Guest Author - James Shea
A Roman city-building sim in the vein of such classics as the Caesar series, Grand Ages: Rome has an intriguing premise and workable gameplay, but falls short in other areas.
Grand Ages is a game where you build an ancient Roman city and must keep it operational and successful against adversities and invaders. Providing citizens with food, entertainment, and religious fulfillment are as important as keeping your resources in order. Unlike Caesar, which relied on a road-based infrastructure (everyone has to walk on roads, things travel to and from buildings), Grand Ages uses areas of effect. In short, each building has a circle around it showing the buildings that it will influence. For example, if you put down an apartment complex, the inhabitants of that apartment will only staff a building within the circle. A food storehouse will only feed people within its area of effect, and so on. Some buildings produce global resources that are added to an overall stockpile that are then used by other buildings. A brickmaker produces 20 bricks, while the average house uses up one unit of bricks. Therefore, based on upkeep and the expanding size of your city, you have to maintain a balance between population and facilities.
The problem with these areas-of-effect is that it's remarkably easy, given their shape, for buildings to get stuck with partial coverage. The fact that you can only build a short distance away from your current settlement prevents you from pre-planning where you'll need entertainment buildings or temples before you start building houses - and the effects of not having entertainment are immediate once those houses are plopped down, as the many riots my cities went through can attest to. In fact, the development of the city is often the biggest hindrance to the city. The nature of the areas-of-effect encourages growth (by spreading resources around the map) but also demands close-in urbanization (by requiring you to cluster your houses around facilities). Because of the fact that you can only build near your established buildings, it's often the case that you have to stretch out your town to get in a position to reach the very resources you need to build your town up in the first place. It's not a bad system, per se, it's just frustrating at times.
The combat in the game is simple but effective. There are many units available - regular units like archers, cavalry, and infantry, as well as a wide variety of mercenaries. The middle class - the Equites - provides your regular soldiers, and when properly supplied with weapons and armor can be called into action. Mercenaries are hired for money and for certain other requirements (such as wine and entertainment). All units consist of roughly 30 soldiers. Units can gain experience through fighting, and can train when not engaged in combat to level themselves up. Some maps have barbarian villages spread around; subduing these (simply by engaging the guards they send out, then walking in once they're all dead) rewards you with additional resources provided by the conquered villagers. In addition to offense, you can also build walls and towers to defend your city from attack.
One of the game's main features is that your profiles are represented by characters. A character is a member of one of five families, each with different strengths (one family is better with military matters, one is better with mercantile affairs, and so on). By completing campaign missions and bonus objectives, you unlock new abilities and bonuses that affect all the games you play with that characters - campaign, free build, or multiplayer. For this reason, it feels that the entire game is interconnected - there's no way to just play. Even the free build mode, rather than providing you with open maps and settings, is only about 15 maps with predetermined start locations and resources. This means that it's difficult to just jump into the action and make a nice city.
The game's graphics are very good; the cities look beautiful, with paved stones and detailed buildings. Citizens walk around the city to their jobs, and always look busy if you ever care to zoom in and examine them. If it rains, citizens will cover their heads and run indoors. There are a lot of little touches that make it really feel like a city. The ability to put down plazas and fountains is nice in visual terms even though these things are also required for game reasons. There isn't a lot of sound, per se, but the music in each region varies and is generally nice without being distracting.
Overall, Grand Ages: Rome is a good game, but the biggest problem with it is the lack of free-play. Everything seems too objective based, and there's no way to really make your own fun. Once you've gone through the missions, there's not a whole lot to do. If the Free Build mode had been more free-form, it would've been much better. Until you run out of missions, though, it's still a fun game.
Buy Grand Ages: Rome from Amazon.com