And the graphics engine that powers this is reasonably adept – or at least it is once you work your way through a useless pre-game options screen that has a horrible tendency to reset the detail levels when you change the resolution, and vice versa. With everything maxed out there are some nice glowing light and real-time shadow effects, and though none of the models are particularly impressive, seeing the whole thing in motion gives a rich flavour of Roman life without slowing the frame rate to a crawl. Maybe CivCity: Rome isn’t as pretty to look at as Battle for Middle Earth 2 or Black and White 2, but it’s a much more attractive option than any other ancient city-builder out there.
Sadly, the game’s major problem is that it doesn’t feel much updated in other ways, and – to be more specific – it doesn’t maximise the potential of the classic Civ approach. The ‘property ladder’ mechanism is nice, but there’s little real sense of your city developing on a technological or cultural level, mostly because improvements and buildings are just handed out as the campaign develops, rather than being tied into a research tree. Instead, research just doles out specific enhancements – more meat, higher taxes – or adds to your city’s prestige. The same applies to Wonders, which seem only loosely tied into the gameplay. Most of all, there’s no feeling that you’re tied into the wider Roman world. True, the briefings at the start of each mission only pay lip service to providing context, and reports come in during the game that affect your citizens’ morale, but rarely do you feel that your city is a vital cog in the Empire’s machinery. In focussing down on one specific, CivCity: Rome seems to have lost touch with Civilization’s wider themes.
More seriously, the limited military options are all but useless. Early on, the game gives you the option of sticking with peaceful missions or tackling tougher missions close to enemy territory. Given the first choice, your city is unlikely to face any more serious threat than fire or wild animals, both of which can be dealt with through the provision of specific watchtowers. Military missions, however, mean that you’re under regular attack from hostile forces, and your only defence is to build a fort. Sadly, the legions that then populate that fort are incredibly dumb and unresponsive – a fact made worse by fiddly controls and weak buildings that are all too susceptible to enemy attack. Too many times, an expensive temple or dock can be brought down in seconds while you try to mobilise the BC version of the Keystone Cops into action. Not since Black and White 2 have armed forces been so pitifully dopey. In fact, the best strategy seems to be to just leave your men standing at the point where the enemy continually appears, so they can mop them up as and when necessary. Now, I know CivCity: Rome doesn’t pretend to be Rome: Total War, but surely this could at least have been dealt with competently.