Rise of Nations
First off, let me explain something to you.. I am a snob.. a full-out over-the-top strategy snob. I cut my teeth on hex-based wargames, throw in a healthy dose of turn based strategy and top it off with computer chess. This is why, in the past, I have been guilty of scoffing at the "strategy" in real-time strategy games.. after all, where's the strategy in building heaps and heaps of units and throwing them haphazardly at your opponent?
Imagine my surprise, then, when after only a few games of Big Huge Games' newest addition to the RTS Genre - Rise of Nations, I found myself totally and utterly hooked.
Now, I am not saying that Rise of Nations (now and forever more referred to as RoN) is anything new, as far as RTS goes, most of the features and gameplay ideas will be very familiar to any RTS fan. Where RoN really knocks it out of the park is in terms of how well these existing ideas are sculpted on to a very solid engine.
RoN takes players from the Ancient Age, complete with Spear Chuckers, Slingers and blokes with Pointy Sticks, through the Medieval Ages with Knights and Catapults, past the Gunpowder Age all the way through to Modern Day with Stealth Bombers, Cruise Missiles and Flamethrowers and pretty much everything in between. Needless to say, this isn't anything revolutionary, but RoN is so polished, so flawless in its approach that you may be forgiven thinking that this is the first time. I felt like an RTS virgin all over again.
Players have the option of leading one of 18 nations through the history books in the quest for ultimate dominance, and each nation has its own distinctive units as well as special strengths, or powers. BHG (Big Huge Games) have taken extreme care in balancing all of these nations, so playing each one not only helps the player understand their opponents, but also dramatically increases the replayability - a frequent let down in other titles of the genre.
Players have the option of fighting on a myriad of maps, against 1-7 computer opponents as part of the "quick battle" scenario, and there is a veritable host of options and game styles from the traditional free for all, deathmatch, to more unusual play styles like "Assassin" and "Musical Chairs". Assassin is my personal favourite as the player is assigned a target nation to strike against, and is at huge penalties if he should try to attack another nation not on his hit list. It may sound a little unusual, but when you play it for yourself, you’ll see exactly what I mean.
The campaign in Rise of Nations is almost a game within a game. Called "Conquer the World", it places all of the 18 nations on the world map and the player must decide whether to use diplomatic, monetary wealth or military power to conquer each of the 50-odd territories. If he chooses to opt for a military solution, it spawns a real-time scenario, and I feel this works excellently to flesh out the bridge between a scope more akin to a turn-based game, to the ferocious face-off that is the real-time portion of the game.
As one would expect, there are a number of difficulty settings versus the AI, and in my long (very) years of experience, I have not seen AI this polished before. The computer plays smart, and aggressively and on most of the settings, does not "cheat". Muchos kudos to BHG - the AI routines used in RoN should be a standard all future strategy games need to aspire to.
The units themselves are nothing ground breaking, and utilize a slightly more in-depth version of Rock-Scissors-Paper strategy. Light Infantry counter heavy Infantry which counters Cavalry which counters light Infantry. On the surface, one might think that this level of simplicity would hinder the depth of gameplay, but instead makes for elegant game balancing. Left to their own devices, a balanced army consisting of all of the above units will overcome an army that consisted mainly of, say.. cavalry. I say left to their own devices because all too often, as you would expect from a real-time title, if you focus too much on the small unit battles, you lose sight of the "bigger picture".
However, if you have the time, tactical management of your troops will give you an edge in the skirmishes and big battles. Like I said... elegant.
The interface in RoN is first-class and very easy to get to grips with. Again, the mouse-over help is informative and totally makes up for the slightly skimpy manual. This combination allows players to swiftly get their teeth into managing their empires as they race to gain an edge in military strength and research into new technologies. On the subject of technology, you will find my only gripe at RoN... well, perhaps, gripe is too strong.. how about "gripette". In several of the games on the easier setting I was quite far ahead of the computer in terms of military technology, and in one naval engagement took on the enemies fleet with Submarines vs. Gunpowder Age Sloops, as a result you can imagine my surprise when my submarines were being sunk by cannon balls! However, I can understand a certain amount of license in the name of game balance, and on the whole, it doesn't detract nearly as much from the enjoyment of the game as you might think.
One concept familiar to most RTS games is the construction of walls - you will not find this in RoN. Instead, the development team has added "attrition" damage to unsupported units entering enemy territory. This may at first take RTS veterans by surprise, but after seeing the potential, I hope you will agree that it makes for more realistic gameplay (and those damn walls are a royal pain in the patootie anyhow).
Another nice departure from standard RTS fayre is the way civilians and resources are managed. If your citizens stand idle for too long (and you can customize the delay) they will actually go looking for work. In addition, resources do not deplete, meaning you can concentrate on the more entertaining elements of strategy. To counter a huge unbalance of over collecting resources, BHG introduce a commerce cap which will put a ceiling on the amount of resources you can effectively create.
The graphics are not breathtaking, but the individual unit animation is fantastic, from the Citizens working in the lumberyards working with hand saws and progressing to chain saws as the ages tick by, to the musketeers loading kneeling and firing... it's very well done indeed. And the nuclear blasts manage to capture your attention from the black-white flash to the shockwave devastating the surrounding area, units blown away as they disintegrate. Awesome stuff.
Multiplayer is handled via in-game menus linking the player to the Gamespy matchmaking service. Multiplayer is terrific, and the lag is minimal provided the human opponents have a satisfactory connection.
On the whole, Rise of Nations blew me away both in terms of concept and execution, very little areas for improvement remain. There is vast amounts of replayability and while I am writing this review, I'm forcing myself not to load up for "just one quick battle".
The demo is available for free download on the RoN homepage, and goes a long way to show you some of this games potential, but, gentle reader, if you like the demo... you will adore the full version. Rise of Nations will appeal to hardcore strategists and the real-time strategy fans who might have felt this genre has gone stale. This title, through elegantly combining tried and true concepts from many who came before, has managed to make the RTS genre seem fresh once more.