Rising to the Challenge
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There is a distinct flavor to most games published by Microsoft, especially in the real-time strategy genre. Not that this is a bad thing. Almost all the games are marked by good quality gameplay and graphics, as the Age of Empires series will attest.
Rise of Nations is kind of like an advanced version of Age of Empires. It brings some unique elements to the table that I have personally never before experienced, along with a lot of the old standards that RTS gamers have come to know and love - or hate as the case may be.
The first thing you will probably notice about Rise of Nations is that the graphics are incredible. It really is a joy just to watch all your little buildings doing their thing, be it universities with scholars improving your knowledge or airports landing and launching your airplanes. Zoomed in or out, things look really good anywhere on the Rise of Nations playing field.
The second thing you will probably notice is that the game has an excellent tutorial. Step by step from the very basic to the very advanced, you are taken through and shown all the various elements in the game. Even if you are an old pro at strategy games, you will still enjoy the tutorials since they are basically real battles, just ones that have been heavily stacked in favor of the players so that if you listen to what you are told, you will learn about the units and win the scenario.
The developers at Big Huge Games must also play strategy games, because they were smart enough to concentrate on the fun elements of RTS gaming and shy away from the elements that tend to drag games down. Most of the micromanaging has been eliminated from gameplay, or at least simplified.
For example, you don't have to build transports to take your armies across the seas and then worry about how many units can fit on the boat. If you have the sufficient technology and a port, armies will build their own transportation automatically when ordered to cross bodies of water. You can still get ambushed by enemy vessels - a fleet of transports running into a couple battle ships becomes a shooting gallery - but at least you don't have to worry about playing ferry man to your armies when you could be fighting.
Peasant artificial intelligence has also been improved. You still have to gather resources like wood, metal and later on oil, but peasants are smart about it. If you have open spots for labors at your mines and forests, you really don't need to specifically assign new peasants to work them. Just create by quickly clicking the number you need. After they are created, if they don't get a task in a few seconds they will find something to do. If you know how many openings you have, this lets you quickly create enough workers to fill the gaps without micromanagement. It's not 100 percent perfect, but they get it right most of the time.
You can start the game at any tech level, but normally you start back in the tribal stone age days. As you gather resources you can advance to higher ages and then research new technologies for your troops and nation to help you advance to the age of enlightenment and beyond. Some are defensive, like the oath of loyalty, which makes opposing armies take damage while they are standing on your home soil. Others are offensive in nature, like guns for your troops instead of spears. When you get a new advancement, every relevant unit already in play get the upgrade, and of course all new ones do as well. Again, there is no micromanagement and you won't have a spare spear thrower running around when you reach the information age either.
The most unique thing about the game is the mode where you set out to conquer the entire world. Here the game is more like a cross between a real-time strategy game and a turn-based one. Players start as a nation on the world map in their historical starting location. The Aztecs are in South America, Germany is in the middle of Europe and Japan is on its islands off the coast of Asia for example. Each nation is given a special power to help them along and make them different from the others. France has high leadership skills for its leaders while the Koreans have the power of tradition which makes their temples stronger.
When you start you are looking at the board much like you would a game of Risk. You need to decide where you should put defensive armies and where you should attack. Each territory is also worth a card, much like Risk again, and if you defeat an opponent you get all their free cards. Cards can be used to take advantage of the special ability on the card, such as giving your armies an extra power, or nullifying the power of an opponent.
When you attack a territory you are given a mission which will determine if you are able to conquer the territory or not. If there is an actual opponent there, the mission will be to wipe them out. If it is a neutral territory you will have some type of mission, like defending against barbarians for 15 minutes or conquering their main city in a limited amount of time. There is a good deal of variety here in the missions. You will also be called upon to defend yourself if attacked by a neighbor and can even set up alliances and non-aggression packs, which are very useful early in the game when you are a very weak nation.
As the world advances so do your starting powers, so you won't start a new scenario in the stone age if the world has advanced to the information age. You have a limited number of moves each turn before the age advances.
The biggest problem with this type of game is that it is a victim of its own success. The world is quite large and especially in multiplayer games where a lot of people are playing, turns can take forever. After a while, it does get a bit boring. I found that large games like this are better off with all computer opponents, or a few close friends.
Rise of Nations brings some interesting elements to the table and is more than worthy of any strategy gamer. Rounded out with an exceptional tutorial, something missing from most games these days, Rise of Nations excels at letting strategy gamers do what they do best: plan and execute wars on their opponents. The game earns a respectable 4 and 1/2 GiN Gems.
John Breeden II is the Chief Editor of GiN. While a forward thinking man he admits to a fondness for older video games. You should have seen him at Videotopia. John can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org.