A cursory glance at Rise of Nations, published by Microsoft and developed by the aptly named Big Huge Games, will suggest yet another real-time strategy title dealing with civilizations, empires and cultures in the vein of the perennially popular Age of Empires series from Ensemble. It is a title, however, that bears more resemblance to the recent Empire Earth, as it enables you to take a nation from a primitive tribal society to bustling modernity. There are obvious ties to the tenets established by Sid Meier's Civilization franchise. You'll be researching upgrades like Immunization or Herbal Lore, all of which have small modifiers attached to enhance the efficiency of your nation. Building Wonders of the world will do the same thing except on a larger scale, and while none of the research items or bonus structures will give you a free ride completely, enough of them will let you accrue substantial advantages over your enemy. These features work in tandem with your nation's inherent bonuses and at every level, Big Huge Games incorporates nuances that help cater to everyone's playing style. My playing style commanded a good use of wealth (gold), as the units I built required more of these resources. Thus, playing the Nubians allowed me to get access to commerce advances early, letting me build caravans and merchants to generate enough wealth for my endeavors.
Rise of Nations is also a real-time strategy title where you don't necessarily have to win by outright elimination of your enemy (although that choice continues to remain). Games can be set up or assigned to you with varying objectives. You may have to survive for a certain amount of time. You might have to sack a nation's capital, ignoring all of its satellite cities. Researching World Government (judging from the logo, the once upon a time vision for the United Nations) can end a game immediately. Repeated use of nuclear weapons will bring forth armageddon. Games can be won by score too. And here, economic advances and research are important; even military research for pacifist games as Rise of Nations incorporates a growing population limit not in the various towns, but in the Military research arm itself.
There is one victory mode that calls for the seizure of territory. In a non-military fashion, you can extend your nation's borders by building forts, expanding with cities until you start budging against your neighbor's interests. In a military fashion, this would involve outright conflict. It goes without saying that this is not one of those real-time strategy titles where victory without military action is dull, unfulfilling and unexciting (let's hope that no world leader in today's era is thinking of that). What's more, all these game types can be randomly generated for single player and multiplayer setups, with the AI consciously participating in all of them. That will certainly make Rise of Nations attractive long after its May release.
The core of Rise of Nations, though, is actually a sophisticated turn-based single player campaign. In the fashion of Westwood's
Emperor: Battle for Dune and Total War's Medieval: Total War, a world map is presented at the beginning of the campaign in Risk-like fashion.
It is a very simple setup. Capturing supply centers will net you army figurines that let you launch attacks. Only one offensive action can be launched by an army at each time. The currency used to upgrade provinces and conduct diplomacy is kept straightforward and called tribute.
However, the world map gives Rise of Nations unprecedented scope compared to something that a linear campaign cannot give in similar titles. Sacking an enemy capital will let you take over an entire nation and all of its provinces. Adjacent provinces with allied or friendly troops will commit periodic reinforcements to help tilt the scales to your favor. Dynamic objectives are generated for each battle, which of course, takes place in the real-time strategy engine. If you attack someone's capital, you have ninety minutes to sack and take it over. If someone attacks yours, you have to defend it for a certain period of time. Attacking neutral (barbarian) countries will involve some pretty interesting objectives, like a show of force to convince them to kowtow to you.
The age your nation achieves is actually independent of the individual battles in the single player campaign. You begin in the Ancient era and then as the turns pass, you'll move forward to the Information age.
This prevents you from achieving all upgrades during a single battle and then proceeding to trounce the entire world with your nuclear warheads.
Each nation also holds a bonus card and they have the option to purchase more cards that can be invoked in specific battles. The bonuses, again, are not earth shattering but combined with everything at your disposal (Wonders, rare resources, research upgrades, etc.), they'll accrue into a distinct advantage on the battlefield.
There are a lot of things happening in Rise of Nations at any one time.
In addition to keeping track of your economic, research and military endeavors, you might actually find yourself forgetting to practice the art of tactical combat. Rise of Nations feels like a title designed by people who have actually played real-time strategy titles. When it comes time to upgrade small cities into large ones, these are done automatically and a corresponding graphic change will signify that on screen. Air units, shoddily implemented in most real-time strategy titles, are elegantly put together here. One click of the airport and you can recall all your planes for grouping. Another click will let you scramble your airplanes to defend the surrounding area. The ability to set an air mission waypoint for your planes to patrol, as well as a persistent flag to keep the mission active indefinitely, is something that only frustrated real-time strategy players could come up with. This is a testament to the care Big Huge Games has put into this game. Other amenities include advance orders to let you prioritize the tasks of your idle citizen workers. You might have a mine open as well as a farm but want the idle citizens to go straight to the mine. Queue up a bunch of citizens and toggle the preference to have them go to the mine first.
Plenty of tooltips (a Microsoft standard I'm sure) help explain every feature and option in the game. This was particularly useful when setting up multiplayer titles as the tips effectively eliminated the need to refer to the manual. Finally, an involving tutorial set in multiple eras of history will ease even novices of the strategy genre.
I've already briefly touched upon the multiplayer features. There is a staggering amount of options to be had without even touching the included scenario and script editors. You can opt to have a computer control the same nation as you. Pairs of human players can control the same nation. With full diplomacy in effect, you can ask AI players to participate in your wars against other human and AI players. Some of the multiplayer game types, like Wonder or Territory victory, will cause last minute scrambles and massive attacks and counterattacks near the end game. A game type called musical chairs eliminates the worse performing player by score at a pre-defined time. This is also another game type that speeds multiplayer games up and adds a certain sense of urgency or panic.
The map generator, which can create a variety of maps, isolating you on islands, putting you in the desert or in the snow, is nothing short of amazing. You're never stuck in a starting area where you're too cramped or at a loss of an essential resource. Quite simply: the random map generator in Rise of Nations is what Diablo is to random dungeons.
These features won't work without balance though. Remarkably, despite all of the complexity involved, this is not a problem in Rise of
Nations. Even more remarkable is the fact that Big Huge Games is able to strike this kind of balance in their inaugural title. Consider the fact that Ensemble took three iterations and some expansion packs to get to the point of Age of Mythology and this becomes an accomplishment that deserves commendation. It's also something that Empire Earth was not able to do.
In the technical department, Rise of Nations is impressive. It offers three zoom levels, a wide variety of terrain, landscape and intricate animation of unit types. The sound effects are equally stellar too.
Frequently, titles that span so long tend to work backwards to forwards. That is, the ancient era has the best sounds and animations and the tanks, cannons and missiles seem tacked on at the end. This doesn't happen with Rise of Nations at all. In fact, the most enjoyable parts for me took place after the advent of gunpowder. The wail of air raid sirens during an airborne attack or the sudden change to black and white during a nuclear blast are some of the most vivid, par excellence, in a game of this genre.
If there was fault in Rise of Nations, it would be with the demand on computers. It takes plenty of muscle to get this running smoothly at higher resolutions. When those six to eight player games hit full tilt with a population limit of two hundred each, there is noticeable slowdown. This is exaggerated in multiplayer games over the net.
That's a minor complaint compared to the insurmountable number of positives found in Rise of Nations. If it weren't for the release of Warcraft III, Age of Mythology and Command and Conquer: Generals, one following the other, you would be looking at the de facto real-time strategy title. While Rise of Nations has no long lineage of titles to draw from, and certainly not the same amount of fans, it is, as I stated before, the rise of another real-time strategy franchise for Microsoft. No current strategy title can give you the clash between horseback cavalry and industrial age tanks and howitzers as compelling as what Rise of Nations brings to the table.