Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom Review (PC)

Do eastern civilizations charm you? Did you always want to travel to China but never really got around to do it? Have you ever dreamt of being there when great monuments were built, and important events took place? Well, now you can do all that right from your armchair in front of your pc, with the fourth installment (not counting the expansions) to Sierraís successful citybuilding series, Emperor Rise of the Middle Kingdom, developed by BreakAway Games and Impressions Games.

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Emperor is set in ancient China, starting from the very first dynasty and ending just about the time the Mongols were about to invade the land, spanning 7 dynasties (each making up one campaign with several missions), which will serve as your means of traveling through time. Breakaway has managed to keep things according to the true historical facts as much as possible and that is one of the many strong points of the game. It comes with seven campaigns that will be your means into this journey in time. The first campaign, that of the Xia dynasty is in form of a tutorial so you can basically start playing the game as soon as you install it on your hard drive, thus you donít need to read the manual that comes with the game right at first. The manual is very well organized and very detailed, so after playing the tutorials of the first campaign you should check on it to improve your skills. Also the folded card that comes along in the box could be very useful especially if you are new into this style of strategy games. If you feel like building a city for no particular reason, or you donít want to play a campaign just that specific moment, the Open Play option allows you to just build a city to your liking, with options to set various game settings like disaster frequency, the density of cities in the empire, their starting attitude towards you, the time period you are going to play in and of course the difficulty level. You can either choose a map yourself or let the game chose one randomly for you, and the random seed option will also make sure you will not play the same map, the same way twice (unless you use the same seed of course). The maps available are not only those in the campaigns but also lots of others specifically made for open play that the game ships with.

The basic idea is quite simple. Build a city, feed your people, provide them with goods, make them happy, earn money, make monuments, write history. Simple as this may seem there are a many things you have to take care of, many ways to victory and lots of excitement to go with that. Caring for your population is the backbone of the game. First of all comes food and the game provides you with a great variety; Rice, Millet, Cabbage, Wheat, Soybean, Fish, Game meat, Salt and Spices, will all help you keep your citizens well fed and happy. Hemp, Ceramics and of course Tea and Silk are only a few of the many other things that will make the lives of your people better. Speaking of food, if you have played the previous games of the series you will now notice that the farms now cover a bigger area, letting you place the crops around them and not only that but you can also grow different kinds of crops simultaneously so that your farmers will not stay idle and you will have food production all year long.

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The next thing you need to provide your people with is religious access and someone to take care of their health. And so once you make their lives better they pay you back by not complaining for the taxes. Give them jobs to do, and let them produce stuff you are going to use to help the growth of your city or to sell them. Set up a few trades routes both sea and land), and start earning money. Do your neighbors bother you? Build up an army of up to 12 companies and conquer them. To do so you need to have elite houses, an upper class of citizens to support you and your army, so youíll need to provide them what they want, and trust me, their needs are bigger than the common peopleís. The battle aspect is a bit simplified, but the main purpose of this game is to build great cities and battles donít happen that much so the game doesnít suffer at all by the lack of a sophisticated battle system. In my humble opinion such a system is not needed anyway. You only see battles that happen in your city, and as a matter of fact if you are of those people that want their peace and can spare the cash you just bribe the invaders off and continue dealing with the sweet tasks of citybuilding. Even if the unthinkable thing happens and you donít have enough cash to bribe the invaders off and you lose the battle the game is not over. You become a vassal and you have to pay tribute each year. This means of course that you wonít win the game either, so in due time you have to build up your forces, and show your overlord that he should have messed up with you. If you want to have good relations with another city, or even an alliance, you can always send them gifts, and if they are happy with you once you need them, they will aid you, whether it be a request for goods or a military aid to either defend your city from an enemy or to conquer one. You could also request animals from them, to put in your palace Menagerie, animals that your city wonít have otherwise. All these kinds of diplomacy could make the difference between winning or losing the game.

Another fine aspect of the game is ďheroesĒ. You can get heroes of the ancient China to come to your city ( each with his/her own special characteristics/features) if you honor them enough, by paying homage to them every now and then. They will reward you with blessings of your buildings/industry, will capture animals for your palace Menagerie, speed up your monument production, provide extra food or even fight your enemies home and abroad. Ignore them, and they will get angry then your city would suffer from disasters, including but not limited to floods and earthquakes. One of the more interesting feature is Feng Shui (literally meaning Wind Water in Mandarin) or Geomancy, an important aspect for the Chinese, which comes under Aesthetics. Placement of buildings, its surrounding area, influences the balance of your city with the elements. Ranging from Harmoniously Balanced to downright Inauspicious, Feng Shui can make or break your city and how the heroes think about you.

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Monuments are an aspect that could not be left out of the game. A wide variety of monuments is available for you to build: Tumulus (great and simple), Temple ( great and splendid) Temple complex (simple and grand) , Grand Pagoda, Large Palace. Clock Tower, and the greatest monuments of ancient China: The Underground Vault. The Grand Canal and The Great Wall. Building a monument is not an issue to be taken lightly. You have to organize a whole industry and behind that a whole city. Whether it be wood, stone, clay, iron or bronze, needed you will have to provide it for the construction either by direct production in your city or by import, and some things just donít come cheap; only dirt does. This indeed is the peak of the game.

If you are one those that believe that only 3D graphics should be used in games, you really would reconsider after looking at this game. The ď3D acceleration makes a great gameĒ rule just simply doesnít apply here. Emperorís graphics are vivid, colorful and eye catching. From the smallest detail like stored food in the mill, or the crops in the farms, to the biggest units, like a completed monument, the graphics are outstanding. Itís sure that you wonít get tired of looking at them after long hours of playing the game, as a matter of fact you will find them relaxing. If you have played other games of the citybuilding series before you will notice that now all buildings are 25% larger that before. The animation graphics are of the same great quality described above. Many of them have a humorous aspect like the two guys in the fishing quay that slap each other with fishes while they wait for the fishing boat to bring back the catch of the day. Almost every building has an animation thus your city even with a glance gives you the feeling of a very much alive city that never sleeps. Walkers animations are most beautiful and even more than them, the animal animations. Whether itís a panda an antelope a salamander, or any other of the 9 types of animals (pray and predators) you just got to adore them. The only case the animation graphics seem a bit strange is when you might notice a tiger skiing instead of walking when he is attacking your population, or sometimes when there is a battle going on with many units. Other than that the quality of the graphics and animations can easily justify your sitting back and having a nice time watching the crops grow while your citizens go on with their everyday lives.

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To put things plainly the music is absolutely great and that comes as no surprise. Composed by Jeff van Dyck, who has supplied us with some really great music in other games as well ( like Medieval T.W. Shogun T.W. and many EA titles), it puts you just right in ancient China. Audio clips of over 40 minutes in total duration will make sure your ears will be pleased while you are building your city. Quite frankly words cannot describe the beauty of the music of the game. The various game sounds are no exception to this. Whether it be an ambient sound , a sound associated with a building or your peopleís sayings the quality stays the same: right on the top. Right-click on your citizens to find out what they think about you and your management and you will find some really funny clips that are in accordance with the gameplay. Finally make sure you check what the animals have to ďsayĒ as well.

Emperor Rise of the Middle Kingdom offers the first multiplayer feature in this genre. As if it was not fun to build a city on your own already, now you get to do it at the same time your friends build their own. A number of up to 8 players can join a game online, via either the Sierra gaming system, a direct IP connection or LAN. As it happens in real life you can either choose the path of peace or the one of war so two types of scenarios are available to choose from. The one called cooperative means that you and your friends will help each other build your cities, or a monument, or generally achieve the goals set by the scenario designer. This is no simple task at times as not every good/resource would be allowed for each city, and so cooperation between players is the only way to victory. Prominent scenarios of this kind are the Grand Canal and the Great Wall, in which every player builds a section of these great monuments in his/her city. The second type of scenarios is called competitive. This doesnít mean that you will have to go into battle every time, but instead for all the players having to complete the scenario goals that is needed to finish the game in the cooperative missions, here the first one to do it, is the winner. Of course if you want to make things hard for your opponents you can attack them and distract them so you get ahead of them. All is fair in love and war as they say. Finally if you feel like playing a war, the competitive scenarios give you this option where you just need to conquer your enemies. Remember to build up your defenses though because the other human players wonít just sit there and waitÖ what you have in store for them, they also got in store for you. Itís all a matter of whoís the most skilled player. Also donít forget to send your spies to either reveal your opponentís city map, or just plain sabotage his industries or military so the city is ready for you when you are going to invade.

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Multiplayer games can be played with as slow as 56k connection, so even with that you would be enjoying this. Remember to turn off your firewall before you get to the multiplayer lobby to play, just like any other online game needs you to do. The only two things that are not perfect in the multiplayer is that sometimes people might drop out of the game, and the dark colors of the in game chat. The later is just a bit hard for the eyes to follow, and since it comes up in the form of the usual game messages that after some time you could adopt the habit to ignore, you might miss what your fellow players would say. In any case this is balanced but a chat history and if you check that from time to time youíll have no problems. Now the really interesting thing is that when you want to say something to one of your fellow players and you donít want the rest to hear, you can do it by sending an emissary to his city, just like if you wanted to send them a gift of goods or money. If not anything else, this little trick really puts you inside the atmosphere of the game and how things where done when we didnít have modern communications and just relied to take the long road. People dropping out of the game is not a new ďfeatureĒ for those of you that have played on line games before. Itís caused by number of reasons, technical, internet traffic at the time, your location, issues of the real life you must attend to, etc. The game automatically saves every six game months, two times a year. Also the host of the game has the ability to save the game for all players whenever he/she thinks it appropriate. This way if you drop out, you can resume the game from the point you were, granted that all players get back to the lobby and start from there loading the saved file. This of course helps a lot when you just donít have enough time today to build the great wall and the boss will not like the excuse of being late at work because you have been playing Emperor again, so you could call it a night and continue the same scenario right from that spot with your friends some other nights. In any case, if you have to drop and the rest of the players need to continue the game, there is no problem as the AI takes over your city and so the game goes on. All in all whether you are a new in this kind of games or an old fan, the multiplayer aspect has a lot to give to you, and most importantly, many ours of fun gameplay.

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If you happen to be new in this kind of strategy games and you are tired of the regular ones you see around, this one if a must for you. You will love the graphics, you will be charmed by the very act of building a city, you will have fun with what the people will have to say to you regarding on how good or bad a ruler you will be and most of all youíll have a chance to relive the Chinese history. Most probably you will also have a great time both playing in single player and in multiplayer. This would be a good time to point out that should you need any help about this game all you have to do is to ask in the online community of it. As a matter of fact, most probably you will have a developer reply to you on the support forums, and you might even get a chance to play an online game or two with some of them. This is one thing you donít find usually these days.

If you are an old fan of the citybuilding games, you would probably know the very basics. So why would you need to get it? First of all the multiplayer aspect. Being a hard core, ďnon-multiplayer in citybuilding gamesĒ person myself I was happily surprised with this aspect of the game and have spent a great deal of good time playing on line. Second, the game has become much more innovative than itís predecessors. Better management, new monument types, improved AI behavior, better management of system resources. The graphics are also much better, and bigger, and generally you will have as much fun with this game as you already had with all the previous citybuilding games you have played put together, and even more.

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