Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile Download (2004 Strategy Game)

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The spiritual successor to classics like Caesar and Pharaoh, Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile is a city-building strategy game that casts players as Pharaoh and challenges them to construct a mighty empire in ancient Egypt. Players begin thousands of years ago, when the Valley of the Nile was populated by simple gatherers and fishermen. With guidance and direction, these primitive people can be lead to amazing accomplishments, and ultimately, to create Earth's first great civilization.

Unlike the entertaining but fairly robotic citizens of the fondly remembered xImpressions Games, Immortal Cities' "Children of the Nile" are designed to behave as individuals, with their own unique wants, needs, and relationships to one another. They organize themselves by household, and the player is given multifaceted access to information about each family's particular deficits and desires. While Children of the Nile is more heavily dependant on the individual personalities of the populace than most earlier city-building games, the primary means of providing for the needs of the people is still through the buildings, services, and institutions that the player creates and manages.

Players first must provide the indigenous people with the basic means to settle down and farm the valley. Once they've tamed the lands, some farmers may decide to become craftspeople, if the right facilities and resources are available. Each new class of citizen develops on the foundations of the ones before it. Craftsmen lead to more educated citizens, and eventually the city may support an elite caste of nobles -- if it can supply the expensive and exotic luxury items on which such an upper class thrives. To gain "prestige," which functions as leadership capital in this game, players must attend to the people's ever-more-sophisticated desires that evolve along with the society itself.

Children of the Nile incorporates an interesting twist on the city-building gamer's conventional role as an abstract, immortal leader. In a sense, Immortal Cities players take the role of an entire dynasty. As each Pharaoh grows old and passes on, another may take his place, but the ease of these transitions is based on the dynasty's level of prestige. A great and distinguished leader should have little trouble passing power on to the heir of his choice, but the people may seek new leadership from other factions when a poorly perceived Pharaoh vacates his throne.

Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile is built on a version of Stainless Steel Studios' Empire Earth game engine, and features full 3D graphics. The game ships with editing tools, to allow players to create their own scenarios, or even complete campaigns. Tilted Mill development studio was founded by former members of the Impressions team.

In Impressions' classic game Pharaoh there was an unusual bug that actually made the game more fun. Occasionally a storage yard walker would get hung up in the streets, denying vital supplies to the rest of the city. As a result, the daisy-chained economy that began with farmers harvesting grain and ended with giant pyramids climbing toward the sky would come to a crashing halt. Despite being unintentional, though, the process of tracking down and eliminating the source of the blockage was highly enjoyable, as was the result as your economy kicked back into gear and your city came back to life.

Tilted Mill, a new developer comprised of a number of Impressions refugees, must have thought so as well, since they managed to build a whole game around it. Unfortunately, what was a great part of an undeniable classic has become a pretty unstable foundation upon which to build Pharaoh's "spiritual sequel", Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile, a game that has a lot of fun buried underneath a lousy interface, a terrible information system, and an incompletely implemented gameplay model.

Here's the deal. Children of the Nile is a city-building game built on the reverse of the premise that has animated these types of titles since the days of the first SimCity. Rather than being built around the idea of a building spreading influence around, Children of the Nile is structured on its Sims-like citizens. Buildings by themselves do nothing. Instead your civilization grows and thrives when your citizens (each with their own name, job and relationship to other citizens) moves in and try to fulfill their drives - acquiring a certain number of resources (food, nice furniture, baskets, some jewelry and other domestic knick-knacks) by performing their jobs. The motor oil that makes this society's engine rev is bread - literal bread, cooked in bakeries - which is used as the game's currency. You as Pharaoh will receive the city's surplus bread in taxes which you can then use to fund ridiculously huge construction projects like pyramids, obelisks, statuary, and foreign conquests dedicated to your own glory. The more prestige you acquire, the more citizens you'll be able to support and the greater your cities can become.

That's the good news. As I mentioned earlier, the developers at Tilted Mill are past masters at creating this kind of daisy-chain economy, and their expertise doesn't fail them here. Having intelligent citizens go about their daily lives with purpose and intent is Children of the Nile's greatest strength. Once you get your city up and humming, I can safely say that no game ever made gives the feeling of controlling a living city filled with flesh-and-blood citizens as well as Children of the Nile. The game is at its best when you're following your virtual Egyptians around, solving problems and tweaking your economy for maximum efficiency.

That is, in fact, a large portion of the gameplay, tracking your citizens as they go through their daily lives and finding out why they're having problems. Is the overseer on your tomb not showing up for work? Perhaps it's because his wife has to walk too far every day to go shopping and has dragooned him into helping. In that case, you should probably build a few shops closer to their home - which can lead to other problems that have to be solved. It's a never-ending cycle quite familiar to city building fans, and it's a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, Children of the Nile's excellent micromanagement portion isn't balanced out by the rest of the game. Once you get above the level of economic tweaking, the cracks begin to show. Macro management - tweaking your city as a whole - is an enormous problem. Part of that is because it's incredibly difficult to get a handle on exactly how well or how poorly your city is doing. The amount of macroeconomic information the game offers is miniscule. Children of the Nile desperately needs more information screens on various aspects of the city's economy and civic life. Tracking the mood of your citizens as a whole is impossible because the focus of the game is on tracking individuals.

One of the biggest examples of this is the way that the game treats religion. The ancient Egyptians were a very religious people who worshiped a lot of different gods. Approximately 20 of them are represented by shrines, temples and cult temples in the games and one of the big things your citizens need to do during the day is satisfy their religious impulses. The Egyptian year is punctuated by festivals, holidays and rituals dedicated to specific gods and if your citizens can't fulfill them, they start getting upset. Unfortunately the game simply doesn't give you the tools to track religious issues on a city-wide scale. If you click on the interface screen that tells you that there are "Moderate religious complaints citywide", icons appear above the houses that are unhappy. Unfortunately those icons don't tell you exactly what the problem is, or exactly how angry the house is, you'll have to click on the individual house for that. Have they missed one small ritual or were they unable to participate in a major holiday service for the city's patron god? More importantly, you can't amalgamate that information to help create the proper religious institutions that would help alleviate large numbers of citizen's problems all at once.

Removing buildings influence on the surrounding environment also means that your cities aren't the beautiful well-organized things they usually are in these city-building games. While the game includes roads, landscaping and beautification tools, these things are free of charge and have absolutely no impact on your citizens. Your Egyptians don't use roads to reach their destinations, nor do gardens or plazas make citizens feel any better. As a result, players tend to focus on things that actually impact the game, rather than useless aesthetic improvements.

While the roads can be used to plan out building locations, what's the point? Buildings can get plopped down anywhere, making cities look like a random mish-mash rather than the structured societies they're supposed to be. Because travel time is a factor as well, buildings tend to get clustered together, leaving much of the land on the map open because it's useless. The lack of building impact removes one of the most fun aspects of urban planning, land use management, the need to make the most out of every square foot.

The game's interface is also really poorly constructed. Rather than offer a number of different informational screens attached to buttons as in most city building games, a lot of vital information (such as the contents of houses) come up as meta-text pop-ups when you move the cursor over it. Without any indication that these informational pop-ups exist or how to get them, it's very easy for players to become mystified at exactly what problems they're supposed to be fixing. Even when you do know they're there, though, the interface is so crowded that getting the pop-ups can become an annoying game of "hunt the pixel".

Going along with the basic theme of "poor city control", the game's interface lacks decent global summary or command screens. Certain educated workers such as overseers need to be micromanaged in order to be effective (annoying in itself). Unfortunately there's no way to see what my overseers or laborers (or anybody else) are all working on and make global changes. If you're building big prestige-building statues for example, the overseer has to be first set to mine basalt blocks, then changed to oversee construction to finish the project. There is a "Work on nearest site" setting, but in my experience, it doesn't work all that well, meaning the overseer seems to spend inordinate time lounging around in his house eating MY bread.

Another example is cargo drop-off zones where imported raw materials are left so craftsmen can get them. The commands to select what gets dropped off in the zone are labeled by regional names - not resources. I can't express strongly enough how stupid that is. If you don't remember that cedar wood comes from a specific place in Libya and label the zone correctly, your shipwright may end up trudging across half the city to pick up what he needs. The lack of big picture information makes the player feel incredibly distant from the city. All too often fixing and fine-tuning your city to work harmoniously is a matter of feel and guesswork more than anything else.

Graphically the game is good, though not spectacular. Children of the Nile is built on the Empire Earth engine, which, though a little dated, excels at offering good views with lots of details from both high-in-the-sky down to insane close-ups. The game's art direction is also good. Of course it's hard to go wrong with ancient Egyptian buildings, which were some of the most beautiful structures ever created. Particular stand-outs include the Pharaoh's palace with its murals and frescoes painted on the outside walls and the many different cyclopean statues that serve to beautify the city. The sound effects and music are good also, although the music is not so spectacular that you'd want to listen to it for the many hours that a particular campaign mission would take.

In short, when taken as a whole, Children of the Nile is a disappointment. It's not that it's a bad game. In fact, buried under the rubble of the game's interface is the germ of a classic. Even after all is said and done, city-building fans will find a lot to like in the game. Unfortunately incomplete implementation of an essentially good idea relegates Children of the Nile to the status of merely "OK", not the classic I thought it was going to be when I first saw it. Lets hope that as the "Immortal Cities" line moves forward, Chris Beatrice and his Tilted Mill team can ultimately bring us the awesome city building experience I know they're capable of.


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