Everyone’s heard the old expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Unfortunately, most expansion packs attempt to tinker too much with the formula of their predecessors, patching major issues while providing little innovation to the gameplay. But what happens when you decide to release an expansion for a game that’s relatively flawless? Turns out you get have a solid foundation of accessible gameplay with a number of new features that helps to invigorate the entire gaming experience. Such is the case with Microsoft’s latest expansion for one of their most celebrated Real Time Strategy games, Rise of Nations: Thrones and Patriots.
Like other expansion packs, Thrones and Patriots does a certain amount of tweaking the original game to address any potential unbalanced gameplay. Considering that Rise of Nations was incredibly well balanced with the 18 nations it shipped with, it seems hard to believe that they’re needed. However, most of the ones included are minor adjustments to certain cultures and to some time periods. The most significant adjustment to gameplay is the inclusion of a Senate for all cultures, which allows players to decide what form of government their society will have, a la Civilization. Choosing from any one of the six forms included, which ranges from Despotism to Capitalism will affect your citizens in all kinds of ways: economically, intellectually and militarily. It also bestows upon your city a new unit called a Patriot imbued with powers that boost production or benefits.
It wouldn’t be a historical RTS without focusing on some culture, and Thrones and Patriots ups the number of nations with six new playable factions, rounding the game out with 24 countries that can be played. The Persians have been included with a unique ability of creating two capital cities as soon as a secondary area is founded. They’re also economically sound with a ton of caravans between their towns. The Dutch are even more fiscally minded, evidenced by the fact that their merchants and caravans are armed, ensuring that funds will get to towns. They also get a ton of trade and commercial discounts or benefits. The Indians are able to increase the size of their cities without paying significant fees for their construction. They also are able to field fearsome war elephants to charge and trample opponents.
The other three nations are North American nations, including the good ol’ USA. A military and technological powerhouse, the US excels at warfare within the Information age. Aside from here, the Lakota and Iroquois nations are represented as Native American countries. Coming from the Plains, the Lakotas largest asset is the ability to collect food from every citizen, scout or cavalry unity that’s been created instead of relying on farms. They’re also able to build anywhere except enemy territory, making their invisible borders around a city harder to define by opponents. By contrast, the Iroquois are from the forested area of the Northwest. Their loggers are also able to carry food along with them, and their military has a guerilla feel to it, remaining invisible to other cultures if they’re not attacking. Regardless of the country chosen, all 24 can potentially build three new World Wonders, including the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Forbidden City of Beijing and the Red Fort of India, providing knowledge, economic and military bonuses, respectively.
Perhaps the most significant change found within Thrones and Patriots is the redefinition of the Conquer the World feature. The one found within Rise of Patriots was akin to a gigantic Risk game, where players tried to unify the world with either diplomacy or brute force. While that mode remains, there are now four separate campaigns included throughout the history of the world that single players can journey through. The Alexander the Great campaign lets you try to establish a new Macedonian empire. Historical battles and incidents are noted with specific icons to let you know when (and in what order) you’re following in Alexander’s footsteps. Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to become the French empire is also included as a campaign for fledgling generals.
The other two scenarios are much more open-ended, allowing for many more resolutions by separate countries. The New World campaign lets players choose from one of 11 nations, each seeking to forge their own destiny. Players can pick one of the European countries, including the British, Spanish or French, and attempt to dominate every land on the continent. As the indigenous people, including the Lakotas, Incans or Aztecs, for example, you’re tasked with repelling the invaders and driving them back into the sea. Finally, as the Americans, you attempt to declare independence from Britain by establishing yourself as a separate country. The last, and perhaps most complex scenario is based on the Cold War. Choosing either the USA or USSR, players essentially influence world politics with economic policies or military incursions. This includes police actions, espionage missions and even manipulating the delicate situation of nuclear armament.
The technical aspects of the game, ranging from the sound to the graphics to the multiplayer elements, have relatively remained the same, which is fine considering that they were exceptionally solid to begin with. The new units and buildings, along with their animations, fit in well with the pre-existing ones. Similarly, facets of the newer cultures and Conquer the World Campaigns are solid augmentations to gameplay. In particular, the new scenarios aren’t the same old “invade a nation, prevent an invasion” setup from the first game. Players can actually exert influence over nearby cities or countries with their successes in battle, and even have the option to raze towns to pressure insolent countries to bow to their will.
However, while the Conquer the World mode makes players feel much more powerful as a leader of a country, the selected time periods feels just a wee bit random instead of a true focus on single player play. These campaigns also disregard a number of possible other conquerors for a focus on certain leaders. It would’ve been extremely cool to see tailor made campaigns for each nation with their own leaders in addition to the ones included. For instance, Montezuma and his clashes with Cortez if you chose the Aztecs, or the establishment of the Roman Empire, for example. Also, it would seem like you could create specific “Patriots”, such as George Washington to bolster your Military or Socrates to increase your scholars learning rate. Even more, there could’ve been many more governments included to as either an option or even a secondary state of affairs. What, no Oligarchy, Plutocracy or Theocracy? Considering some of these countries, it’s surprising that you wouldn’t find included in the game.
These minor gripes aside, Thrones and Patriots is still a solid expansion to Rise of Nations. Remember that saying I started this review with? Well, while they don’t mess with the formula that was pretty close to perfect, they manage to create enough features to tide veterans of the first game over with additional factions and campaigns.