancing plates on a pole. Yet the voice-overs are also very catchy, and you can hear your citizens utter all sorts of fun remarks that give you a glimpse into city life.

At this stage, Children of the Nile looks to be a promising first chapter in what is obviously hoped to be a new series of ancient-city strategy games. Tilted Mill has reworked the rules of the genre, and the mix of challenging gameplay and strong presentation should appeal to city-building fans. The game is currently getting the final layers of polish, and we should see Children of the Nile ship early next month.

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