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Caesar IV

Caesar, jolly good fellow

Fans of Roman city-building games must feel like they've been invaded by a procession of near-simultaneous Christmases. Or, perhaps, like they've opened a high cupboard, and a couple of precariously stacked Christmases have fallen onto their face.

It's been eight years since Caesar III - that's 2,922 days of desolate, featureless savannah in the world of Roman town management. All of a sudden, we've got the Sid-smothered CivCity: Rome, and now the big-trumpets return of the Caesar franchise. We're privileged to be living through the golden year of post-Republic village development.

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Tilted Mill seem like a relatively new company to be taking the Caesar development reigns from the long heritage of Impressions - until you consider that Tilted Mill was founded by ex-members of the Impressions team. Incidentally, the founder of Impressions is now at Firefly studios - the team behind CivCity: Rome. It's like a Mississippi family tree, with less girls and sex, and considerably more town sims.

INFAMY, INFAMY
So, is the excited mountain of froth that we've all produced justified? What have four versions of DirectX added to the mechanics of well-placing and the manufacture of pottery? Well, it all looks pretty, and it's all in proper 3D, like. As we've come to expect, you can get feedback from your townsfolk and follow them around like a needy god.

Their chirpy in-character responses are along the lines of "Cutting wood for the Empire is my passion!" and "Oh my god, I just farmed a vegetable". All this loveliness comes at a price, though; when you're fully zoomed out on a budding megalopolis, the frame-rate can drop like a randy clown's trousers. And it has to be said, the squareness of the overlay maps look a little brutal and clumsy next to CivCity's spheres of influence.

The 'Kingdom' tutorial levels introduce you gently enough to the game's five measures of success; population, culture, favour with Rome, cash money and security. It's pretty much the same as in Caesar III, but then I suppose the needs of Roman towns haven't changed much in the last eight years. Sitting through the tutorials is a worthwhile chore to newcomers. If nothing else, they'll drill into you the basics of starting up a town that won't fall down, as that's what you'll do, five times.

OUTCLASSED
So, you've got your basic three classes of people. The plebs are your basic workforce, who mine clay and are relatively unfussy, even if they don't like living next-door to a pottery factory. The equites provide services, such as tax collection and civil service - they're too posh for wells, and require fountains and bathhouses. Then patricians, who'll pay hefty taxes if you give them a villa and a nice patio, and won't be happy unless you throw posh plazas and theatres at them.

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Every town starts the same way; build for the plebs, get some farms down, send people off to get clay, wood, metals, build production units out of town and markets near homes. Once buildings are catered for, they grow, allowing you to pack in more people. Then build houses for the middle-classes, give them jobs and get in the rich people to stop you running out of money. Your missions are completed by meeting targets in those five areas we talked about earlier.

Apart from your usual (struggle-free) class system, you've got to prepare for military action. The Civilization series taught us that barbarians roamed the countryside picking on anything that looks like a city, and Caesar is no different. Combat was always a feeble part of the Caesar games, and it remains so here; but at least it's less of a bother now. Simply despatch your chaps to the enemy, and one terribly animated skirmish later, someone's won.

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