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Children of the Nile review

Great

On February 12, 1989, a photographer attached to a Cambridge University archaeological expedition was setting up his tripod on a cliff overlooking the Valley of the Kings when he happened to notice something gold-coloured glittering in the rocks at his feet.

Dropping to his knees and digging with eager hands he proceeded to uncover not one but two screwed-up Caramac wrappers, some orange peel, a bag of vomit, and an empty Um Bongo carton (25cl).

I'd like to apologise to that photographer and say in my defence, the nearest litter-bin was around three miles away as the falcon flies, and heatstroke was messing with my mind.

In gaming terms there have been a fair few bags of sick dug out of Egypt's sun-warmed sands over the years.

Fortunately, for every Exhumed (PCG 42, 52%) exhumed, or The Mummy (PCG 93, 28%) there have also been solid gold Tutankhamen death masks like A Tale in the Desert II (PCG 143, 83%), Pharaoh (PCG 77, 83%), or Pharaoh-for-the-trilinear-filtered-generation, Immortal Cities Children of the Nile (PCG 145, TBA%).

Actually CotN deserves a lot more than lazy "It's Pharaoh in 3D!" gush. Yes, it's an absorbing city-nurturing game set in the time of Rameses and Ra worship.

Sure, it features pyramid construction that would test the patience of a Nobel Patience Prize winner (see 'The Long Haul'). OK, it was crafted by a lot of ex Impressions folk. Go beyond these superficialities however, and you find a very different experience, one far more in tune with history and far less interested in complexity for complexity's sake.

Social class and prestige are the new hieroglyphed touchstones of this cleaner, leaner, more historically-conscious design approach.

Reputation is represented in the game as a simple numerical tally; a tally influenced by factors like the amount of monumental masonry dotting your skyline, the scale and scope of your foreign exploits, and the skill with which you've publicised those exploits at home.

It's often linked to scenario victory conditions and always determines how many of the crucial educated workers your rule can support.

Potential sodbusters, shopkeepers, and craftsmen are two-a-penny in CotN (just whack down a few appropriate abodes and generally they will come). Keeping this mass of sweaty humanity happy and productive however, requires priest-staffed amenities like temples, hospitals, and mortuaries.

Much of the game's challenge rests in the difficult choice between using precious prestige slots for hoipolloi servicing priests, or using them to hire the tax-collectors, overseers, and army commanders that will ultimately generate more prestige slots.

It's a bit of a treadmill but one you'll find you don't want to get off in a hurry, not with a wonderfully vibrant, believable metropolis growing and maturing with each turn of the wheel.

Drag-selecting a random group of scurrying citizens in my current scenario, we get a fairly representative cross-section of a typical CotN town. Down by the hippo-haunted river edge (every map is nourished by Hapi's lifegiving liquor at some point) there are a gaggle of farmers making their way to mud flats to tend crops.

As in Pharaoh, the agrarian year is closely bound-up with the seasonal flood cycle of the Nile. (Good inundations mean bumper harvests the following year, bad ones empty granaries and rumbling bellies.) The difference here is that the suntanned sons of the soil pick field locations without player assistance.

A similar spirit of self reliance is exhibited by many of the other townsfolk toiling in the wetlands. Brick and papyrus makers, like the proprietors of the ten different shop types, prefer to gather raw materials personally (or ideally use servants or family members) rather than rely on a convoluted, easily disrupted supply chain.

It's rare that every day every craftsman and farmer has their nose to the grindstone, and in our lassoed group there are indeed a few malingerers shopping, seeking out medical and worship facilities, and scouting nearby groves for 'wild food' like dates and pomegranates (must check my bakery provision).

The bricklayer off to the hospital with a broken arm is likely to come home disappointed as the priest assigned to health duties is currently dealing with a dozen or so wounded warriors just returned from sacking a Nubian city.

Even if he doesn't get any treatment he will at least get to see something of the posher end of town: the imposing temples, the gorgeous statuary, the luxury goods outlets, the villas (home to the nobles that manage agriculture and provide the sons that eventually fill the top jobs), and, of course, the seat of power, the pharaoh's palace.

One of the quickest methods of generating prestige is spending bricks and food - CotN's equivalent of cash - on a few home improvements (frescoes, statues, Nationwide sun awnings, that sort of thing) for the royal residence. A very quick way to lose it is to neglect your own funeral arrangements.

In the 20 single scenarios, fifteen of which make up the contents of the three grand campaigns, time limits are rare, meaning that games can run for centuries and span the reigns of several kings.

When you periodically pop your sandals, if you don't have some sort of tomb ready, be it a humble brick 'mastaba' or a giant limestone pyramid, then your name will be Nile mud, and your mummy will wander the map for all eternity scaring small children.

Yes, the roaming mummy thing isn't completely true although it wouldn't be an altogether bad thing if it was. Apart from the odd street protest and small-scale enemy raid (see 'Into each reign a little rain must fall') CotN is rather short of drama and difficulty.

With military activity conducted off-screen and with Pharaoh's admittedly fairly unrealistic critter plagues, firestorms, and building collapses banished, there's not much here to bring about defeat or push your pulse rate from 'pipe and slippers' to 'panic stations!'.

Malaria outbreak? Make sure the apothecary is manned. Strikes over shortages? Build a bakery and a few shops. Prestige ebbing away? Knock up a mastaba or two.

After a few days of play it's still utterly mesmerising growing your city and watching its populace live-out their intricate, interconnected lives, but it's all, well, a bit too comfortable, a bit too easy.

It doesn't help that the Nile dwellers are a remarkably tolerant lot (quite prepared to live cheek-by-jowl with brickworks and mortuaries, for instance) and that their needs change very little as settlements swell.

But perhaps I'm being too critical. CotN's plate-spinning might be relatively stress free, its scenarios a little samey, and some of its rules somewhat opaque (despite tutorials and a detailed integrated help system there are still buildings whose function I don't totally understand) but it's been compelling enough to keep me monogamous - games-wise - for the last four or five days.

With tougher difficulty levels, a more interesting martial dimension, the exclusive relationship might well have continued for longer.

As hinted at earlier, CotN's pitched battles consist of a desert-dry odds sheet, some quick behind-the-scenes number crunching, and a brief victory/defeat announcement. It's pretty uninspired especially when you consider that Tilted Mill had a fine 3D engine at their disposal.

A riposte to all those ill-informed media pundits who characterise computer games as violent and instantly gratifying, CoTN is going to be too slow-burning and somnolent for some.

I'll keep playing for some time yet, but look forward to an add-on that introduces frog plagues, grave robbing, chariot mayhem, and a mummification sub-game. If you're reading this, Tilted Mill, feel free to poach any of these excellent and practical ideas.

Children of the Nile is out now for PC

Moving at a more restful pace than your average game, some may find Children of the Nile a little slow and unchallenging. But when you've put in the work, seeing your population grow and prosper is certainly rewarding, engrossing and even a little educational

More Info

Available Platforms: PC

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