Summary: Big Huge Games' Big Huge Blockbuster, Rise of Nations, has arrived on store shelves across the country. But should you buy this strange real-time nation-simulator? What are these cities and what are they doing in an RTS? Is it real-time Civilization, or Age of Empires with diplomacy? Brett tackles this quirky review and tells us why he likes it!
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Feudal System
Rise of Nations is a very good conquer-through-the-ages RTS with a very boring name. Lead designer Brian Reynolds may have helped give birth to classics like Civilization II and Alpha Centauri, but heís no hell when it comes to the Madison Avenue name game. You couldnít come up with a safer, more generic title if you sought out the dullest nouns and pronouns in Merriam-Webster. The only benefit to the bland title is that at least people arenít going to be misled. Anyone who carries this box to checkout has to know that the game inside features old-fashioned historical strategizing like Bruce Shelley and Sid Meier used to make.
Thatís about it for the negatives. Rise of Nations may have a moniker thatís as pallid as day-old dishwater, but the gameplay is as vivid as an old Technicolor movie. Reynolds and the rest of the development team at Big Huge Games have done a fantastic job reviving the big-history RTS after the dreary snoozefest that was Empire Earth. While I love trebuchets as much as the next guyóprobably more than the next guy, unless the next guy has also considered hacking together a real one out of pressure-treated wood scavenged from the crumbling deck in his backyardóitís something of a minor miracle that any game could again get me interested in even the coolest of medieval siege weapons. I dove into this game hating even the thought of spending more hours researching the feudal system and assembling the arquebusÖ and surprisingly, I didnít come up for air for many, many hours.
Derivative in All the Right Spots
The game is certainly derivative of classics like Age of Empires, though itís derivative in all of the right spots. Basics should be as familiar as the face in the mirror to RTS veterans. There are 18 nations included, spanning human history from the ancient Romans and Greeks to comparatively modern civilizations like the British and Germans. Obscure peoples such as the Bantu, Mayans, and Nubians are featured as well. All come with special skills. The Chinese can build citizens instantly and receive free health upgrades. Russian national borders increase with each Age. Greeks have cheaper libraries and universities. Spain gets a heavy ship with each new dock. And so on. All of the bonuses nicely reflect historical realities.
Each nation starts as a humble village and rises through the ages to become a great power, able to do battle with the other states for dominance of the world. Farms, mines, bows, tanks, and nuclear weapons all figure into your plans at one time or another. You build, you gather resources, you trade, you research scientific and cultural technologies, you make diplomatic alliances, you declare war. You can play solo against the computer in one-off matches, start up a campaign, or go online with GameSpy Arcade in search of the deadliest gameólonesome Internet geeks with a bag of Cheetos in one hand and a water-damaged copy of The Art of War in the other. There arenít any major surprises here for those who have even a passing acquaintanceship with this genre. If youíre somewhat in the know about the Age of Empires archetype, you can dispense with the tutorials (which are very good, incidentally) and dig into that comfortable clash of civilizations.
SIDEBAR: A Russian winter is nothing to scoff at.
Sex Dreams With John Philip Sousa
Of course, there are exceptions. Even though Rise of Nations can be classified as an Age of Empires clone, it isnít a ripoff. Gameplay is varied in lots of ways. For starters, all of human history is represented. You get everything from caveman days when courtship was more club over the head than tasteful arrangement from FTD to the oh-so-happy current era of nuclear proliferation and artificial intelligence. The scale is very similar to that seen in Empire Earth, although everything here fits together better. All eight AgesóAncient, Classical, Medieval, Gunpowder, Enlightenment, Industrial, Modern, and Informationóhave been carefully structured so that the major advancements gained when going from one to another arenít so dramatic that the game mechanics are thrown out of whack.
Itís hard to explain this to someone who hasnít played the game, but there is a near-seamless progression to the transitions from one Age to the next. Where Empire Earth jerked along in fits and starts, Rise of Nations flows. It seems totally natural to guide a civilization through a few thousand years in a couple of hours. Though going from musketeers at the 30-minute mark to ICBMs at the 75-minute mark might look ridiculous in print, Reynolds and his team pull it off. Play balance and cunning computer AI keep everything moving together so that you never see those ridiculous spear-versus-howitzer slaughters too common in overly adventurous RTS games. Lots of victory conditions allow each civilization to concentrate on its strengths and still win the day. Even the visuals and music contribute to the elegant presentation. Graphical design is impressive, with obvious yet subtle differences to differentiate between each civilizationís buildings. Music is impressive in an understated way. It often sounds like the incidental music from a Merchant-Ivory flick, a real relief when you consider how often the tunes in these sorts of games come off like a John Philip Sousa wet dream.
SIDEBAR: Brian Reynolds is an unassuming-looking chap.
Crying Over Copenhagen
City development is another reason why national development seems natural and unforced. Instead of simply building wherever and however you please, Rise of Nations forces you to construct separate cities within strictly-defined national borders. Structures are also limited in each city. You canít have more than five farms, for instance, and your scholarly endeavors must be confined to a single university. Commerce is also boosted by having caravans ply trade routes between your cities. To have a healthy economy, you have to trade, and to trade effectively you have to have at least three or four cities spreading around the wealth. These factors force you to spread out as quickly as possible, so you can establish an interconnected system of settlements and expand your civilization gradually, in a way that seems awfully organic for an RTS. Every city ends up with its own character, too, a realistic touch in a genre where weíre used to building up an anonymous main base with a bunch of equally nondescript ancillary military complexes dotted around the map. They even have to be seized and assimilated by enemy forces, not simply razed or conquered. This can lead to emotional attachments. I havenít been this distraught over losing computer-game cities since my Empire Deluxe marathons back in university. (Empire Deluxe in college? How are they treating you at the retirement home? -ed.)
This system also encourages intelligent gameplay. You cannot get lost in Rise of Nations, because there is a straightforward chain of command pushing you from one step to the next, all linked to the national borders/city-first concepts. In order to build cities, you have to collect resources. So youíre forced to create mines, lumber yards, oil rigs, and so on. You also have to research Civics technologies, as there are strict limits on the number of cities you can handle, so you get familiar with the tech tree and its importance to the grand scheme of things. National borders encourage you to build at a sensible pace. You cannot cross a border without declaring war, an act that can be costly in the early stages of a game. This alone can make you apply the brakes. And units suffer serious attrition damage when they invade enemy territory without the assistance of supply vehicles. Although there are many ways to play Rise of Nations, all of these ways involve strategizing. Going pell-mell into a tank rush from the word Go will get you murdered again and again. You canít fool around with the artificial intelligence here, either. It plays exactly as itís billed in each of the six difficulty settings, giving you breaks and screwing you to the wall where indicated. Moderate and above will provide just about anyone with a challenge, although you can expect the odd miscue such as computer nations ignoring valuable resources at all levels. I watched nations ignore caches of gems and pools of oil right next to their capital cities.
SIDEBAR: The illustrious John Philip Sousa.
Knee-Deep in the Chinese
Combat is the usual precise house of cards where you have to balance each unitís strengths against its weaknesses. The click factor can be fairly high, although proper planning will drastically reduce the amount of chaos youíll have to deal with during battle. Knowing what every unit can do and scouting your enemies before building an army is imperative. I learned this the hard way in my second game, when my heretofore invincible German Tiger tanks encountered a bunch of wimpy looking British helicopters en route to blitzkrieging London. Needless to say, every unit has its Achilles Heel, and tanks donít much care for helicopters. Yet even though there are a lot of combat considerations to keep in mind, you donít need to be constantly poring over at the manual as a menu box shows you whatís good against what whenever you click on a unit. I never had to go hunting for information of any sort. All of my questions were instantly answered, via either a quick click or a glance to one corner of the main screen. At the same time, I never felt overwhelmed with extraneous data. The only drawback is that some events are announced with a little more oomph than is necessary. While itís nice to know that the Japanese have just finished building the Kremlin, this bulletin doesnít need to blanket the center of the map in the middle of my battle against the Aztecs.
There are some weaknesses in the overall package, though, that donít show up when youíre knee-deep in conquering the Chinese in skirmish Quick Battle mode. Most glaringly, there is no proper campaign. In place of the usual scripted campaigns, Rise of Nations features Conquer the World. For all intents and purposes, this is a special mode of play that is a lot like Risk, right down to bonus cards. You guide the fortunes of a nation on a global map, choosing each turn whether to go to war, fortify your existing provinces, or simply wait. Deciding to do something typically involves moving an army into enemy territory, whereupon youíre presented with a random scenario to play out in the standard interface screen.
All Fine, All Good
Which is all fine and good, I suppose, and you can insert all the usual great things that people say about dynamic campaigns here, but I found most of the scenarios dull. Much of the complexity of one-off scenarios is drained so you can meet simple objectives, like taking an enemy city in 90 minutes or holding out against enemy attack for 12 minutes. These goals donít feature a lot of room to maneuver, so there isnít a focus on diplomacy, or any other intricacy prominent in skirmish play. Also, you advance very slowly, often remaining in a single Age for an hour or more. Yawns all around, unless you get off on building the same three or four units ad nauseum.
Multiplayer mode is another sore thumb, of sorts. Rise of Nations uses GameSpy Arcade for setting up online contests, and this doesnít cut it today. No offense to GameSpy Arcade, as it is a pretty good matching system, but we shouldnít have to wade through lists of prospective opponents of similar skill level and interest. Like so many other recent strategy games (WarCraft III, Age of Mythology), you should be able to automatically get into a game by clicking a couple of buttons. This is a real annoyance, although there are so many people playing the game online right now that you should be able to find competition just by buzzing your gaming friends.
SIDEBAR: Actually, I (ie, Jakub, the dude who writes the Random Facts in most game articles) donít think there are ballistae in RoNÖ
A Great Concept Revisited
SIDEBAR: Well well, Mitsubishiís stunning drivetrain reliability record isnít getting any better with the LanEvo 8.
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