Roman history is filled with instances of revolution, chaos and invasions from their aggressive neighbors. Things arenâ€™t nearly as bloody or dire in CivCity: Rome, a standard-issue city-builder in which Firaxis (of Civilization series fame) and Firefly (Stronghold) nominally share development and direction. Sid Meierâ€™s name may appear in the credits, but the Civilization elementsâ€”tech trees barer than a winter forest in Britannia, dialogue-window cameos by historical superstarsâ€”are so faint, they might as well not even be here. The result is a big old caveat emptor.
In the city-building genre, all roads seem to lead to Rome these days. In CivCity, you start the single-player campaign mode as a lowly governor charged with building a settlement and supplying the Senate with stone. Assuming you meet the mission goals and manage the wildly fluctuating happiness meter that gauges the insatiable needs of your citizens, you bop to other cities across the Empire. In all cases, you build an economy by throwing up farms and stores, laying down roads, and basically juggling all the things youâ€™ve done in every other city-builder since Impressions perfected the formula with the Caesar and Pharaoh series in the late â€™90s. Or, more relevantly, you do the same kinds of things you did in Fireflyâ€™s Stronghold, minus the siege and combat parts of that game.
By failing to evolve the gameplay beyond everything thatâ€™s come before, Firefly has created an experience that will feel strangely familiar. Itâ€™s difficult to escape the sense that, with a broader vision and scope, CivCity could have lived up to the grandeur of the city itâ€™s evoking. After all, anyone whoâ€™s watched even a scene or two from Gladiator knows Rome was a vast, complicated city. In CivCity, your mission goals are depressingly plebeian and never particularly challenging. Sell a certain amount of wine, develop your housing units, stage a circus or two, and your esteem in the eyes of the Senate will soar.
The game is at its most Augustan when it comes to bottling that special Roman flavor. The Senate and Coliseum are impressive, as are the Library of Alexandria and the other handful of Wonders you can erect. Just as it was in Stronghold, itâ€™s amusing to watch the citizens doing their thing: teeny gladiators hacking each other to bits, farmers harvesting wheat and grapes, tunic-clad Senators bloviating just about everywhere.
If only it looked half as majestic. The Romans in CivCity may have mastered road-building and aqueduct chains, but graphical excellence has utterly eluded them. Even at the highest settings, this game looks dull and dated. For its time, the original Stronghold looked sharper than this. From time to time, advisers will pop into your dialogue window in embarrassingly grainy videos to tell you that unsolved murders and plots against the Emperor are unsettling your citizens, but thereâ€™s never anything you can do about it, and the political intrigue never seems to have any discernible effect on your citizensâ€™ happiness. Whatâ€™s the point?
At least the proceedings are mildly educational. Play for long enough, and youâ€™ll learn a fair amount about historyâ€™s greatest empire. For instance, how quickly population control can derail the Roman way. Even the worst urban design disasters attract ridiculous numbers of rabble, from immigrants and homeless citizens to vagrants, who donâ€™t ever seem to show up on screen but can weigh on your cityâ€™s civ and happiness ratings like a concrete albatross. No wonder the actual Romans threw up walls.
System Requirements: Pentium III 1 Ghz, 256 MB RAM, WinXP