Zeus: Master of Olympus is a city-building game set in the legendary Greece of ancient mythology. Players start with an empty tract of land, full of possibility. By marking certain areas for housing, citizens will begin to move in and populate the budding village. These townsfolk are put to work to keep the village running and to aid in its expansion and improvement.
Some will trade, some will farm, some will patrol the streets, and (depending upon the kind of neighborhood they live in) some might even lounge around all day, just soaking up the culture. As the city develops, different types of workers become available offering more services to the community. Leaders of more advanced cities can even create buildings to appease an angry god or summon a great hero, like Perseus or Hercules.
Zeus was developed by Impressions Games, the same team that created other city-building games such as Pharaoh and the successful Caesar series. While the basic gameplay in Zeus is similar to those titles, the interface has been rearranged somewhat. Other, seemingly minor differences, in citizen behavior and the management of goods, may provide interesting new strategic challenges, even for accomplished veterans of the earlier games
While I was a fan of Caesar and Pharaoh, this third installment in Impression's city building series fulfills a lot of the latent potential in the previous games. Even better, Zeus takes the slightly mythic flavor of Pharaoh and Cleopatra and runs with it. Blurring the lines between history and myth, Zeus is able to add layers of excitement on top of the more restrained game design of the earlier titles.
As the name implies, Zeus is set in the world of the Ancient Hellenes (Greeks to you and me). The game has a suitably Grecian flavor (olives?) in terms of the industries and cultural diversions. These are basically cosmetic changes to Pharaoh and Caesar, but they certainly add a lot of believability to the game. You'll need to build vineyards and wineries, olive orchards and presses, colleges and podiums, theaters and drama schools. In all, the sheer variety of industries and cultural buildings ensure that a healthy city balance is even wobblier than before. But hell, that's the fun of it all, isn't it.
And this game, like all good city-building games, is about balance. As mayor of the city, you're responsible for allocating civic resources to the various services people need to survive. You'll need to set up farms and fisheries to feed people, allocate pasture land to provide fleece, mine bronze, silver and marble to produce armor, coins and temples. And that's just the most basic level of gameplay. You'll also have to establish trade routes with your neighbors, run the city administration and provide entertainment for your citizens. And don't forget that there are plenty of rival city-states out there with the armies and motivation to take you down. Better organize some sort of military defense as well. Once you've got a handle on all that, you can move on to the more complicated tasks.
Luckily the interface for Zeus makes it easy. It doesn't really change too much from the model in Pharaoh but the small changes that are made make the game so much easier to play. First and most significantly, the summary screens for the various city tabs are now visible from the main city screen. Just click on the information bar and you'll get figures on unemployment, trade, immigration and cultural venues. And all without obscuring any part of the main city screen. This makes it easy to flip through the statistics for your city and make changes to your city planning on the fly. If you want super detailed information, that's also visible, but only in an expanded window that covers the city screen.
The game also departs from the previous model in the scenarios. It comes with seven separate campaigns, each consisting of five to eight missions. Each campaign is drawn either from history (the Peloponnesian War) or mythology (The Quest for the Golden Fleece). The individual missions are laid out in sequence; once you accomplish the goals of the first, you move on to the next one. The big difference is that Zeus doesn't ask you to rebuild your city from scratch each time. Why didn't anyone think of this sooner? The city you start with in each mission is the city you left behind in the previous mission. There's much more of a sense of evolution and progression as a result and you'll really feel like you've accomplished something by the time the campaign is over.
And once you're done with that, you can try out Zeus' incredible sandbox modes. These are open-ended, free play scenarios, one each focusing on military or economic development and a third devoted to unrestricted play. But that doesn't mean that you'll have free reign. You've still got to maintain the proper city balance if you want to see your city grow. And you'll still have to contend with the wrath of gods, monsters and rival cities. There just aren't any objectives here (unless "having a good time" is an objective).
Speaking of godly, monsterly wrath, Zeus takes the mythological dimensions of Pharaoh and Cleopatra to whole new levels. You can build sanctuaries to each of the twelve Olympians. Each one will provide you with some essential service. Dionysus improves the functioning of your wineries, Hades makes your mints more productive, and Ares takes the field against your enemies. You can also recruit heroes to accomplish specific tasks, such as recovering lost items or battling rampaging monsters. And the way that consequence is built into the system is great. If you get Odysseus to kill the Cyclops, Poseidon will grow angry and wreck your fisheries. The only hope for you is to build a shrine to Zeus. Nobody messes with you when Zeus is on your side.
About the only unsatisfying thing about this game is the weak combat interface. You can't really control the movement of your armies that well. You just set rally points and hope that the enemy runs by your waiting armies. You can move the rally points around to meet particular enemy incursions but it takes a while for your troops to reposition themselves. It kind of stinks, but to be totally honest, war plays a minor role in the game so it's not an unbearable limitation. There is an option to let the computer handle all the military action for you, but it doesn't seem to be any more capable than you are. Why bother?
But the way that war is worked into the game is fantastic. Instead of professional soldiers, your cities will be defended by citizen militias. That means that each warrior in your army will be a member of your population. The more people you have, the more armies you can field. And once you're able to support elite houses, you can add hoplites and cavalrymen to your army. Since the people in your army have better things to do than fight, you'll need to keep your army out of the field as much as possible. When the troops are called out for city defense or an invasion, they're pulling workers away from city industry.
The last thing to mention is that Zeus has some fantastic graphics. The city structures are incredibly well designed. You can tell what most things are at a glance and the various levels of evolution for the houses give you a sense of the worth of your neighborhoods. There's also a great use of color on the buildings. We tend to think of the ancient world as drab and colorless, but that's just because the Germans scraped all the paint off of the monuments in the 1800s. Back in the day, the Greeks were as colorful as a baboon's bottom and it's nice to see that reflected in the game. On a similar note, the animations for the buildings and the people are very lively and often quite humorous. The little guy slipping on oil at the olive vendor's stall is particularly nice.
So, in the end, Zeus is by far the best of the city-building games in Impression's series so far. It's a lot more friendly than the previous games and has a much better developed sense of humor. That, coupled with the fantastic graphical palette of the game, as well as the new depth added by the inclusion of gods, monsters and heroes makes Zeus much more enjoyable than Pharaoh was. And if you've played Pharaoh, you know that that's saying quite a lot.
People who downloaded Zeus: Master of Olympus have also downloaded:
Pharaoh and Cleopatra, Caesar 3, Caesar IV, Pharaoh, Age of Mythology, Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom, Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings, Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos
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