Sierra Studios, $49. Requirements: 100MHz PowerPC, 32MB RAM, System 7.6.1+, 4x CD, 150 MB HD. For more information, visit Impressions Games at http://www.mac-games.com

Review by Rich Pizor

"Have you played that game yet?" asked the gas station attendant as I read the 200+ page Ceaser III manual while having my car refilled. "You're in for a world of frustration. I've had it for months and I haven't made it past the third level."

Pessimistic perhaps, but prophetic nonetheless.

* * * * *

"It's 3AM," my girlfriend said, "what are you still doing up?"

"I'm playing that new game I'm supposed to review."

"But you don't even like SimCity games!"

And usually, this is true.

* * * * *

Someone asked me to sum up Ceaser III in one sentence, and I told them "SimCity meets the Roman Empire." This is true as far as it goes, but my girlfriend's observation is correct: I don't normally enjoy SimCity games. That doesn't change the fact that I have yet to sit down to a Ceaser III session and get up less than 6 hours later. It's that compelling.

The premise is the same as that of most city builders: you are the governor of a city and are responsible for turning a plot of empty land into a thriving megalopolis, all while working with bugetary constraints, avoiding man-made disasters and cleaning up after natural ones, appeasing five wrathful gods, and finding some way to keep the ever-so-demanding citizenry happy. But Ceaser III has not only improved on the previous titles in its own series by streamlining and adding new elements, it has also addressed every single complaint I had with SimCity, making it hands down the most compelling empire builder I have seen yet.

Ceaser III has two modes of play. The Construction Set mode is a free form city building experience, with no goals, no expectations, and no limitations, other than building the best city you can. You choose one of several historical sites for cities in the Roman empire, each with different resources and limitations. The other option is the Career mode, in which you take on a series of assignments to build specific cities to specific requirements laid out by Ceaser. The progression here is not unlike that in Warcraft II; your initial missions exist mostly to get you famiilar with how the game works, and then you are rapidly thrust into a competative environment in which you have to apply what you have learned as expertly as possible.

After playing the game for some time, however, the introductory missions of the Career mode turned out to be the most frustrating in the game. The reason why is simple enough; in an effort to keep the learning curve down, several options are simply disabled until you progress to higher levels. Frustratingly enough, however, the game keeps offering advice of what you should add to your city to fix the problems you are encountering — invariably, its suggestions are options you don't have access to yet.

The interaction model of the game is very complex and interrelated, and while it means that the learning curve is somewhat steeper than for most titles in the genre, overall it makes for a more enjoyable game. One of my complaints with SimCity was that the problems you encountered (too much traffic, needing more zoning of a certain category, etc) seemed seperate from the overall flow of the city. Ceaser III feels like its algorythms are much more interrelated. You also have much more precise control over how you build your city than in most other such games. The only "zoning" you do is by designating certain areas as housing. All other structures -- hospitals, temples, bath houses, aqueducts, you name it -- are placed individually and exactly where you want them. This makes solving specific issues in the city much easier.

There are 2 major aspects of your city that must be built up for it to be successful. The first, obviously, is revenue. Though you are empowered to tax your citizenry, they tend to rebel against high tax levels, making this at best an ineffecient and at worst a dangerous source of primary income. For your city to grow you must quickly establish trade routes to neighboring cities and export goods to them.

The second is housing. As in all city building games, the only control you have over housing is to designate certain regions of the city site as residential. Depending on how well you balance the other factors in your city, the computer assigns people to live in certain areas. As conditions in a given area improve, so will the population density, and more people means better housing. A nice enhancement to this game over other city builders is the info-click (aka command-click). Info-clicking a building will tell you how well it's doing, and will also give you a detailed analysis of what that building requires to advance to the next level. Roman citizens have no source of transportation beyond their own two feet, so it is vital to ensure that they have easy access to your city's services. Nor can Rome subsist on bread alone; ensuring that your citizenry have access to each of work, food, health care, aesthetics, entertainment, education, and religion is vital for a house to evolve to it's highest possible level.

The manual, though very large, is informative and clearly written — and it is worth pointing out that there is absolutely no platform bias evident in its pages, a rarity that should be commended. Note as well that you simply will not construct a successful city without at least taking a glance at it. Part of this is because you need to learn how to zone your city; some buildings will improve the value of a neighborhood, others will degrade it, and as valuable housing is one of the keys to doing well in this game, this is vital information to know. Part of it too is that you will not be able to grow your city beyond certain low levels without establishing trade routes, and while this is not a difficult process, neither is it overly intuitive -- especially in the early stages of the Career Mode, where your access to trading is limited at best.

The game is beautiful, with highly detailed graphics and very immersive sounds. All this comes at a cost, however. The system requirements are fairly steep; a 604e/200 playing at 800x600 had some noticable slowdowns, especially during crisis moments such as fires or invasions, and though a 603 is listed as the minimum requirement, I would not want to try it there. The support files are also intensive. The smallest install is 140 megabytes, and the game can gobble up as much as half a gig if you let it. Impressions did include a few corrupt files on the CD but they have already posted a fix on their page.

Overall, Ceaser is a delightfully fresh approach to the city building genre. The designers note that there is "just something" about the Roman Empire, and Ceaser III not only captures the magic, but does so in one of the most playable games I have seen to date. The only thing holding it back from a perfect score is the frustration factor in the Career mode. The early levels are made artifically difficult by the inavailabilty of certain key elements, and the latter are made even more frustrating by Ceaser's increasingly unreasonable demands. But the amazing level of detail, the glorious sounds and graphics, and the impressive interaction model make this one of the most amazing city builders ever. A must for simulation fans, and even those with only a casual interest in the genre would do well to download the demo.

 
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