Each entry in Impressions' city-building series has been an incremental upgrade to the previous one. The series improved dramatically with Pharaoh, the first game to leave the Roman confines of the Caesar games. The series improved even more significantly with Zeus, which added more-creative mission goals and downplayed the military element, which had previously been a problem with the series because of the cumbersome combat interface. Zeus had a few of its own problems, but it introduced so many great ideas and features to the series that it seemed like a promise of even greater things to come. Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom breaks this promise. Instead of improving on Zeus, Emperor plays it safe by returning to the earlier games in the series. Developed not by Impressions but by BreakAway Games (whose previous work includes the Cleopatra expansion for Pharaoh), Emperor is much like Pharaoh, with a few of Zeus' additions thrown in for good measure. Though it includes some improvements of its own, it also brings back a few frustrating issues from earlier games. And some of these problems--such as the combat interface and the aimless wandering of your workers--aren't as easily overlooked as they once were.
It's not a major criticism to say that Emperor plays much like its predecessors. Impressions' city-building games have always been formulaic, but it's a solid and addictive formula. With the last three city-building games, most of the major changes have been cosmetic. The gods, buildings, and commodities available are specific to the setting, but the basic gameplay remains almost identical. You lay down residential areas, set up trade with other cities, provide food and commodities for your residents, and occasionally fight to defend your city or send your troops out to conquer another.
Emperor follows this formula to the letter, though instead of being in ancient Rome, Egypt, or Greece, you are now in ancient China. With Zeus, the setting lent itself to more-exciting mission goals: You would often need to attract mythological figures and send them out on quests, or build huge sanctuaries to the gods who would then bestow considerable bonuses to your city. The mission goals in Emperor return to the basic quantitative goals of Caesar III and Pharaoh. You'll be required to produce a certain quantity of a commodity in a year, save up an amount of money, conquer a number of cities, or reach a target population. Occasionally you will be required to build a monument, but these monuments are goals in and of themselves and don't bestow any benefit to your city apart from satisfying an objective.
Part of the problem is that Emperor only occasionally lets you continually build and improve a single city. Zeus made a significant change to the series' formula in that most missions were simply continuations of the previous ones. Over the course of a campaign, your city would grow to massive size, with occasional excursions requiring you to build a colony from scratch and then return to your primary city with added benefits for having a colony. Emperor occasionally allows you to resume a city that's already working, but most missions require you to start from square one. And when you consider that square one is the same in every mission, the missions can get rather repetitive as you go through the motions of starting all over every time.
Emperor does make some minor improvements to the way your city operates. Items will now go to where they're most needed, so food won't stockpile at trading warehouses simply because they are closer to the farms. In general, the distribution of goods is more efficient, though your workers still have a bit of trouble going where they are most needed. You can place roadblocks to steer your residential services and safety workers to where they're most effective, but roadblocks aren't a perfect solution--being able to plot patrol routes for workers, as in Theme Park and RollerCoaster Tycoon, would have been a welcome addition to the series.
Another welcome addition would have been a better means of dealing with heroes and gods. Zeus made some significant progress in this respect, by allowing you to build temples and sanctuaries to please the deities. Emperor returns to the "festival" system of previous games. You must remember to give offerings to the gods and heroes at regular intervals, and there's no reminder or automatic scheduling of these offerings. As in Caesar III, it's easy to forget to pay tribute when there's so much else to worry about. Emperor includes three philosophical groups--ancestral, Confucianism, and Taoism. Each appears at the appropriate time in history, and each has its own deities or heroes to please.
Significantly pleasing a deity or hero will summon him or her to your city. Their presence will give you bonuses, such as supplying nearby houses with a commodity or enhancing production in a certain industry. Others have very unique uses, such as collecting animals for your palace menagerie. The heroes in Emperor are well implemented, but paying tribute to them isn't.
Chinese cultural elements play a minor role in Emperor. They don't have much impact on the mission structure, but they are used for two slight tweaks to the game mechanics. The most significant change is that you now have to worry about the Feng Shui of your city. There are some philosophical and elemental explanations, but the basic result is that certain types of buildings will be more effective, or "harmonious," on certain landscape types. A harmonious city has happier, more productive residents. In some scenarios, this is a major consideration, because it is difficult to achieve perfect harmony in areas that are either too wet or too dry. The other cultural element is the use of the Chinese zodiac, which gives your leader bonuses such as reduced building costs, special gifts, or increased defense during years that correspond to his zodiac sign.
The increased defense is a useful gift, because combat has been made more of a priority in this game than in Zeus. You will be invaded on occasion, and Emperor has removed the option to have your forces automatically respond to invasion. While giving the computer control of your troops didn't always work in Zeus, at least the option was there. Combat has always been a minor problem in the city-building series, and it's a shame the designers have yet to find an interface to properly deal with it. Selecting your troops is difficult, and though there are formations and attack styles to choose from, the victorious army is usually just the biggest army. Emperor also hasn't improved upon Zeus' invasion interface--one of the weakest points of that game.So, just like in Zeus, you simply send your troops to battle and wait to hear about the results.
In multiplayer games, you have one more option--you can choose the point of insertion for your troops. This isn't the only good thing about multiplayer games, and perhaps the best thing about the multiplayer options is that they are there at all. Emperor is the first in the city-building series to include a multiplayer aspect, and it is surprisingly good. The scenarios are made up of interesting goals that allow you to compete against or collaborate with other players. Many of the multiplayer missions are quickly achieved goals, making the games much shorter than the single-player missions, and even if you still feel isolated while you're building your city, it's nice to know there's a real human buying your bronzeware and millet.
Emperor's other significant change is the larger viewing window. The default resolution has been increased, making it so that you don't have to close the interface every time you want to see a large section of your city. The graphics themselves, however, are drab compared to the colorful environs of Zeus. While this may partly be a result of the setting, the lack of variation in housing and buildings makes every city look just like the last.
This sameness describes the city-building series in general. Emperor is a fun and satisfying management game, but it is primarily the same fun and satisfying management game as those that have preceded it. If Zeus was two steps forward for the series, Emperor is its one step back. Fans of previous installments will like it if they haven't had their fill of the formula, while newcomers will be able to see why the formula works so well. But hopefully, future games in the series will continue to improve on the blueprint, instead of just following it to the letter.