Zeus: Master of Olympus – It’s all Greek to us

His vision of a great Greek city was of one ruled by a great thinker – a philosopher – who would calmly and rationally lead with wisdom and justice. He probably never imagined people doing it as a way to wind down from the latest CounterStrike splatterfest or to watch Zeus kick Dionysus’ flabby arse. But then things change. At least, for us they do – we’re not so sure about Impressions.

You see, in the beginning there was Caesar, hitting the shelves at about the same time that a strangely maternal wolf found two babies called Romulus and Remus. Temporal gymnastics aside, the sequel followed soon after, providing strategy gamers with hours of fun and permanently burning the phrase “MORE PLEBS ARE NEEDED!” into their brains. Caesar III was the real star however, and not just because it came with the funniest proof-reading error ever to appear in a game manual. Your job, as with the earlier games, was to build a fully functional and self-sufficient Roman city in a variety of scenic areas around the Empire. The lush green fields and marble buildings made for a much more attractive game than SimCity, with the individual characters wandering around (who you could click on for feedback on how you were doing) giving it a personal touch and the risk of the gods stepping in to squish you like a bug adding spice. Trade and warfare were also thrown in, if not very well integrated, and overall it was an excellent game. Where could Impressions go from here? Egypt, obviously. Pharaoh took the concept of Caesar III and poured a few million tons of sand over it. It was fun…but surprising how similar these two completely different cultures proved to be. Now we’re over in the land of the Greeks for the third series and in the words of Socrates: “Well bugger me if t’aint all familiar like, boyo.”

It’s not that Impressions haven’t changed anything, but with the exception of some new cartoony graphics very little springs instantly to mind. You build your city up just like before – splash down blocks of housing next to a road and travellers will move in. Dependant on the house’s access to various products (food, fleeces, water etc.), buildings and the desirability of the area it evolves, netting you more tax and prestige. Juggling the different requirements of your citizens is the real challenge – a lack of nearby markets is a sure-fire way to starve your citizens, but at the same time nobody wants to live right next door to one. Throw in the acquisition of basic resources, maintenance, soldiers and trade and you have Zeus’ gameplay in a nutshell. Of course, throw in references to Jupiter, Ra and Quetzacoatl and you have Caesar and Pharoah pretty much pinned down too, with a bonus Mayan scenario thrown in. Which we wouldn’t be surprised to see this time next year.

Zeus’ biggest alteration to the formula is the mythology. Whereas in Impression’s earlier games the gods only manifested themselves by giving you presents or smiting your city from afar, the Greeks had far more active deities and you frequently see them wandering around the map. Please them and they bless appropriate buildings and help you out. Annoy them and they make their displeasure apparent by setting assorted monsters on you. Each God has their own, with the line-up including Cerberus, the Hydra and Scylla (although not Charybdis). You can deal with these by sending in regular troops or by hiring heroes of your own – Odysseus, Achilles, Hercules, Jason, Kylie et al. Before you can recruit one of these strapping, oiled up fellows you must build a hall in their honour and fulfil certain criteria – Achilles will only help cities that have won great battles and Odysseus demands a well-run town before he’ll kick ass on its behalf. There are seven stories to play through, each split into several episodes, covering famous myths like the Trojan War and the Golden Fleece, as well as some ‘real’ battles between Athens and Sparta. The gameplay never changes, but the narrative is more interesting than Pharaoh’s dynasties or Caesar’s promotion ladder.Mb> Three ‘sandbox’ modes let you build the city of your dreams, provided that your dreams are Greek and correspond to Impressions’ views of what one should be like. Ahem.

Ultimately if you liked the earlier games this is more of the same with a few new twists, but not £30 worth. If you’re new to the series or a Greek aficionado then this is an excellent place to start, but if you stopped playing one of the earlier games after a few levels there’s nothing that’ll inspire you to play any more of this one.