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by Impressions and Sierra

ss_10_10k_hr-01.jpg (11197 bytes)Zeus is the fifth in Impression’s impressive City Builder series, and like Caesar and Pharaoh before it, the game’s focus is on hacking a town site out of the ancient wilderness and delicately balancing available resources and trade until you’ve created a classical metropolis. Unlike Caesar and Pharaoh, however, Zeus doesn’t try to sell itself as a “historical” game—for one thing, Greek mythology takes a star turn in the form of gods, monsters, and heroes; for another, the designers have simplified some of the more challenging aspects of the earlier games. Of course, many gamers viewed “some of the more challenging aspects of the earlier games” as annoying niggles that drained otherwise engaging games of their fun.  And in fact how you’ll like Zeus has a lot to do with your attitude towards the earlier City Builder games. If you find micromanaging peasants to be one of those barrel-of-monkeys experiences, you’ll find plenty to sneer about in Zeus. If, however, you found the City Builder series to be initially intriguing but ultimately too long and tedious, you’ll love Zeus.  

hm-sm-07-01.jpg (10211 bytes)Most of the mechanics of the previous games remain in place. At the start of most campaigns—called “adventures” in the game—you’ll be confronted with a vast expanse of land filled with some resources and lacking others. As you build houses to attract settlers, you’ll also have to find a food source (depending upon the area either fish, wild game, wheat or cheese) and a place to grow olives for oil and sheep for fleece. Of course, you’ll also have to provide workshops to process these items, and agoras and peddlers to distribute them, as well as an infrastructure of roads, maintenance, and waterworks for your people. You’ll also need some money, so levying taxes and establishing trade routes is essential. And since all work and no play makes Eumenistes a dull boy, you should provide some culture for your people—like philosophers, actors, and athletes. This just scratches the surface of the game; as the city expands, you’ll want to upgrade housing to produce an elite warrior class (which needs armor, wine and horses), build Hero’s Halls and Sanctuaries to attract heroes and gods to your city, launch beautification projects, and establish alliances and conduct wars. It’s a lot to handle, and much of the game’s fun derives from the frantic yet delicate balancing acts you’ll have to perform as your city grows.   

ss-hr-07-01.jpg (14238 bytes)But Zeus is also fun because the designers decided to back off from the faux historicism of the earlier games. Zeus instead revels in Greek mythology, unleashing familiar Greek gods, monsters, and heroes on the world. And as in Greek mythology, the gods are an ambiguous bunch. If you build a sanctuary to them—which takes a good deal of time and resources—you’ll gain their protection and a nice little benefit. For instance, Dionysus provides abundant wine, Athena her services in war and a sacred olive grove, Hermes swifter commoners and help with trade. On the other hand, if you anger a god—and almost always this will not be your fault—they’ll rain hell down upon you. In the early campaigns, Poseidon seems particularly ill-disposed to your efforts, and either he or one of his minions will habitually obliterate your fisheries and waterborne trade routes.  Monsters roam the Greek world as well, and everything from the Calydonian Boar to Medusa to the Minotaur will attempt to ravage your lands. The best way to defeat a monster is sending for a hero, and the only way to attract a hero is by building a hero’s hall, which usually has its own long list of requirements. This means that while you’re busy with stuff like making sure your people have enough bread and circuses, you’ll also have to scrounge up enough extra resources to build a grove for Dionysus or a hall for Perseus. While some might scoff at the mythology, I think Impressions has implemented it very nicely. The Gods and monsters add a “wild card” aspect to the game, and while all of the benefits you receive from the gods are welcome, none of them are overpowering.

achillesvshector_th-01.jpg (10318 bytes)Impressions has also introduced a new campaign structure; no longer do you begin every scenario in a campaign building a city from the ground up—instead scenarios focus on the development of a city and its colonies. So while one mission might focus on establishing your city, the next may well emphasize developing that same city’s trade routes, or fighting a war with a rival. While your parent city is thus engaged, you’ll probably be asked to establish a few colonies, which you can then use as lucrative trade partners. This makes for shorter (since you don’t have to build a huge city from nothing each mission) but more varied scenarios, and Zeus is a better game for it.  Each of these seven campaigns are based upon a moment in Greek mythology—for example, the stories of Zeus and Europa, Perseus and Medusa, the Trojan War, Jason and the Argonauts, Hercules’ Labors. Again, this intermeddling of hardcore city building and whimsical mythology works better than might be expected, and adds a big dollop of personality to the game. 

ss_10_06l_hr-01.jpg (14044 bytes)Gameplay has been simplified as well. In the previous games, production venues like workshops, storehouses, mines, and farms had to be located fairly close to residential areas, or no one would make the long walk to work. This meant you had a lot of far-flung neighborhoods that you had to sustain by constructing pricey infrastructure buildings. Even worse--since nobody wants to live close to a mine or a slaughterhouse--these neighborhoods never got attractive enough to develop, and usually became the ancient world’s answer to slums. In Zeus, there are no such worries—you can build a mine clear across the screen and workers will happily make the two-hour commute. This makes the game immeasurably easier, as you can centralize your residential areas, and with a little luck and planning all of them will develop to maximum capacity. In almost all of my games, all of my commoners were living in maxed-out housing. You’d never see that in Caesar or Pharaoh.  Roadblocks have also been simplified; they now allow citizens with a specific mission to pass through, but not those with neighborhood-specific quests—for instance, a merchant’s carriers will pass through a roadblock to get supplies from a storehouse, but a merchant will not pass through them, remaining confined to a certain neighborhood. While some may call this “dumbing-down” I call it “making the game more fun.”

Diplomacy and trade are also much cleaner in Zeus, and this Greek world is much larger than the Roman or Egyptian ones. In each campaign, you’ll interact with several other city-states and foreign cities. Some will be rivals, some will wish to trade with you, others will be indifferent. With a little effort, though, you can usually (through gifts and assistance) convince most of the world to lend your city a hand. A nice new feature allows you to requisition help from other cities, and very often a gift of surplus materials will persuade a city to grant your request.

Graphics and sound are of course up to the usual excellent Impressions standard, and the game includes a lengthy and comprehensive set of tutorials and a deep 200-page manual. The interface is intuitive and easy to use.

ss_10_10i_hr-01.jpg (11173 bytes)There remains only one fly in the ambrosia, and that is the game’s combat system. It’s been wretched and ill-conceived throughout the entire series, and it doesn’t get much better here. Initially, all your units will be commoners, but as your city grows you’ll be able to recruit armored and mounted warriors from your elite citizens. OK, good enough. But the implementation of actual combat is awful. Usually it goes something like this: a small number of enemy soldiers appear on a map edge and make a beeline for your city. You click on banners located at palace that represent your troops, click on button to muster troops, then click on banner and click on location you want troops to move to, then click on button to indicate what troops should do. All of this is awkward. It’s by far the most frustrating and clumsy real-time combat system I’ve ever seen, and it’s beyond me how a game this good could have a feature this bad in it. Fortunately, combat doesn’t play a large part in Zeus, and you can usually bribe most potential invaders.

The combat system is all that keeps Zeus from a five-star rating. Other than that, it’s an excellent game that’s less demanding but much more fun than the Caesar and Pharaoh series. Now if Impressions would only talk to Blizzard about that real-time combat stuff . . .

Rick Fehrenbacher


Ups: Simplified version of City Builder series that is much more fun yet still challenging.

Downs: Combat system still miserable.

System Reqs: P-166, 32 MB RAM


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