Game Over Online ~ Preview - Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom (c) Sierra

Preview - Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom (c) Sierra

Published: Thursday, July 25th, 2002 at 09:29 PM
Written By: Fwiffo

What we call China in the English language is actually interpreted quite differently in the Chinese language. It's pregnant with imperialistic meaning but since few are aware of it, it's usually glossed over. Just like this genre has been glossed over except by Asian developers for quite some time. China is actually two words in Chinese. The developers get it right in Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom; only the middle doesn't necessarily the mid-part of history but rather the center, apex, and during that time, envisioned as the only kingdom in the world. Impressions' critically acclaimed city-building franchise heads to the orient in attempt to relive great moments in this ancient culture. They've done it with the Romans, the Egyptians and the Greeks, so it follows that the Chinese should not be prove to be a problem.

Technically, it isn't. Emperor still works on Impressions' previous city-building paradigm. Its nuances and unique strengths are well presented here in the Chinese setting. It's a cross between SimCity and games like Civilization, where management of domestic issues and urban planning are keys to success. You'll grow industries, commerce, collect taxes and ensure that public facilities are available to all. Prosperity only comes with a proper balance between these. For example, residential dwellings won't grow if they're placed next to a farm. So you have to zone (neo-democratic urban planners will probably kill me for this) residential districts but at the same time build enough public facilities to provide health, fire and police protection. Like all things in life, you want all the services and benefits but you don't want it built in your backyard. That's the challenge the planner in this game has to face.

Besides managing property value, you'll have direct control of industrial output. All wages and industries are owned by the government apparently. So if they're operating at a loss, they'll cut into your tax revenues. That is, if you remembered to build a tax collecting office. Food production is not as simple as laying down a farm and planting some crops. You have to refine them in a mill. From a mill, it must go to a marketplace shop to be sold. Furthermore, to ensure that all this is done in a timely manner, a good road infrastructure needs to be planned. This reminded me a lot of the Settlers franchise. In turn, these marketplaces must be strategically placed around residential areas. As I mentioned before, everyone wants easy access to a shop. But no one wants to be living next to one.

Civic amenities help with this. In Emperor, you're able to build residential walls to block out the harmful effects of unsavory real estate nearby. By this time, Impressions has the interface down so succinctly, nearly everything is at your fingertips. I haven't found any tool that required more than two clicks to get to. Likewise, problems will be brought to your attention immediately and you can track your citizenry's opinions of you in a concise summary sheet.

However, Emperor still suffers from some flaws customary to the Impressions' city-builders. Firstly, the fickleness of residential land value is still here. It takes a great deal of work to get land values to stabilize and that means a lot of trial and error purchases. An undo button is available but it only goes back one level. It isn't helped by the default speed of the game, which is much faster (currently) than the games before it. Sometimes, things happen or industries fail and the only thing you can do is watch until the problem is big enough for you to identify and solve.

Control of the military is often the Achilles heel of the Impressions city-builders. Emperor lets you wield a good amount of troops, provided you have the economic base and the revenue in city profits to support it. That's an important issue because in Emperor, you'll be exposed to more cities than before. You can trade, demand goods, give goods, attack and spy on neighboring cities. If your city is stronger or more powerful in military terms, you can extract tribute, thereby bolstering your economy without really developing it. During the course of the campaign, you'll play a part in forging imperial dynasties. So it follows that rivals or leaders, like the emperor himself, will make wanton demands. This feature was so necessary in the Caesar games that it's astonishing to see it implemented to its fullest extent here. In truth, that's what killed a lot of the Roman governors; unreasonable random demands from Rome. Suffice to say, the empire map is something you will definitely make use of in Emperor. It expands the overall scope of the game irrevocably.

Insofar as new features go, the most paramount in Emperor is the introduction of multiplayer where players will be able to assume different cities and play the game competitively or co-operatively. This is something fans have been asking for since day one. While you can build and slaughter your opponents, you can also co-operate with human brethren to complete tasks, like finishing the Great Wall of China. Multiplayer will be handled through Sierra's network and LAN play is available too. There's only little more than a half a dozen maps included at the time of writing. An intuitive map editor is in the works to make up for any shortfalls.

Emperor's campaigns span the early parts of Chinese history. You'll begin with the Xia dynasty, which constitutes as the tutorial component of the game. Interestingly, not until the second or third epoch are you able to truly harness all the tools available. Therefore, like Pharaoh, the campaign is lengthy in nature. It's strange to call the various maps you play, stages, levels, or even missions. But with each mission, you'll be assigned to specific goals. There are usually two or three that you must address. Thus, along the way, you'll become a better and more efficient urban planner. Curiously the campaign stops at the end of the Song dynasty. For historians in the know, that was the last dynasty before Genghis Khan's Yuan dynasty took over. However, the ones included, like the Han dynasty (one that had ties with the Roman Empire) or the infamous Qin dynasty, provide a lavish backdrop for Impressions to draw on. The empire mode, with its various cities interacting with each other, is truly what makes you feel like you're actually participating in the rise of the Middle Kingdom. BreakAway games, the creators of the Cleopatra expansion pack, will be heading up the bulk of the work for Emperor but after playing with this title, it's clearly faithful to what Impressions has achieved through and through. Your chance to build an imperial dynasty will happen later this fall.

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