I have always enjoyed city building games, and the Impressions series of games has long been one of my favorites. Caesar III, Pharaoh and Zeus are all solid (albeit very similar) games. The newest game in the series, Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom, retains much of the same gameplay while making a few minor changes.
In Emperor, you move through Chinese history, beginning with tutorials (how to build housing, supply food, etc.) and moving up to the later dynasties, during which great monuments were constructed. The early missions are relatively quick and easy, while the later ones can take hours as you work to construct a temple or section of the Great Wall of China. Meanwhile, you must build relations with the other cities, whether through diplomacy or conquest, in order to create a thriving city.
The game’s interface is very well done, which is hardly surprising considering that Impressions has been refining it since Caesar III. I had very little trouble just picking it up and playing, but someone unfamiliar with the series would do well to play through the tutorials first. Each mission requires some amount of strategic planning to complete. If you don’t think about your resources and build carefully, you’ll run out of money or food and be unable to complete the goals. The later missions are more challenging as you have to juggle military resources and defend your city while also building and trading.
There are some additions to Emperor that were not in Zeus. For the most part, these changes are minor: You have Heroes instead of Gods, for example. There are some changes to the ways you can deal with other cities, but in my opinion the options are still too limiting and the interactions with other cities somewhat simplistic. The most annoying addition is the feng shui feature, which associates each building with an element and indicates whether the placement of the building would be “auspicious” or not. It’s really sort of annoying when you’re trying to plan your city. It would be nice to be able to turn it off.
The other major addition is the multiplayer mode. I personally have not played much, and my few experiences with it were not terribly impressive. If the players play at different speeds, for example, one will be left sitting while the other mulls over the data. The game doesn’t let one player get more than two months ahead of the others, which might seem to be the best solution but in reality can be a drag compared to turn-based games.
The graphical engine is the same as that used in Zeus, which is to say it is very bright and colorful and fun to watch. Each building has its own little animation, some of which are quite humorous (my favorite might be the acupuncturist). Still, they can get repetitious, and it would have been nice to see more of a graphical upgrade over Zeus. In terms of sound, the quality is, once again, quite good. The walker sound effects are funny as they have always been in Impressions games. The ambient effects are also well-done, although sometimes I find that they don’t always match to the part of the city on my screen (I occasionally find that I can scroll away from my bustling metropolis to the wilderness and still hear city sounds). The music is pleasant enough, if a bit repetitive after a while.
Overall, Emperor is a quality game, and follows the established formula very carefully. I would have liked to have seen some more adventurous changes, but the game is still a lot of fun and very addictive. Hopefully next time the designers will try some new things, just to mix it up a bit.