Perhaps it's wearing off.
I've been playing violent video games for most of my life. So according to a whole slew of expensive quack psychologists, I should probably be constantly eager for death and blood. Look out, I could snap at any minute. No, really. I swear.
But the other day I sat down at a computer in the vast Game Revolution Compound, and had the sudden urge not to destroy (don't worry, I'll eventually get over it). My eyes glazed over when I read the list of first-person shooters available right on the desktop: Counterstrike, Undying, Serious Sam... but none of those were what I wanted. I yearned to build rather than to tear down. I get like that sometimes.
So I went to the game shelves and found one that didn't get so much free advertising from the media, a city building game from Sierra called Zeus: Master of Olympus. I figured not only would I get to create, but I could also write about the game for all you other nice folks out there who didn't snap into a violent rage today. I hear that there are still one or two of you left.
And, Zeus, it turns out, is a pleasant surprise. It's a laid-back, cartoonish game with surprising depth. But the first surprise was that I didn't get to be Zeus.
The game is deveoped by Impressions, the ones responsible for other building-strategy games like Caesar and Pharoah. It's part Sim City, part Civilization, and just a bit of capitalism thrown in for good measure. Despite the fact that they look like little cartoons, those ancient Greeks were pretty sharp. They invented democracy, doctors, wine, and fraternity houses. So as the ruler of a 'new' ancient Greek city, you have your work cut out for you.
Like the Sim City games you need to build roads, zone areas for housing and maintain utilities and public buildings. And like Sim City, you have no control over your little virtual city dwellers as they go about their daily business. However, unlike those "Sims" each and every little Greek moving around is actually doing something. Houses need water, but they don't get it unless the water delivery man actually goes there and delivers the water. First, build enough fountains throughout your city and then, if you wanted to, you could watch him make every delivery with a big jug of water.
This is only the first sign of the game's complexity. Food, for example, is even more complicated. Build a farm to produce wheat... easy enough. But to get it into people's mouths, the wheat must first be delivered to granaries for distribution, then taken to the city agoras (markets), and finally brought from the markets to people's homes by the peddlers. And that's just for food.
You'll also need maintenance workers, healers, guards, philosophers, actors, noblemen, vintners, olive-oil makers, stonecutters, artisans, armorers, tax collectors, sailors, noblemen, horse breeders, traders, athletes and more. You can raise and lower city taxes or wages , manage your unemployment rate, trade with neighboring cities, or make war with them.
However, all this is not quite as difficult as it sounds. You just have to build the buildings, and those crafty little Greeks take care of everything else. Make sure your city has a good balance of structures, and everything practically runs itself.
Of course, this is still a complicated game. Having to learn the uses of each structure and figuring out how to ensure good resource flow is demanding. And often, it's more work than fun.
You'll also need some heroes and the benevolent gaze of at least one of the pantheon of Greek gods, just about all of whom make an appearance in Zeus. Hercules and Jason, Aphrodite and Aries; they're all there, and they all want temples. Just don't piss off the wrong gods, because unlike your contemporary hands-off, holier-than-thou gods, the old Greek ones weren't afraid of showing up in person and kicking a little ass.
The first mission makes you the founder of ancient Thebes, a city which you will continue to grow through the entire campaign. I liked this feature a lot after playing too many strategy games where you have to start every new level with just one peasant. You never lose all your hard work in Zeus, and can grow your city to become the wonder of the Hellenic world. And Thebes is only the first city of many to manage.
There's even a smattering of real Greek mythology and history in there, but it's all mixed with made-up stuff, so don't trust it for a test or an erudite fact at a cocktail party. Speaking of learning, you won't learn much from the thick but fanciful manual. Figuring out the nitty gritty will be left mostly up to you.
In the end, Zeus is a nice diversion and has enough missions to last you until the next Bronze age. Plus you can always just build cities free-form. But I found my trigger finger getting itchy at the end of the day. Zeus is certainly engrossing, but it's just not quite fun enough.
I'm sick of sacrificing chickens to Zeus. Now I want to be Zeus and hurl some lightning around. Well, maybe not. As I recall, he had to eat his father to get the job.