Y2K A.D. meet Y2K B.C.

Isn’t it amazing how much hype accompanied the arrival of the year 2000? The fact that a simple flip of the calendar page could cause such mass hysteria seems a little silly in retrospect, doesn’t it? As usual, all that was needed was a little perspective, something the real-time strategy game Pharaoh provides by the pyramid-full.

With missions taking place from around 3200 to 1350 B.C., this game demonstrates that success involves thinking in the long-term. Sure, a worldwide computer meltdown could have caused problems, but that pales in comparison to trying to create and maintain an entire civilization.

Egyptian civilization is the perfect setting for a strategy game, with its cycle of the flooding Nile setting a rhythm to the passing years. With the receding of each flood, the rich soil would be sown with the seeds of not only crops, but of the continuation and advancement of a great civilization. It is your job throughout the missions to create thriving cities, with the Nile agriculture usually as the foundation.

From simple farming communities to elaborate desert metropolises, Pharaoh takes us on a journey through not only Egypt, but through time as well. And for the most part, the game is a decently realistic simulation of what we know about early Egypt.

You have your papyrus makers who use reeds gathered from the banks of the Nile, masons dedicated to building monuments with stones either quarried locally or traded. And of course, in a nod to Egypt’s greatest contribution to life on this planet, you have the brewer’s of beer using grains grown in the Nile flood plain.

Some things however are notably absent. In this simulation, slavery in Egypt is not mentioned anywhere, despite the fact that it was a major part of the area’s economy. As rich in detail as the game is in most other aspects, this seems a curious oversight. Was it left out of the game because of political correctness? If so, the end result is a pleasant enough recreation of life in Egypt that has all the reality and grittiness of a Disney theme park.

On the plus side, the game is visually stimulating and entertaining to sit back and watch. However, what ever you do, don’t do that. Sitting back and watching, rather than constantly roving around the city to fix problems, will end up with you sitting and watching your city succumb to destructive forces very quickly.

Because of the complexity of the game, this is definitely not a simulation you want to play without reading through the manual first. An unexpected bonus is the detailed and well-written historical material provided that helps put the game in context and gets you in a "Pharaoh" state of mind. That same complexity can also seem like a mummy’s curse on occasion.

With the dizzyingly complex interactions between the various infrastructure elements, such as agriculture and manufacturing, you may find yourself confused very quickly. A simple mistake early on in the design of your city can have you swearing and pulling your hair an hour later. The difference between a bug and a "feature" can sometimes be very hard to discern in Pharaoh, a phenomenon becoming more and more common as real-time strategy games simulate ever more convoluted behaviors.

The game also provides some new twists on real-time strategy gaming. Besides the agriculture model based on the Nile flooding, it also has naval warfare and the ability to build very large structure over a considerable time period.

I also want to add a quick word on the land and naval warfare elements of the game. Impressions used what I call the point and shoot method of warfare. Basically you build up your military into units and when the time comes to use them you tell them where to go and pray, because the level of control over their actions is not very exact. However, with the amount of control you have over everything else in the game, you’ll probably be too busy to really general your troops around anyway.

Looking through the message boards on the game’s website, www.pharaoh1.com, quickly revealed that I was not alone in this assessment. Many of the threads seemed to revolve around determining what were bugs and what was simply the result of the rules that the game operates under. The website provides walkthroughs for the missions, which can be very helpful. And if you get really stuck, the word is that cheat codes for the game will be released sometime in February.

Impressions Games, the creators of Pharaoh, also brought us the Caesar trilogy and have described this game as a sort of "prequel" to those popular titles. Pharaoh certainly shows a depth of understanding and experience when it comes to real-time strategy games. Once you start playing, it is an easy game to find yourself getting lost in.

A piece of advice about gameplay is probably warranted as well. Because of how the game handles the distribution of goods and services, give a lot of thought to roads and building only what buildings you need. If you start adding too many extras, you’ll suddenly find your city’s citizens either stuck in the wrong place or wandering around aimlessly because they can’t find what they need.

All in all, Pharaoh is an extremely entertaining game. As with all games of this type, a certain level of commitment is required, but in the end it definitely delivers. The missions that come with the game can be extremely challenging, sometimes maddeningly so. But if it were easy, what would be the point, right? The website also provides some other missions and contests to test your skills.

Pharaoh’s complexity is both its strength and its weakness. It’s own successes only brings into contrast its failings. However, because of its excellent graphics, interesting gaming elements and everything else, it certainly deserves 4 and 1/2 GiN Gems. Any game where you get to make beer, rule for thousands of years and become a Pharaoh clearly is something special!

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