Rise of Nations Review
You might have heard of Brian Reynolds - despite the Sid Meier name all over the classic strategy games Civilization II and Alpha Centauri, it was Reynolds who was largely responsible for their brilliant design. A while back he started a new company, Big Huge Games, and a new game which Microsoft is publishing: Rise of Nations.
Microsoft is pitching Rise of Nations as a strategy game for all types: hour-long-lunch-break warriors, turn-based geeks, Starcraft experts, and complete strategy newbies. On top of this, they are also touting the game's historical realism, which is pretty much a false promise. I don't blame Big Huge Games for this, though, as they have made a game even better than what Microsoft has hyped so far.
Many strategy games are now making the move to true 3D graphics with decidedly 2D interfaces - hey, it worked for Warcraft III and Age of Mythology, right? It works here, as well, as the game supports just as many units simultaneously as Age of Empires II (sometimes more) and the graphics are great all the way through. All of the units are fully 3D modelled, although the buildings and terrain look like they are just big 2D textures. But since there are no rotating cameras, it really isn't much of an issue - the game's engine is very capable.
Frame rates in Rise of Nations are pretty damn good - on the machine above, I was usually getting 40fps or more at 1280x1024x32 resolution. Zoomed out on very large battles, I did see frame rates dip into the 20 range, although the game sure felt smoother than that. Testing on a more mid-range computer (Athlon XP 1700+, 512MB DDR RAM, Radeon 8500 LE) showed that the game still runs very well, although it'll start to bog down in the really massive fights. The closer you are to the game's minimum requirements, the more you will have to tone down the scale of your games - and the display resolution.
Rise of Nations is an absolute joy to get started with, as it's obvious that the developers spent lots of effort making it easy to get into. The interface is complex to start, but the game's tutorials teach you all the basics and the mouse-over help text is extremely useful. Any seasoned RTS player requires a full set of hotkeys to make their gameplay more efficient, and that is all here - the keys can be reconfigured, too.
Most of the time spent in Rise of Nations will be in an RTS-type environment, but the "Conquer the World" campaign takes place on a map broken into territories or countries. This looks quite a bit like the classic board game Risk, but here, any battle will move to the RTS mods and allow attackers and defenders to show their real-time skills. Throughout this experience, the game supplies loads of help without shoving it down one's throat. In my opinion, if there is any one revolutionary thing about this game, it's the very easy-to-handle learning curve (as bizaare as that sounds). Big Huge Games managed to design a very complicated game, burn off much of the standard RTS tedium, and then walk players through how to play step by step.
The 3D graphics that Big Huge Games put together for Rise of Nations are excellent, although not too varied. While the units are all drawn and animated very well, the nations each look almost exactly the same - expecially during later ages when everyone is using the same ships, planes, and tanks. While there are a few distinct building types, and the nations do have several unique units each, they all look pretty damn similar by the end.
We do get quite a few environments to fight in: savannahs, arctic tundra, forests, mountainous areas, and seas dotted with islands. While there aren't any advanced features here like advantageous high ground or day/night effects, it's hard to miss them once you get an actual game going.
Battles in this game look tremendous; the vehicles look great, soldiers go through very dramatic deaths, and buildings crumble in a cloud of dust. When a nuke goes off, everyone in the game will know it; all will go white for a short while, a large mushroom cloud erupts, and the screen slowly fades from black and white back into color. The strategic effects of nuclear weapons are something you want to think twice about, but the special effects will make you want to lay down even more of them.
First things first - Rise of Nations has about a zillion options. Those who want to try a slightly different battle against the computer (or in multiplayer) will absolutely love this game, as there are a ton of ways to set up a match. From the victory objectives to an anti-"rush" timer, from the starting age to being able to turn off nation-specific units, it's all here.
It's hard not to compare this game to ones like Empire Earth, Age of Empires, and Civilization. It's like they took AOE as a base game, added in the ability to advance all the way to the modern age like Empire Earth, and then threw in technology, wonders, and other less-military elements from Civilization. It's a pretty interesting combination overall, and while you can't please every strategy fan, this one has the depth to keep players interested long-term.
One of the most satisfying things about Rise of Nations is the convenience the player has here - the default options are specifically set up to combat micromanagement. While you do have to build farms, mines, and lumber camps, these resources aren't eaten up. All you have to do is set up your resource management the first time and forget about it, and maybe make an adjustment every few minutes. The same goes for your citizens (peon-type workers); they will automatically jump onto nearby resource camps and start working. This is especially important during the late game when you are more concerned with managing troops and formations. Of course, a micromanagement freak can turn all of these little options off, if one were so inclined.
There are no transports in Rise of Nations; all you have to do is have a working dock on a specific body of water, and then your troops will automatically turn into transport boats and traverse that bit of water. I don't remember ever seeing this before, and it is really nice. I suppose from a low level it looks a bit goofy, but this system makes sending troops extremely convenient.
There are a myriad of ways to harass enemy resource gathering; bombing runs from planes are very effective against unwary players, and spies can do some sneaky things as well. Troops can specifically be set for a "raid" formation, which will go right after enemy work centers and their citizens. While there are no walls that can be built, the game still allows a pretty good defense by way of entrenched troops, anti-air weapons, and fortresses.
Nukes are a pretty interesting addition to this game, simply because a nuke-happy player can find himself staring at a "loss" screen even though he was easily winning. The reason is because the first nuke that goes off in a game will set off an "Armageddon" countdown - if people keep firing nukes at each other, everyone loses the game. It would be an interesting strategy for a player who knows he/she is losing to drop a whole load of nukes on the enemy in order to force a loss for both sides. The other downside to firing a nuke is that you won't be able to sell or buy any resources at your Market for a couple of minutes. Of course, this winds up being a small concern compared to the threat of Armageddon.
The battles in Rise of Nations can wind up being very diverse, as air, land, and sea are all here as well as full upgrade paths for all three. You can start off with some bombing runs, then follow up with a nuke to blow up small buildings and weaken the rest. Finally, bombard from sea while invading with your land troops and tanks at a different front - there are so many different tactics you can use to defeat your enemy.
At the same time, there are a few decent ways to interact with, or combat, other players - the diplomacy interface is somewhat complex (although some turn-based games are far more in-depth in this aspect), and Generals, Special Forces, and Spies all add a new element to the game for many players. Generals are a necessity on the battlefield, as they give an armor bonus and allow your forces to entrench, set up decoys, and and ambush enemy troops. Special Forces evolve from a scout/explorer-type, and eventually they can disable installations or do heavy damage to specific buildings. Finally, Spies can observe enemy movements, bribe troops or buildings, assassinate enemy spies, and more.
Another interesting thing about playing RoN is that even in multiplayer games, there are nation borders that limit one's expansion into unclaimed or other players' territory. Building cities and researching several bits of technology all help to expand your boundaries, although you will not be able to put up new buildings outside your own lands. This means that control of certain resources or areas becomes more than just having troops - there needs to be an actual structure nearby as well. The effects this will have on multiplayer games simply cannot be overstated; this is going to affect a lot of playing styles.
The air war in Rise of Nations is interesting, as there are fighters, bombers, and helicopters as well as anti-air vehicles and stationary guns. Fighters and Bombers can't really be micromanaged, as they do have a limited amount of fuel and have to land eventually. Select a target for them to attack or patrol, and they will do so - with regular returns to the base for refueling. Helicopters have no such restriction, but then again they aren't as devastating as planes. All in all, even though having air superiority does give you an advantage, it is well balanced and will not mean instant victory.
Sea battles are a bit different; there are submarines, destroyers, and even aircraft carriers complete with their own set of pre-built planes. Bombardment from the water can be a very good thing to have, especially on maps where ships can reach a high percentage of the landmass. On maps with large bodies of water, bringing a navy in against a well-defended enemy can totally ruin his day - and give you a very satisfying victory.
Wonders in this game are something that seem to have been borrowed mainly from Civilization; whoever completes a specific wonder has the sole right to it for the time being, and it will give that person a certain bonus as long as it is in their possession and still standing. It can be captured by the enemy if the city it was built next to gets captured (or if the enemy gets inside your territory and physically blows it up). While the wonders don't do anything major to the game, it's just another way that players can use several small bonuses and perks at the same time to get a strategic edge.
While each of the game's eighteen nations boasts its own specific bonuses, including unique units, you will generally find that each one plays almost exactly the same in the long run. Early on it can make a difference, but the further you go, the more they become the same. Of course, this makes game balance much easier, especially when there are eighteen different countries to juggle; while this game oozes replay value in many areas, this isn't one of them.
The research in Rise of Nations is a bit more complicated than in other fast-paced RTS games; there are eight distinct ages, and several levels for one of four main technologies: Military, Civic, Commerce, and Science. Add to this several upgrades for resource gathering as well as six different resources to collect (food, lumber, metal, oil, gold, and "knowledge" - at universities, with scholars and all), and research can become quite daunting. Selling and buying resources is available at a market, as well as caravans for extra gold income. You may find yourself spending a lot of time working out your research rather than managing your army, but after a few games it becomes much easier to push through.
While you can always do quick battles against the computer or other players (as well as any combination you want - even working inside the same nation cooperatively with a computer), those can get a bit dull after a while. The game's campaign is called "Conquer the World" and its Risk-style map allows you to use some high-level strategies for diplomacy, worldwide resource control, and even "bonus cards" which give you specific power-ups in the RTS portion of the game. Any attack or defense encounter you have results in a move to the RTS game, and depending on the situation on the world map, you might have an easy or a difficult time during the fight. If you have nearby armies on the map, they will show up during the fight - usually none too soon.
Rise of Nations ships with quite a few extras that most people will get at least some fun out of. There are a couple of unique scenarios, a mostly effective series of training missions (they'll teach you the basics of the interface and a few of the base rules, but not much more), and some unique specific challenges - like trying to make it to a certain age as fast as possible.
We also get a fully functional scenario/script editor, available right from the game's "extras" menu. Many of the game's own native elements are in XML format as well, which makes for some easy editing outside of the scenario tool - it's safe to say that there will be some fairly cool player-created mods and scenarios sooner or later.
The multiplayer game ditches most of the turn-based aspects of the game for an all-out battle. You can set the victory goals to non-conquest ones if you really want to: attain a score to win, build a number of "wonder" buildings, make it to a certian age, even turn off all military entirely and focus on building.
Multiplayer is where those zillion options become so useful. There are thousands of different combinations of options for changing how the game works, and the very capable computer AI can be thrown in to make it even more interesting.
The network options in Rise of Nations are fully featured, and multiplayer games can be done over a LAN or the internet. The internet portion uses GameSpy's technology, but thankfully no external software is required to get into multiplayer games - but GameSpy Arcade can also be used if you feel you really must.
The progression of upgrades in Rise of Nations strings on all the way from the Ancient age to the Information age; javelineers turn into musketeers and finally to riflemen. Cavalry will turn into Dragoons and finally on to tanks. Catapults eventually will evolve into Howitzers and then rocket batteries. All of this is mostly a smooth transition from a gameplay perspective, but not from a visual point of view - since horses upgrade to tanks, and upgrades like this immediately change all your units in the field, you can see 20 horses just magically turn into 20 tanks in the middle of a fight. The thing is, this doesn't suddenly give you a huge advantage in battle; the power of all these units scales up very well.
Tactics in multiplayer are going to be pretty interesting; while the Starcraft crowd is mostly used to predetermined 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 battles, Rise of Nations will likely attract some sneaky diplomatic type that happens to be allies with most of the people in the field, all of which are killing each other while he builds his own army. Add to this all the spies, special forces, and tricks that generals allow, and there are going to be some big surprises in internet games.
I'm pretty happy with most of the sounds in Rise of Nations. The interface sounds are distinct enough that after only a few hours of playing, one can easily recognize all of them - this of course can actually really help gameplay. Battles sound excellent as well; the destroyer ships, nuclear weapons, and bombers all can shake the walls if you decide to turn it up that loud.
While there are some unique "hero"-type troops in the game's tutorial missions, they are completely gone from the rest of the game; you also won't find any story-based voice acting or cutscenes. The tutorial is all voice-done, though, and it works just fine. Music is light and has a definite classical/world-music feel to it, and while none of it is downright bad, I found myself turning it off and playing my own music after several hours.
Rise of Nations is a great fusion of several recent and classic strategy titles. It combines Empire Earth with Age of Empires, puts in a dash of Civilization and Risk, and then mixes it all together with a ton of options for you to play around with. It can appeal to all kinds of strategy players, and while this certainly isn't a revolutionary game, this well-balanced gem is sure to keep RTS fans playing for weeks.