Reviewed: February 1, 2003
Released: : September 10, 2002
Today, letís order Chinese take-out. The entrťe? Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom. Brought to life by Sierra Entertainment and Impressions Games, Emperor is a real-time simulation game that places you as the lord of a city near the Yangze River; in what is now middle China. It is a city builder, much like Sim City, or Tropico. You have to manage a strict infrastructure, from unemployment to safety and hygiene. There is an almost endless array of variables that determine whether or not your city will rise to greatness, or crumble into ruins.
That is essentially the game in a nutshell. However, like Szechwan cooking the main ingredients arenít too exciting -- itís the little spices that you have to watch out for. You know, those little red peppers? Theyíre hot. This game is similar; you have to be careful what youíre sinking your teeth into. Firstly, youíre not the only city in China during the time period of the game, which did I neglect to mention covered about 3,111 years of Chinese history? So the first little monkey in the works is that you have to establish relations, hopefully good, with these other cities, begin trade, form alliances, send out spies, etc. The alternative to this is crushing your rivals beneath your ironclad heel, or working frantically to prevent them from doing so to you. Donít get too excited though, because youíre not going to get to see the massive rows of enemy soldiers impaled by your conquering troops.
The second is you have to be aware of religion, and for those atheists out there, yes, you do have to include it in your plan. Your housing cannot improve without at the least access to an ancestral temple, and then the higher levels need Buddhist or Taoist access. The real kicker is the sacrificing (no, not humanóthe virgins are safe). Once a month you can pay homage to ancestral, Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian heroes. If you do, they become pleased with your efforts and if you honor them enough they will appear in your city, which provides you with benefits such as blessing buildings, decreasing building costs, satisfying requests from other cities, and capturing animals for your menagerie. If you ignore these heroes, ummÖ do you like living above water? I do. Keep the ancestors happy and theyíll keep you happy. Donít, and the alternative doesnít bear thinking about. I pray the Lord Vader will not alter his deal any further.
The final bit of flavor is the addition of feng shui to your building plans. Basically feng shui is the notion that things should be arranged in a certain order. Proper placement of buildings brings peace and harmoniousness. This means that there is good building placement and not so good placement. Iím not sure what rules they have applied to figure out what constitutes good or bad placement for different buildings, but itís obvious. Green building ďfootprintsĒ are good, yellow are bad. The placement of buildings effects the peopleís perception of you (the more they like you the less unrest in the city), and also on whether or not the buildings advance easily or not.
Here are some more Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom features:
This is going to be a little involved so you might want to take a moment, get a cup of tea and bear with me. You are dealing with the worldís most ancient civilization so as you might imagine things are a little complicated. There are three basic playing options. You have free play, which is just taking a random map and city and running with it. No goals, or restrictions aside from those you have set. Itís fun but rather directionless, and will quickly loose your interest for lack of any real challenge. Mode two is the multi-player mode. Connect to the net, and instead of facing computer controlled cities, you get to face cities run by other players, give gifts and make friends or make impossible demands and conquer as you will. The third option is campaign mode. Here you are given different cities to control and advance through all these thousands of years of history.
Campaign mode has a very fresh approach, from the tutorial to the actual missions thereís a lot of game play. The tutorial particularly is very well put together. Instead of the usual step by step walkthrough, youíre given a lengthy bit of text that outlines what your goals are and then youíre left to your own devices to do it. They basically set things up so you have to do things as theyíve outlined, but even so there is a lot of leeway. Also, you can open and close the text box at will so you donít have to read it all once and remember. You can move things along at your pace rather than whatever the programmers set things at, which is good, because I donít know about you, but I hate having to sit through a bunch of stuff that I already know from other games just to learn the unique controls for this game.
The tutorials are also very well laid out and get you used to the game in very good chunks. They start you out with population and agriculture, move onto industry and trade, and finally advance to government and military. The sequences and progression are excellent. A word to the wise however, many of the missions build off of one another, so be wary of over-building as you may get yourself into a corner that you can only get out of by starting over.
Tutorial aside, the campaign missions work similarly with objectives ranging from achieving certain population levels, to having a hero in your city for so many months, or acquiring trading partners or cementing alliances. Those arenít really the important things though. What is important in a game like this is mechanics. This is the really complicated part because everything is interconnected. Weíll lay it out from the beginning because I hear thatís a very good place to start.
You start with a road and thatís about it. Almost every building needs road access, and having good infrastructure will be good for later on. Your need people to work for you so you can forage or grow food, produce goods such as ceramics, silk, or carved jade. These in turn are used for trade and to upgrade your housing. This last is the single most important element of the game. You can only have so much space for housing so you want to upgrade your housing, which will allow more people to live in each house. More people mean more workers, which means more products, whichÖ you get the idea. There are a few details Iíve left out. For instance, you have to get the food you grow to your people, and also make sure that none of your buildings collapse or burn down, and you have to make sure that houses get enough water, medical attention, and religious coverage. Suffice it to say this is all interrelated, and if you screw one thing up then you have a problem that snowballs out of control quickly.
Thatís my biggest complaint about the interface. Theyíre usually pretty good about giving you warnings about hygiene deteriorating, but there are a few very important things they donít tell you about, such as merchants not being able to purchase goods because the gate you put up prevents them from reaching the market, and other oddities. Overall though the interface is excellent, itís much easier than Chinese checkers at any rate, or shogi (Chinese chess), and any problems you encounter are usually from bad planning. In other words, no itís not a good idea to build the mill or the clay pits in the middle of your residential area, and putting your warehouses far away from your production facilities is only going to slow things down, and for heaven sakes keep those stormtroopers out of the ale house or theyíll never be able to shoot straight.
Anyone in the audience see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Anyone? Well, letís assume that some of you have, or have some other idea about Chinese culture, artwork, etc. because then youíll know that there is a rich tapestry of colors and imagery to use for this game. With such a rich tapestry of designs and art available, Emperor does a satisfactory job of detail, but not exemplary.
The buildings are certainly up to par; the houses are cool, but the other buildings, most notably the towers and religious buildings, are sweet. Emperor also has a nice selection of gardens, paths and walls; however, I found the ornamentation in the game lacking. Admittedly, the details are mostly focused on the practical elements that drive the infrastructure of your cities. For example, the silk and fish commodities are cool looking; however, the statues are lacking, and I felt that there should have been more color to make these cities scintillate.
That being said, I want to give some kudos for the graphics team because everything is easy to discern; there was no confusion running the game, which is really the most important thing in a city builder. But, in the manner of a dynastic emperor, I will take with one hand while I give with the other. Kudos for your icons, and a heckle for your still artwork. Itís not just bad, itís terrible. The cartoon people are straight out of ďCĒ comics. You know, the ones that you canít even find in a comic book store because theyíre so bad. You can only find them at the corner gas station because they donít know any better.
Weíve all heard the overdone sounds of oriental music in games: reedy flutes whistle shrilly over chimes tinkling, and a twangy banjo-like thing (shamisen) whines harmoniously in the background. Well, this game is exactly no different. While I both oversimplify and denigrate the music some, it really isnít bad at all, and is good music. However, I would like to see more research done to expand this repertoire. Iím sure that not all Chinese music is like this, and Iíd like to hear something new.
The speech in this game is hard to make out. I donít think itís really that garbled, but theyíre pretty soft, even with the audio controls manipulated. However, the creators did put a lot of time into having a line for each walker character, and the heroesí voices are nicely hollow and sepulchral.
Available at your local game store for $39.99, Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom is a little expensive for your return. However, there are two points in favor of this game. Point one: 7 long campaigns that are interesting because they have different objectives. Point two: the multiplayer option adds a pretty cool political element to the game that is non-existent anywhere else. I would anticipate 20 hours of play for people who like, but donít love the game, more than 60 hours for addicts, and endless hours for online gamers.
As game dynasties go, Emperor is pretty good. It has an awesome engine that would serve as a great base for all city builders. Like many firsts, it lacks the little details that are learned over time. For instance, many tedious tasks that could be automated like gifts to other cities or sacrificing to the gods, takes a lot of time for players to execute. Those niggling things aside, this game has brought something new to city-builder games: logistics and infrastructure.
As opposed to Sim City, where money drives all, in Emperor you need to worry about food, raw materials, finished products, safety, and distribution. This level of complexity is certainly worth the time to experience. So grab your abaci and weapons, your advisors and your armies, and lead your city to glorify the Emperor!