“Don't pick things now; they will bear fruit later”. Bit of Sumerian wisdom for you there, about the importance of patience. It’s wisdom I wish the developers of Nebuchadnezzar, the new Pharaoh-like city builder about ancient Mesopotamia, had kept in mind. Because their game is 70 percent of a masterpiece. But then, give a loaf-bearded Babylonian king a delicious date that’s only 70 percent ripe, and what will he do? He will roar at you in Cuneiform and hurl a lion-hunting spear through your thorax, that’s what. Because what you have given him is basically just a massive, rubbish olive.
Nebuchadnezzar is not a rubbish olive. It’s very pleasant, and certainly reasonable value for 16 quid. But it comes so close to delivering the city building holy grail - a proper successor to the old Impressions city builders at last - that the shortfall is agonising. It would be easier to deal with if it was just an unimaginative reskin of Pharaoh or Caesar III. But no; Nebs fixes some of the most annoying fundamental systems in those classics, with astonishing elegance, and does new things besides. It has an astonishing setting, it looks splendid, and it’s remarkably polished. But unfortunately, there’s just not much in it.
You may already know that Nebuchadnezzar features customisable monuments, and I am happy to say they’re a brilliant bit of game design. The gradual construction of stone megaprojects was always the most satisfying bit of the later Impressions games, but it was always a linear business: the monuments built themselves, with your job being only to ensure a steady flow of materials and labour. Being able to design them block by block like megalithic lego, therefore, is a delight.
This feature solves a second problem, too, that makes it even more impressive. Later missions in Pharaoh or Emperor often involved long, dull periods of waiting, as your lumbering economy gradually accrued enough of some vital resource to get you through a developmental bottleneck or milestone. That’s the case here too, but no longer do you have to just stare vacantly at the city - you can potter at the design of your monuments, in a lovely construction minigame, as your bakeries and date farms tick over.
More impressive still is the tiny, yet utterly transformative change made to what is probably the defining feature of the Pharaoh-like: the walkers who wander around your city, distributing the goods required for housing to get posher. In the Impressions games, they wandered along routes set by the game, leading to fussy, restrictive planning as you tried to build around the capricious logic of simulated water carriers. Now, you set their routes. That’s the change. It’s fantastic, even though it entails a bit of micromanagement when you rebuild an area.
Despite the less arbitrary constraints on civic planning in Nebs, mind, it’s no easier overall. Nebs’ maps are surprisingly small, meaning space is tight, and workers have brutally uncompromising standards about how far they will walk to get things from warehouses. The game gives you tools to work around this in the form of caravanserais, which arrange donkey trains to move goods to the places where they need to be, but they’re an additional layer of complexity to manage.
"It feels exactly as tough as it should be, and there’s a satisfaction to solving it."
What this all leads to is a game that feels almost like a puzzle game about logistics, in which just keeping a couple of thousand of citizens provided with bread, pottery and goat’s milk can be a major headache. I like that! This is a game about the start of civilization after all, where cities and agriculture were new, weird ideas. It feels exactly as tough as it should be, and there’s a satisfaction to solving it.
But that’s about it. Beyond a surprisingly brilliant soundtrack of ambient Mesopotamian belters, there’s not a great deal more to talk about. The game, in its entirety, comprises twelve campaign missions, nearly half of which are fairly brief tutorial setups. More features come in as you progress: there’s some basic trade with the outside world, and the challenge of dealing with wealthy citizens, a la Zeus and Emperor, but it’s a scarce setup.
There are temples, but there’s no religion. There’s no entertainment. No war. No disease. No taxes, even. Admittedly, there’s no fire or crime either, and I do not miss the requirement to spam otherwise purposeless buildings in order to prevent constant, petty disasters. But overall, it makes you even more glad you’ve got your monuments to customise, because other than that, it’s just warehouse planning all the way down.
And for all the polish and the lack of bugs, there’s also a general lack of flavour. Mission intro texts feel like copy-pastes from C19th history books, while the text that appears elsewhere is almost determinedly free of any colour or passion. There’s very little ambient animation, no citizens in the streets besides the workers, and no workers scurrying over your monuments as they go up. It all leaves you struggling to feel immersed in the period, in the way that the music and the customisable ziggurats deserve.
Perhaps this is all a giant reflection on the fact that almost all of the ancient Cuneiform script that has survived into the present takes the form of clay tablets used for recording transactions and inventories. “Heh,” Nebs might be saying, “what if that’s just all the Mesopotamians were interested in?”. Or perhaps it’s just a game that was released too early.
I suppose I should be careful what I wish for. All too often, I’ve bemoaned the flood of city builders entering early access as super-duper-pre-alpha builds, with big ambitions but no real sense that they’ll ever be finished. Now Nebuchadnezzar has come out of nowhere, fully formed, and I wish with all my heart that this was just day one of its early access period. With a bit more work this game would have the potential to surpass its inspirations, but as it stands, it’s just a nice weekend in the bronze age.