On holiday in Europe last year I took part in a guided tour of a once highly prized Roman port. With its towering statues, ornate buildings and bustling marina, the town must have originally been a magnificent example of the majesty of history's most famous, and most decadent, empire. Now in ruins, the only remnants of the port were crumbling towers and time-ravaged sculptures of Roman deities. Only one building stood standing: the library. "Nearly every night, the citizens would bid farewell to their wives and, if they were polite, their slaves, and head to the library for yet another evening of learning inside this palace of wisdom," explained the tour guide. "How wonderful," I thought to myself. "These were such a civilised and devoted people; dedicated to the fine art of self-improvement." After a dramatic pause, the guide continued his practised patter. "Of course, underneath the library was a secret tunnel leading directly to the port's main brothel."
If you'll excuse my momentary lapse into New Games Journalism there, I am actually making a salient point. There was much more to Romans than simply constructing huge, expensive cities, fending off the natives and cultivating an insatiable appetite for olives and unquenchable thirst for wine. Barbarism, eroticism and domination of everything around them; this was what drove a mighty civilisation to nearly succeed in conquering the globe. Just ask anyone who's watched HBO's sordid Rome, Caligula, or - my personal favourite - Up Pompeii!
Yet, rather than delve into these tawdry (and arguably more enticing) aspects of the empire's more lugubrious pastimes, instead CivCity Rome chooses the more righteous path of crafting fine monuments, harvesting olives and mastering the art of creating a rich, fruity glass of red. In fact, one of the player's earlier masters challenges them to "make enough wine to drown the whole of Rome," by which he literally means open at least two vineyards and a single market at which to trade said booze - so not quite as grandiose as it initially sounds. Honestly, inviting Oddbins to open a local franchise would have saved a lot of time and effort.
Firefly Software's game, built with the blessing and resources of Sid Meier's illustrious Firaxis outfit (of Civilization fame), is - for better or worse - no more than a simple city building sim. The early levels challenge the player to construct productive small villages, preferably with a handful of huts and the odd scabby goat ambling around, while later missions see you turn around struggling townships, wage (supposedly) epic battles with Rome's enemies and eventually run the eponymous great city. There is a short tutorial at the start, but the rest of the gameplay is very much a 'learn as you go affair' that steadily becomes more challenging, with the odd difficulty spike to throw you off guard.
Resource management is inevitably the key to success, but the game's smart research system cleverly helps you to quickly advance your environs, giving you plenty of time to handle the ins and outs of town management and growth. Like most modern titles of its ilk (think Black & White or Children of the Nile), keeping your populace happy with entertainment and a healthy work/life balance is essential to progressing through the missions. Their general cheeriness or glumness is represented with Civilization's iconic smiley faces - one of the many features from that hallowed series that pop up (like the Wonders that heavily boost city morale).
While later levels give you the chance to watch gladiators duel it out in the coliseum, where Ben Hur-style Chariot races are also a main attraction, and offer a much broader set of responsibilities to handle, oddly it's the earlier levels that provide the most immediate satisfaction. There is an air of classic Settlers in the intuitive construction of your first hamlets, aided by the ability to play entirely with the mouse, that is appealing in a decidedly old school way. Once things become more serious, though, like when you can't quite produce enough wine to satisfy Rome's incessant demands or an enemy invasion is imminent, making sure every single hut has a nearby well seems like a bit too much work. Still, for many fans of this genre, the devil is in the details and for the most part CivCity is a solid enough city building game, with moderate visual and audio thrills that won't tax a standard PC.
Meanwhile, for players with less patience, you can always take on the many Skirmish missions available that - while barely removed from their Campaign counterparts - do provide a quicker way to see all that Rome has to offer. As with the main game, the controls are intuitive and progression relies more on common sense than anything else. It's still let down by the disappointing, tacked on combat (where you build forts and train armies before lazily pointing and clicking them into battle) that never feels like more than an afterthought to appeal to PC warlords.
If you're a casual player who has never strayed far from playing sports titles or the latest FPS then CivCity: Rome will seem like a gaming revelation, but to any SimCity veterans it's reminiscent of a dusted off relic from an archaeological dig. Like unearthing a Roman coin with a metal detector, it's a welcome find but not a genuine treasure. The game engine is solid and sturdy but there are still plenty of little niggles that can undermine the whole experience: The voice work is laughably out of place (why would a Roman vagrant sound like he comes from up north?), the messaging system is anachronistic (you're trying to build your first hut while Genghis Khan is sending you video threats) and there's a hefty manual that you're occasionally forced to dip into.
For me, Rome wasn't built in a day - it took one slow, sporadically entertaining week. Still, if you are new to the city-building genre and want a friendly introduction in a familiar setting then CivCity: Rome is a passable enough way to while away the rainy summer evenings. But remember, there is much more to discover outside these lacklustre city walls.