Veni. Vidi. Vici.
Julius Caesar said it first: I came. I saw. I kicked some ass. Big talk from a little man; luckily, he carried a lot of military and political weight to help him back it up. The history buffs at Galilea are now providing you with an opportunity to slip on Caesar's sandals and take a crack at expanding the Roman world with their latest release Pax Romana.
Presenting a bit of a different twist, Pax Romana allows you to play through each of six scenarios in either a strategic mode or a political mode. It is a nice way to try to increase replay appeal, and it also caters to a wider audience of gamer. If you are not all that interested in the inner workings of the Roman senate, you can choose to have the AI handle that portion and concentrate on military strategy, or if you are turned on by men in togas, the political game is for you. Let the AI handle the hack and slash while you rub love handles with other senators in the bath house.
Beginning with the first Punic War circa 264 B.C. and ending with the rise of Caesar circa 60 B.C., Pax Romana offers nearly 300 years of Roman history for you to re-write. Each game, strategic or political, begins with the selection of a faction leader. Each leader brings a number of different skills and experiences to the table. I will say this: the folks at Galilea know their history. I bow to them in abject awe.
Region names, from Hibernia to Persia are recreated. The actual workings of the Roman Empire are rendered in intimate detail. As a fan of that particular period in history, it made me giddy just thinking about it. However, once I dug into it, the game failed to bring me pax of mind.
Every scenario offers a number of sub-scenarios with varying difficulty levels that can be completed for added bonuses. First off, not everybody is an ancient historian. While I giggle with glee to see regions named appropriately after actual Celtic tribes in ancient Gaul, not everybody is going to know which group of regions was known as Cisalpine Gaul, so how are they going to complete a sub-quest requiring them to Romanize Cisalpine Gaul if they don't know where it is? Even the primary goals of each scenario are unclear. They are presented in the beginning, but I did not find any way to access them again once I was in the game.
There is a notable lack of grace in the interface. At one point, I reflected that I was probably clicking more during a Pax Romana game than I would during a hot and heavy FPS. If you are going to make a game that is heavy on micro-management, that is cool. I dig that sort of thing. I am a freak, but please make it as easy as possible to manage those details! Since I am anal-retentive, I like to periodically run through each of my provinces to make sure everything is going ok. However, in Pax Romana, I have to click on the province on the world map, click on one of the four different map modes available (military, economic, diplomatic, and administrative) and then select which sub-section I want to check out: trade routes, new structures available for building, etc. That is a lot of clicking right there, but I can handle it. The frustrating part is that, once I get to a window I want, I cannot then cycle through each of my provinces in that window. I have to close it, select the next province on the world map and then re-open the window.
I know this sounds incredibly nitpicky, but if you are a fan of empire-building games, I hope you understand what I am saying. There are more examples of this throughout the game. After a time, even though it is possible to pause the action and give orders, I started to get pretty frustrated with the interface. Ideally, I don't even want to notice it. It should be as smooth as the well-shorn thigh of Nicole Kidman. Instead, it was more like the hairy, mole-ridden thigh of Jean Reno.
The world map is colorful and offers plenty to do. Each of the four different map modes mentioned above provide you with an incredible level of detail that you can delve into and tweak to your heart's content. Set priorities in your recently conquered provinces: do you want to increase the well-being of the people? Or would you like to Romanize them as quickly as possible? Carthage, as always, is pissing you off. Are they close enough to worry about yet? Maybe you should send a diplomat to Liguria in the North and improve relations so that if Carthage does attack, they have to wade through friends rather than sympathetic enemies of Rome.
The political game takes place, for the most part, on the world map as well. You don't have control over the military, but you retain control over the economic, diplomatic and administrative functions of the empire. The big difference here is that once a year, you are bopped back to Rome to attend the senate. This is rendered in a static scene of a square in Rome surrounded by several buildings such as the baths, the tavern and the vespers. Each of these serves a purpose in building your political agenda for the senate session. You have a limited amount of time to recruit senators to your side, organize games to win over the plebs or talk to the powerful businessman known as the equites in the hopes of securing their support for your agenda. Once the session starts, you'll be popped into your office where you have a nice menu from which to formulate your proposals. Ask for more money to spend on the military, harsher punishments for crimes or a different level of taxation. From there, you're sent to the senate itself where the voting takes place. This portion of the game is cool, but I found the time limits rather annoying and too short. Unfortunately, they are not adjustable by default; however a new Settings Set Up utility was recently released and is now available on Galilea's site
, that makes changing this and other time settings possible.
There is a lot of content on which to chew in Pax Romana. Multiplayer is available via LAN and internet, and there has been mention of new scenarios that will be made available for download from paxromanagame.com
. I was also gratified to see the extensive menu of tutorials that the game offers, but I was soon horrified to find that many of these tutorials are unclear (translation problem), skip large portions of important material and are, in places, even broken. While recruiting senators in the bath house, the tutorial asked me to click on the debt icon of a senator that I was trying to recruit. I could not proceed in the tutorial until I did this. Problem was there was not a debt icon on the senator's stat menu! You are forced to exit back to the main menu from there; very frustrating. A patch for this and other problems is being promised by Galilea, but it's still not available at the time of writing this article, roughly two months after the game's North American release.
I had such high, high hopes for Pax Romana. I was literally tittering in anticipation when I received the review copy, but my expectations were consistently dashed. I would classify this as a game that was a fantastic idea containing a ton of great, raw material. Unfortunately, it is a little rough in the execution. If you are a fan of empire-building games and/or a fan of ancient history, you should definitely check this one out. I think that the frustrations inherent in the game can be overcome to the point that you will find it enjoyable, but it could have been so much better.
Caveat Emptor: Pax Romana is protected by StarForce 3.0, so if you have had problems running games that utilize this disc protection system in the past, consider yourself warned (Thanks to StarForce the game refused to work completely on one of our machines equipped with an older CD-RW drive, that never had any trouble running games protected with other protection schemes, so indeed consider yourself warned. - Editor