Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom is a sprawling piece of work that
encompasses the first half of Chinese dynastic history. Its scope and
vantage point, however, is from the single city, although later on,
you'll get a chance to rule more than one city. The municipal feel
gives Emperor a unique looking glass into the rise of China. As a
city-state, you'll be able to manage your own thriving populace but in
order to access more advanced civic functions, you'll have to deal with
neighboring cities in terms of trade, diplomacy, espionage and even war.
That connectivity to the outside world and via extension, the cyclical
building and rebuilding that Chinese dynasties go through, is undeniably
the most rewarding part of Emperor and this time around, you're allowed
to bring your friends along for the ride.
All of this political intrigue and history rests solely upon the
city-builder motif that Impressions has spent more than a decade in
perfecting. This time, BreakAway Games takes the helm in crafting
Emperor but the meticulous attention to detail is still here. Indeed,
by now, fans of the series know what to expect: grid-like city
structures, isometric 2D views and animated city-dwellers going about
their business on the roadways.
This portion of the game is actually what modern day academics would
call urban planning. It is a combination of the technology trees of
Civilization, the commodities and road networks of Settlers and the
management of residential land value found in SimCity. Emperor is
merely a sophisticated synthesis of the three not so much in its depth
but in the various linkages between perceived land value, industrial
production, import / export and civic amenities. Without a high level
of consumer products, for example, housing will not develop. High level
factories would need certain raw materials and all of these would have
to sorted and processed in a district far away from residential real
estate. Moreover, Emperor places all industry under the aegis of the
urban planner (namely you) so the government has to manage wages and eke
out a profit if it is to continue developing the urban landscape. It's
an exercise in the principles of causality and like the Chinese Taoist
religion; it's up to you to find a balance between the cause and
Luckily, Emperor comes with a lengthy tutorial that will attempt to show
you the ropes through a series of objective-based missions. It
progresses at a gradual pace and reflects the overall design of the
campaigns as you move from the primitive Xia dynasty to the Song-Jin
dynasty; the last dynasty before the Mongols of Genghis Khan invade
China. The missions here are a toss-up of timed objectives (produce a
certain amount of a commodity within a certain time), military conquests
(rule x number of cities) and planning feats (have xxx number of people
living on real estate of a certain standard) grafted loosely upon the
rise and fall of Chinese dynasties, letting you take part with your city
in the making of history.
All, however, is not perfect with Emperor's urban planning game and some
of these problems crop up even during the tutorial missions. One of the
perennial problems with Emperor and its predecessors is the lack of
indicators. For example, when your one and only mill is out of action and people are starving, it would be nice for the game
implement some sort of blinking message to inform you that something
catastrophic has happened. As it stands now, something as trivial as a
burnt out hut gets attention equal to the destruction of a crucial
building (water, food, etc.).
This ties in with another recurring problem in Emperor.
For some reason, buildings will, without warning, be plagued with
problems. Common ones include lack of access to water, religious services or other civic amenities despite the fact
that support structures are built like clockwork on every city block. Whether it is bad feng shui or wanton religious wrath I'm not too sure but the game gives very little notice
as to why it happens. Opening up the city summary and events log only lists the symptoms (no water, collapsed building, fire-prone areas). The inability of the game to tell you the real causes behind the problems and averse effects is frustrating.
Real estate value can suddenly degenerate during the game because of the
lack of hemp, a commodity produced in Emperor. But you don't know that
until you've queried more than few sources and this delves further into
Emperor's inability to prod the urban planner in the right direction.
In the early tutorial missions, you're briefed of your objectives but
even then, Emperor is unable to scream at you that lack of hemp is the
root of all evils. Thus, there's a propensity for newcomers, especially
on easier difficulty levels with large pools of money, to simply build a
humongous city but not approach anywhere near achieving the objectives
at hand. The lack of an intelligent mayoral assistant is a sore point and
perhaps a toggled aid could be added in future games.
There are still other minor quirks. Much of the tutorial is written out
in a lengthy message with graphics and instructions. But you can't keep
the tutorial window open while working the city so there is a good deal
of flip flop between the message window and the gameplay one.
Furthermore, the interface for this complex game gets a little crowded.
Even the titles above each venue (Commerce, Religion, etc.) are
clickable. Religious sacrifices are performed by clicking on the
Religion panel and then clicking on the Religion title itself; not
something that comes intuitively. Likewise, processing a new food type
is automatically enabled for new mills but for some unbeknownst reason
is left turned off on existing ones. These flaws may all be
insignificant details but with a game that is all about the details,
they become magnified.
The piece de resistance of Emperor, ironically, is its ability to let
you build linkages outside of the city-building game. As you
progress throughout the campaigns, you'll be discovering an increasing
number of cities of which you can conduct trade and diplomacy with.
This is particularly important because every city has a limited number
of resources and only by trading with others can you maximize the use of
scarcer ones. Emperor is actually fairly sophisticated in handling
neighbors. Emperors or warlords may hand down requests for resources
and other cities may pay tribute to you if you are the more powerful
city in the region. The diplomacy features include espionage,
assassinations and even requests for joint military operations or mutual
defense aid pacts. Overall, it opens the eyes of players, irreversibly
expanding the scope of the game.
For the first time in an Impressions-based city-builder, you're allowed
to embark on multiplayer missions together. Emperor lets your human
peers assume the role of budding planners in other cities (not on the
same city) as you strive to co-operate or compete to solve pre-set
goals. Most of the goals mirror the campaign style objectives. In the
Song-Jin scenario, you're to build a wall to prevent the barbarian
hordes from overrunning China. Others will touch on other monuments or
civic achievements but to achieve this, you can always resort to
subterfuge or outright force. Emperor uses the same flexible foreign
relations' system in the multiplayer component and it comes off as an
important addition to the city-building franchise.
However, the very nature of the game is still of a non-combatant. I
recall that in Caesar II, the combat was so alien to the urban planning
premise, it was put in another engine altogether. Here, there are
different units you can train, formations to set, morale and experience
to be earned for each military unit. But the tactical fights won't hold
a candle to recent RTS titles. Fighting door-to-door in a well-established
city also wrecks havoc on whatever civic balance you've
achieved so non-violence is perhaps one of the better ways in dealing
with others. The military component is still satisfying all the same,
even if it's only for ceremonial marches.
A steep learning curve may exclude some people. You'll have to work at
it for a little while to get an economy and city to support any sizeable
military force. This isn't a game where you build barracks and get an
army. The material is also well researched with ample explanation on
the various arms of Chinese culture that governs their civic social
lives, although I was hoping the speech would be authentic Chinese
instead of accented English. Needless to say, BreakAway has a well made
game here; well made, but perhaps not remarkably exceptional. In its
craftsmanship, it continues to be one of the best urban planning games,