Zeus: Master of Olympus follows in the same tradition as Impressions' other real-time city-building games, including Pharaoh and the Caesar series. These games combine the urban-management elements of Maxis' SimCity along with the colonial and imperial objectives of Blue Byte's Settlers games. Yet although Zeus is similar to its predecessors, it offers numerous enhancements and improvements that make it a much better game. These include features and options reminiscent of Ensemble's Age of Empires real-time strategy games as well as MicroProse's classic Civilization series. As a result, Zeus plays like a best-of-all-worlds combination of some of the greatest strategy games ever.
As the title implies, Zeus is set in ancient Greece. However, the setting doesn't have too much of an impact on gameplay. For the most part, Zeus plays exactly like Caesar and Pharaoh. The only surface differences are the products your people produce and the food your people eat. Just as in the previous games, your goal is to manage every aspect of an ancient city. From agriculture and housing to employment and military, everything is under your control. You must make sure that you have enough jobs for your people and enough people for your jobs. You also need enough food to feed your people and enough profit from exporting goods to cover the high cost of importing the goods you aren't able to produce. It's a high-wire act and becomes even trickier as your city grows in size.
As you get into the game, you'll notice there are actually some key differences in the way that Zeus plays compared with its predecessors. Impressions has made some significant changes to the mission structure so that - while the basic gameplay is still the same - it's now much more fun to play. A typical campaign, called an "adventure," works as follows. You begin with a tract of empty land. You build your city from scratch, as you aim for some preset, easily achievable goals. Once your city is functioning smoothly, the mission ends. The next mission will put you in charge of the same city, but your goals will be a bit more complex. Usually, these will involve having to attract a legendary hero, like Hercules or Perseus, to your city to perform some task. Once that's done, it's on to the next mission. Eventually, you'll choose a site to colonize and begin again from scratch. Then it's back to the parent city, this time with all the benefits of having a colony, including increased trade and a yearly tribute of money or goods. By this time, some of your neighboring countries will probably have been offended or will have become jealous, and so it'll be time to start invading or defending. The final mission will end with your having to accomplish some larger goals that ensure that your city is thriving and free from rivals.
While some of these ideas were implemented in Cleopatra, the expansion to Pharaoh, they are fully realized in Zeus. Specifically, your city remains exactly as you left it from mission to mission. Adventures range from five to eight missions and typically take quite a while to finish. There are seven in all, and they get increasingly difficult. Moreover, they each focus on one particular aspect of Greek history or mythology; one will have you aiding Jason through his tasks, while another is about the Trojan War. The only problem with the adventures is that the integration of the mythology occasionally seems like an afterthought. For instance, in an episode called Hercules' Labors, Hercules himself only plays a small role. But overall, the mission design is first-rate.
Inevitably, your city will need sanctuaries devoted to various gods. This aspect will also be familiar to those who played Cleopatra, but as with the mission design, it's a more developed part of the game in Zeus. Each city has a different selection of sanctuaries available, and these tend to work like the advances in Civilization, in that building a sanctuary in your city will have a profound and distinct effect. For instance, a sanctuary to Athena will cause your olive growers and oil producers to work more efficiently, and the goddess herself will also fight alongside your soldiers if your city is invaded. A sanctuary to Hermes will cause your workers to move goods faster, and he'll occasionally fulfill an outstanding request for goods from another city so you don't have to deplete your reserves. Each major Greek god is represented, from Aphrodite to Zeus, and each respective sanctuary has its own specific benefit. Some sanctuaries are much more useful than others, but for the most part this is balanced by their cost.
The only problematic area of Zeus is the combat, which is held over from Pharaoh and the Caesar series. Zeus attempts to alleviate the problems of its predecessors' combat system by including the option to let combat be handled automatically. Unfortunately, this only works occasionally, and it'll often place your troops about as far from the center of combat as you could possibly want them. Choosing to manually control your troops is not much better. To select a troop, you must click on the bottom of the standard representing him. Just clicking in the right place can take a few tries, and the interface for troop control is also fairly cumbersome. Combat is easiest when you have a few heroes or war-oriented gods protecting your city, as they can usually stop any enemy invasion with little trouble.
One interesting addition to the combat system is that your troops are now actually civilians from your city. This has a dramatic effect, because when you are at war, all other industry suffers. Sending troops abroad can cripple your city if your military is too large.
Yet the problems with combat are rarely an issue because combat is such a small aspect of the game. Impressions has added a much more satisfying diplomacy model to Zeus, and the ability to conquer and colonize other cities makes the economic aspect more satisfying. Even the interface has been improved - it's now much easier to find the information you need. Yet while Impressions made the game easier to play than its predecessors, it's still complex and challenging.
City-building games are always about setting things up and watching them work, and it's a testament to Zeus' graphics that just watching the hustle and bustle of your city is so much fun. Everything, from the dockworkers unloading fishing boats to olive-oil vendors juggling their wares, is rendered with a great attention to detail. The vibrant colors help the city look alive, and the ambient sound effects, from the subtle music to the sounds coming from your individual buildings, are all top-notch. The game even has a good sense of humor. You'll notice plenty of funny little details, which help make the game even more entertaining.
Zeus is a major improvement for Impressions' line of city-building games, and it's a significant advancement for city-building games in general. The new mission design seems like a simple enough idea, but it adds a great deal of depth and longevity to the game, and significantly improves the way the campaign plays. Zeus even offers three modes of play without the mission-specific goals - one focusing on economics, one on military, and also an open-play sandbox mode that lets you do whatever you want. Together, all these features mean that Zeus should provide you with many hours of highly enjoyable gameplay.