Rise of Nations did not revolutionize the real time strategy genre when it came out in 2003 but it did polish many of the mechanics and offered some evolutionary enhancements to PC strategy. Rise of Legends breaks the historical focus of Rise of Nations and moves the franchise in the direction of fictional fantasy, pitting magical creatures against the mechanical and the spiritual against the medieval. Altogether, there are three unique races in Rise of Legends.
The entire game is divided into three components: a single player campaign, skirmish and multiplayer. The Conquer the World campaign is the meatiest part of the game where the player assumes the role of Giacomo, leader of the Miana, a city state of the Vinci people. Giacomo’s brother, Petruzzo, is murdered when meeting with a rival, the Doge of Venucci, plunging Giacomo’s forces against the Doge. Because both the Doge and Giacomo are essentially the same race, the game plays out more like a civil war. In fact, subsequent campaigns repeat this formula. Giacomo will travel to the desert and use Alin units to face off against Alin rebels corrupted by unnatural powers. Then Giacomo will move on to the Cuotl jungle and lead an insurgency against Cuotl tribes living under false deities. Since each campaign takes about a dozen battles to win, this can feel a little repetitive especially close to the end where the campaign missions make a turn for the monotonous.
The campaign takes place on a turn based map that is carved up into individual territories. Your moveable unit (Giacomo) can be moved to defend or invade other territories much like a turn based Risk. Battles that Giacomo is involved in will be resolved in a traditional real time strategy setting factoring in any enhancements (military, commercial, etc.) that are made to the territory. Each campaign begins with a good deal of neutral territories and some of the territories have a back story related to it. Some could be ravaged by rebels. Some are convoy escort missions. Some are defense missions. Others revolve around pitched battles across a bridge or include some sort of side quest you need to complete. Still, there are a good number of generic provinces that simply ask you to eradicate the indigenous forces stationed there. In the later campaigns, where the strategic maps are larger, these generic territories unnecessarily draw out the length of the game.
Controlling territories will give you income on the strategic map that enables you to purchase enhancements to territories. You can, moreover, upgrade your heroes’ special abilities. These are rechargeable abilities that can be used in battle. Some, like mass healing, are defensive while some, like sniping, are offensive. Giacomo rides into every battle but for other heroes, you will have to acquire resources within the real time strategy segment to summon them. There are special pitched battles that enable you to bring in a few heroes by default. Often these missions do not have base building so you have to make do with who you choose.
The turn based portion of the game also enables you to use points to acquire a retinue of troops that will accompany you into every battle. You’ll always have two infantry squads accompanying you but the others are up to your imagination. By the end of the campaign, you’ll acquire a sizeable starting army that will enable you to wreak havoc early in the mission. Conquering more territory will make things easier.
Like the other Rise of Nations titles, Rise of Legends makes real time strategy easy to manage. Low level units are produced as squads to make it easier to control infantry grunts. When moving a bunch of different units, the game will, in general, arrange them in a logical battle order with the more vulnerable units in the back. Heroes aren’t haphazardly thrust into frontline combat either. Rise of Legends offers enough controls and automation that harvesting, moving troops and doing battle aren’t hassles. It is this approach that enables Rise of Legends to feature hundreds of units on screen to create some epic battles but without equally epic micromanagement.
Playing through Rise of Legends reminded me a little of Battle for Middle-Earth II. There are different sides but each side is a foil of the other with matching infantry, aerial and artillery strengths. In multiplayer, the races mix well in battle. However, against people from the same race, it’s more like a chess match.
The creators of Rise of Legends definitely took a gamble by creating their own backdrop. Although the beginning of the game is solid, the second half drags on and this is where Battle for Middle-Earth II can obviate repetitiveness by letting you do battle with well known Tolkien races and locales. Rise of Legends doesn’t have that luxury.
It is a good thing that the presentation is very well done for Rise of Legends. The design and style of each race are detailed and distinct from one another (although there may be argument they are too distinct). The Vinci, in particular, were very well done. Their mechanical spiders and clockwork men looked a lot like the contraptions that came out of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Rise of Legends also features a lot of depth, with many upgrades and special abilities that give common units and buildings new twists. Sound effects, however, are a little weak but sound effects have never, in my opinion, been a strong point of the Rise of Nations franchise. There is a disconcerting amount of subtitles that do not match voiceover speech; something I would have excused from a foreign title but Rise of Legends is clearly not one of those.
Rise of Legends facilitates multiplayer by providing matchmaking and player statistics. There is a myriad of options for single or team competitive game modes. However, co-operative or online play of the Conquer the World campaign is unavailable. That’s disappointing considering such a function is possible in Battle for Middle-Earth 2 and even in linear games like Ground Control. You can, however, mix and match numerous AI players into battles.
Ultimately, whether you think Rise of Legends is a masterpiece or whether you think it is a hard to swallow piece of fiction with a great strategy game underneath is dependent on how much you admire the backdrop that the creators have fleshed out. For me, the Vinci story and the division into city states reminded me of Italy’s historical struggle between the 18th and 19th century to become a single nation. The Arabian Alin and aboriginal Cuotl (just try pronouncing that without the voiceover) didn’t really strike home. Thus, I will have to make the latter judgment. This is a great strategy game with a fiction that doesn’t quite jive together.