Usually when I come off of playing a game for 15 or 20 hours I have a very clear opinion of what I thought about it. It sucked - every hour after the first was awful. I liked it; I wanted to play more. It was nothing special – utterly undifferentiated from dozens of other games I’ve played in the past few years. Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War doesn’t fit neatly into any of those categories. It’s not like anything I’ve played before. After years of seeing hybrid RTS games which include a hero RPG element (Warlords Battlecry, Warcraft III), this is the first hybrid RTS that includes a hero action element, kind of a third person shooter similar to X-Com Enforcer or Dynasty Warriors. Going in I didn’t think that I would like such a mix – like my peas and potatoes on the plate I generally like to keep my strategy and my action separate – but riding on the back of your hero as he hacks his way through a couple of hundred archers is a strangely satisfying experience. If only they hadn’t done such an awful job with the AI and controls and if they had actually done something to differentiate the heroes from one another, they really might have had something.
Set in the ancient world, you have the choice of commanding the Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, and the Romans. They’re pretty standard RTS fair, having only a few units and technologies to set them apart from one another. The Egyptians, for example, have a powerful battle elephant, while the Greeks have a flamethrower-like device called a fire raiser. Everyone has a cavalry, a archer, a pikeman, that kind of thing, and there’s the usual rock/paper/scissors approach in that pikemen are strong against cavalry but weak against archers, archers are strong against pikemen but weak against cavalry. All of this is almost a step back to the first Age of Empires, and in most ways it plays much the same. You have peasants collect the games two resources (gold, wood), and use them to construct buildings and raise an army, go forth and smite your enemies. There are, in fact, only two things in the RTS half of the game that we haven’t seen a thousand times before. One, by exploring and winning battles you collect the game’s unofficial third resource: glory. Glory is used to level up your hero (which pretty just means more hitpoints and more stamina) and hire advisors, which is the way to access the game’s tech tree, as each advisor you hire grants a technology improvement like increased unit hit points or attack damage. Secondly, the naval units in the game are much more involved in the overall strategy of the game. Boats serve as training stations for new units when docked, and there is extensive ship-to-ship combat with ramming and boarding. And the crew and units onboard a rammed ship and even try to swim toward the shore and safety! If only the AI didn’t leave the boats spinning hopelessly in place most of the time.
The AI is so awful I could devote an entire paragraph to it, so here goes. The ships, as I mentioned, spend a great deal of time spinning in place, even doing a maneuver that you would think would be as easy as running it into the beach to unload takes an inordinately long time. When doing it under fire, it becomes doubly frustrating. Boarding and ramming are more difficult still. Units on land get hung up on trees and rocks and buildings and ladders, often seem to ignore nearby targets regardless of their aggression setting, and though they stand around in formation as soon as the battle starts that all immediately goes to hell. Units need a level of continual micromanaging that I haven’t seen in an RTS in some time – clumping them up, getting them all faced the right way, and often hundreds of units are involved. I never had nearly this much trouble with the Total War series. It’s a good thing that the computer AI is even worse, meandering units around the field pointlessly well in range of your archers and ballista, and allowing you ample opportunity to pick your battles with only one group at a time, while a much larger force capable of handily slaughtering you waits patiently nearby.
Much like the rest of this game, the third person hero action could have been so much better, but isn’t. Anytime during the game that you like (provided your hero has enough stamina) you can enter hero mode. In hero mode the camera is positioned somewhere over your hero’s shoulder, the controls are the standard FPS controls (W, A, S, D, mouse for pointing and shooting). And you just run him (or her) around, scything people and buildings, horses, pretty much anything that gets in your way. Stamina in burned either attacking or getting hit, and when you run out of stamina you drop back into ordinary RTS mode again. Sounds neat on paper, doesn’t it? It probably looked like fun in the development meetings also. The largest problem is that all the heroes are the same. Some are faster, some are slower, some are better and range, and some are better in melee, but they don’t have any specific attacks or abilities to set them apart from each other. It would have been nice to see some special combo attacks as well, but they’re not here either. Finally, as bad as the game AI is in RTS mode, it’s horrible in hero mode where you can make your hero move in certain ways and make the enemy heroes actually run in circles – try it, it’s fun!
The single player game consists of two moderately long scenarios – one you play as the Greeks and one as the Egyptians. The cutscenes are rendered using the game engine. They’re rambling, incoherent, badly acted, and for the most part almost unwatchable. Several of the missions are fixed in the third person view, so if you don’t like the twitch action of those parts, it’s going to put a damper on the campaigns as a whole. You can also join against the AI in a skirmish mode, but the lousy enemy AI pretty much puts a damper on that. At least in the campaigns you have some scripted action to give you some challenge. Finally, you can go online against other people. I found it relatively easy to do. It was a little laggy, but I’ve been having some problems with my Internet connection for several days now, so perhaps that was on my end. The only thing that made it different from any other RTS out there was everyone waiting for the perfect moment to unleash their hero and turn the tide, but typically what would happen is one person would hero up, and then suddenly everyone would leading to a frenzied free-for-all. Still, a hero used at the right time by a skilled person could seriously alter the tide of a battle.
The graphics are a little neon, especially considering the era they are supposed to represent. The buildings are blocky, but the units are well detailed. As a whole I’d have to say they look OK if a little out of date. Voice acting is poor, but the battle sounds are actually pretty good, and the music is sort of epic military without becoming annoying.
More could have been done with this game. A little more creativity, a lot more programming, and I believe they could have had something quite good on their hands. I’d even go so far as to say that they’ve successfully created a new hybrid RTS genre, one that I’d like to see more of in the future. But a lot of corners were cut in making this title, and the studio that was making it went bankrupt and then it was picked up by someone else and rushed to market – and it shows, painfully.