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Rise of Nations Review

publisher: Microsoft
developer: 38 Studios
genre: Strategy

PII 500, 128MB RAM, 16MB video card, 800MB HDD
ESRB rating: T

release date: May 20, 03
» All About Rise of Nations on ActionTrip

May 20, 2003
Nikola "Bunny" Zakic

There's an old saying - "A man is only as old as he feels". Typically, the only people who tell you this are old farts, sitting on a park bench soiling their adult diapers, so what do they know? My twenty-something years don't make me an old man yet, but in the realm of PC gaming, I consider myself to be a true veteran. This was painfully confirmed to me by the clerks of a local gaming centre who keep saying things like "good day, Sir", or "good bye, Sir"...Goddammit, I'm not a Sir. I still consider myself a big kid. I still watch Saturday Morning Cartoons. I still play with my action figures. I'm even wearing my Batman Underoos RIGHT NOW! The scary thing is game developers are making it tougher for me to maintain my child-like demeanor... I get this d'jà vu every time I open a new PC game... a feeling that even makes me think of mature thoughts like sitting down and trying to learn something for my exams, or planning my financial future, or even getting... married (Perish the thought. - Ed). Fortunately for me and other people who have slowly started losing their faith in the computer entertainment industry, Big Huge Games and Microsoft brings us Rise of Nations, a game that finally shines some light into the tunnel of computer games, and gives us another reason to feel young again.

Right, this fairly pathetic and overdone introduction seems more apt for a quasi-medical magazine trying to sell a youth elixir, but it will still have to do for my review of the new exhilarating RTS... this is a game to be talked about... and they will talk about it a lot, at least till December and the new Game Of The Year awards.

Let me make one thing clear: Rise of Nations is no technological wonder. It won't take the genre to the fourth dimension, and it won't even use the advanced possibilities of DirectX 9. In fact, this game has practically no original elements. The entire human history has already been dealt with in Empire Earth, the combination of the real-time and turn-based strategies has already been seen in the Total War series, the board-game feel has been taken from games like Risk and Diplomacy, and micro and macro management looks pretty much the same as in Civilization. In other word, the game seems to be a copycat potpourri. On the other hand, it has all been so majestically merged into a winning combination; merging the best of the historical strategies of Civilization and Empire Earth with the dynamics and appeal of the Age of Empires and C&C, giving this RTS the level of detail reserved for turn-based strategies and simulations. And the best thing is - this really works!

With no introduction or background stories, Rise of Nations lets you lead one of the 18 most historically important nations from pre-history to modern times. You can choose to play the Conquer the World campaign, an array of pre-defined scenarios, a highly configurable quick battle (skirmish) mode, and a number of mini-games meant to test your skills - skill test, and the ubiquitous multiplayer mode.

The Conquer the World campaign is probably the worst segment of the game. The programmers didn't want to leave anything pre-scripted and linear, and to offer absolute liberty in forging your nation's future. You can deploy your armies and move them on a RISK-like world map. Still, the rules in this segment of the game have been so simplified that it makes you wonder if they really needed to combine the genres. You can attack only once per move, you cannot merge two of your armies, and the diplomacy is ridiculously simple. The game introduces the Bonus Card system and the fortification building feature, but they are bleak attempts to make up for the drawbacks to this mode of play. The game eventually comes down to about ten missions with the same goal: conquer an enemy capital. The only things that will differ are the color of your enemy and the tech-age you are currently in.

But as Eva Herzigova would put it in the wonder-bra commercial - "I can't cook. Who cares?". With a real-time segment being this good, we can disregard some flaws in the other segment. BHG followed Ensemble's steps and provided all the necessary ingredients for a good RTS - 18 historical nations with unique units, bonuses and penalties in the economy and a nice demographic sphere that should satisfy any self-respecting RTS gamer. Versatility is not there only for aesthetic purposes; in order to succeed, you will not only have to know your strengths and weaknesses, but also your enemies' strong and weak points. You can determine formations and assign tasks to units which are not under your direct control. The game also features generals who have special abilities - forced march, entrenching infantry, and sending decoys. What's more, you'll get a chance to command some of the most famous military units in human history. In early phases you will only have spearmen at your disposal, but if you advance to the age of IT, you will command squadrons of modern fighters and stealth bombers. Apart from the conventional arms, you will also get a chance to use tactical weapons. Nukes have finally been given true credit in video games, as they tend to leave nothing behind... but if you happen to over-do it, you will cause apocalypse, and of course a premature end of your campaign, with a comment that modern technology given to a crazed megalomaniac can lead to no good.

The possibilities of having two armies of different generations collide on the battlefield are highly intriguing, and leave a bunch of "what ifs" open, but this is not the real trump of this game. The thing that really sets this game apart from the competition is the micro economy model. Most RTS games relied on the fact that economic power yields military superiority, and presented that by having you cut large amounts of lumber, or produce gallons of oil during a battle. Rise of Nations lent many solutions from Sid Meier's legendary Civilization (Brian Reynolds participated in both projects), and raises the problem of raising resources to a higher level. The cities are trade, industrial and cultural centers of the nation and represent key segments of a wealthy state. Therefore, it is important to have as many of those as possible, and as they have a limited range of influence, it is very important where you decide to establish them. Will they be in the immediate vicinity of a mountain, sea or rare resources? This will depend on the need of your economy alone. The cities also spread the borders of your state, and if you take into account that the taxes directly depend on your territory, you get another motive to build more colonies. Even the map somehow resembles the map from Civilization. When you explore the area initially under the fog-of-war, you may run into ancient ruins containing valuable resources (another Civilization feature). The number of structures and wonders of the world you can build is quite impressive. I know I may sound too exhilarated because all of this has been seen before, but I tell you, it's never been done quite like this - it all looks complex, but is still somehow clear and easy to grasp. The forests, mines and farms cannot be depleted, the citizens will automatically find work where they are most needed, the scouts have the auto explore option, and the caravans can choose their paths on their own. Once you set everything to work, the state will function without your help, and you will have time for other things.

The cities are important for the defense of a territory. They act as shelters to your units and civilians, and as they widen the territories of your state, they weaken the enemy troops in the vicinity. The cities are indestructible, and when an enemy army takes a city, it has to pass a lengthy period of assimilation before it becomes a part of the rival state.

The tech-tree is very elaborate and can seem a bit too complex to new players. On the other hand, it is highly intuitive as is practically everything in this game, and even novice RTS gamers will have no trouble getting the hang of it in short order.

The real-time segment is definitely the best part of the game, and this is why I can freely say that the skirmish or quick battle mode can be just as interesting, if not even more interesting than the campaign. The best thing about this mode is that you can fiddle with all parameters and rules for the battle; the number of computer opponents, the terrain, the number of units, the presence (or absence) of the economy model, population limit, the starting and the ending tech-age, victory conditions, no-attack time, and many more. Their combination can give anything from dynamic slaughters like in C&C games to cold-war like "weapon mass production" scenarios in which the most advanced nation wins. I personally found the Musical Chair mod very interesting; after set periods of time, the weakest player gets kicked, until only the strongest survives.

The predefined scenarios are decently done, but what can really make them stand out is the scenario editor which ships with the game. I have no doubts that the fans will find time to use all of its possibilities and make this title live for many more years. The editor also has a script editor.

Skill test is a collection of games in which you have to set various records like - the first to reach a certain tech level, or the first one to reach the classical age, or the fastest victory. It also includes a weird game in which they measure the speed at which you can repeatedly click your mouse (obviously meant for Diablo fans).

All this would be to no avail if there wasn't for the multiplayer mode. The game supports up to eight players over Internet or LAN. Gamespy can easily find the Rise of Nations servers. Of course before you start a battle you can set just as many parameters of the game as in the quick battle mode. The only real difference is that in multiplayer matches you cannot slow-down or pause the game at will. Still, each player has the right to use "Cannon Time" (a very inventive way to call a slow-mo effect without breaching any copyrights), during which even the slowest of players can do whatever they had in mind. The units are well balanced and there are no near-invincible units. The game controls have been made simpler by the AI; for instance - when you select combined forces, they will automatically assume the best formation (assault troops will stand up front, and the support troops will be behind them), when you transport your troops overseas, they will embark and disembark transports on their own. Another good thing is that when you draw a large selection rectangle over your town, only the military troops will be selected, and the peasants will continue doing whatever they were doing.

Technically, this game is far from being inventive, but also far from being too demanding. The game takes place in highly detailed 2D environments. This also makes it possible to have huge number of units on the field. The developers obviously wanted to make the battles look as spectacular as possible (given the technology). When you produce an infantry unit, three soldiers will appear in stead of one. They will act as a single soldier, but their number will improve the very appearance of a battle. The precise representations of all objects and the several levels of zoom convinced me that this game doesn't need 3D at all.

The sound is just as excellent as the rest of the game. Airplane engines sound better than in some simulations I played, and the rich background music will adapt to the situation on field.

The computer controlled citizens and soldiers act pretty good. The enemy won't simply rush at you; he will rather try to surround you and tend to use the most efficient of his units at it. As soon as you relax for a moment, you know you can expect to see its counter attack which can often turn the tides of war. As for controlling your citizens, you can freely set the controls to automatic.

The game has all the characteristics of a commercially successful title of the genre: unit versatility, a good combat system, and adaptability will be a reward to anyone who takes his time to get into this game's ropes. Still, the popularity of a certain title is influenced by a number of things out of the developer's scope; only time can tell how successful this title will be on the market, and thus fully use its potentials.

As for me, I fully enjoyed the game, and even my criticism wouldn't be this harsh if I hadn't had overly high expectations for the game in the first place. In any case there is still room for improvement in the turn-based segment, and I sure hope the guys at Big Huge Games realize this and make Rise of Nations 2 a true classic and role model for future games.


9.0   Excellent

Rise of Nations takes the best solutions from all of its predecessors and merges them into a great game. Good economy model - complex yet not too demanding;

The turn-based campaign element could have been more complex.



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