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PC Preview - 'Rise of Nations: Thrones and Patriots'

by GreyOoze on March 2, 2004 @ 2:00 a.m. PST

Just released last June, Rise of Nations has received several nominations and awards for its innovative design and fiendishly addictive game play. Now, not even a year after its release, the game is poised to get the expansion pack it deserves. Rise of Nations: Thrones and Patriots adds six new nations, a wide variety of new single player campaigns, more than 20 new units, new wonders and an innovative new Government feature. In this preview, we take a hands on look at the marketing beta of Rise of Nations: Thrones and Patriots.

Genre: Strategy
Publisher: MicroSoft Game Studio
Developer: Big Huge Games
Release Date: April 2004

Rise of Nations is deviously subtle in its strategy. The many concepts and innovations it incorporates so seamlessly into the game. The national borders, commerce caps, and attrition. You're playing the game differently, though you're not aware of it. And the whole time you're wondering if your strategy is the most efficient. This is because the game offers a head spinning array of ways to do things. And trust me, this new expansion pack only ups the ante significantly.

Thrones and Patriots packs quite a bit of new content into an already vast game. The expansion pack will offer six new playable nations, four fleshed out campaigns, twenty new units, and introduces governments to the chaos. There is also new music, as well as some interface enhancements and multiplayer goodies.

The new nations are America, Persia, India, Dutch, Iroquois, and Lakota. Like their predecessors, these new nations come with their own abilities, and there not just off shoots of the original game either. For example, the Americans build their first wonder instantly, as long as nobody else is building it and it's not either the Space Program of Supercollider. When inside their borders, the Iroquois military units are hidden to the enemy, and heal automatically when not moving or fighting in their own territory. The Persians are allowed to build a second capital, and reap the appropriate benefits. The Lakota national borders are hidden, and they can build in neutral territory. And the list goes on. All of the new nation's bonuses and rule exceptions not only fit nicely into the game, but are all likely to create new considerations and strategies. In my experience with the beta, I can say that these new nations will serve to balance the game out, rather than tip the scales one way or the other, which is a common downfall with a lot of RTS expansion packs.

The unique units associated with each of the new nations are also intriguing. America gets four different versions of Marine, from continental all the way up to assault. Being a former Marine myself, I was truly impressed with this. India and Persia also have a noteworthy set of unique units with their war elephants and mahouts. Both of these units came in particularly useful. The Iroquois and the Lakota unique units have great variety, and the Iroquois uniques in particular will benefit in just about every stage of the game. The Dutch offer perhaps some of the most diverse unique units, focusing on caravans, supply wagons, and ships. As with the original nations, each of the new factions in the expansion pack seems to be built around a theme, and these new themes are once again well thought out and practical.

Perhaps the biggest aspect of the expansion pack is the new government feature, which fits into the game extremely well. This feature works through the expansion packs one new building, the Senate. Once you reach the Classical Age, you can build the Senate, and from there you will have a choice between one of two government types in the Classical, Gunpowder, and Industrial ages. For example, once you reach the Classical Age and build the Senate, you can choose between Despotism and Republic forms of government. Under Despotism, your nation is ruled through tyranny, but you receive a 25% reduction in military research and the cost of barracks units. On the flip side, Republic governments are ruled by elected officials, and increase your commerce cap by fifty. Obviously, there are numerous ways that these two governments could be employed, depending on your situation. Although I'm still experimenting, I found this new feature was most useful in offsetting my nation's innate weaknesses. Government upgrades also include Monarchy and Democracy, and Socialism and Capitalism. Again, each of these governments provides certain, decidedly specific bonuses that can further your nations cause.

In addition to the benefits, each government type offers a patriot unit unique to that specific government. The patriot unit itself is essentially a general with additional abilities, once again varying between government types. For example, under Despotism, you get one Despot Patriot unit, who possesses all of the standard general's abilities plus supply, line of sight, and plunder bonuses. On the flip side, the Senator Patriot, who comes with the Republic form of government, has the standard general abilities and also provides healing, bribing, and building defense bonuses. There is also the King, President, Comrade, and CEO Patriot types, each ready to run amok and create havoc in their own special way. Even in the beta, the new government feature almost instantly felt like it has always been there, as part of the original game. When you consider that these new government types and patriot units fit into the game so well, yet don't change any of the core rules, you have a perfect example of what makes Rise of Nations so great. The standards and rules are such that just about any strategy is possible, given a little thought. Honestly, I cannot recall any expansion pack in recent memory that made such a fundamental addition to its core game without making major code adjustments and altering the rules of the game itself. The new patriot units themselves will likely be used to assist in early game raids and perhaps even full on rushes, depending on what the player's motivations are. While this new feature will benefit every nation in the game, the Iroquois in particular are likely to make it a central part of their strategy, and with the potential for devastating effect I might add.

But the proof is in the game play, and even with the beta, Thrones and Patriots brings a lot to the table. I particularly focused on playing as America, largely because I wanted to try out their wonder bonus and deploy the Marine units. After months of trying different ways of getting the Colossus built a few seconds quicker, I reveled in the power when my one lone citizen had it up in the blink of an eye, giving me that population boost I crave so. The Marine units actually brought a tear to my eye, running around in their cool uniforms and looking disciplined as always. If idle for a few seconds, the Marine units will entrench on their own, without being told.

A particularly harsh run in with a small group of war elephants from India sent me reeling, and some hard earned respect was in order. I can't say enough about the government feature. Although I feel this feature will appeal to all players, it is best suited for the middle of the road players like myself, as it gives us that extra boost we sometimes lack. Every player will find a use for it however, and most will likely wonder why it wasn't in the original game. It can be employed in so many different and unique ways. Honestly, I didn't work much with the patriot units, as they require a surprising level of nuance all their own. On the one foot, their generals. But it seems like such a waste to use them exclusively in that way. While this unit is one for the pro's to work out, something tells me that they will be most useful in disrupting your opponent's resource chains, rather than enhancing or defending your own. The Lakota also have a few sneaky little moves up their tee pees. Although their ability to build in neutral territory didn't seem like much at first, my attack options skyrocketed after I slapped a fort down in no mans land, only inches from my enemies weak flank. Players are going to want to have a little experience under their belt before playing as the Lakota however, as they take some getting used to. The Lakota do not build farms. Instead, they get +5 food for every citizen they have, and this can be a sticky balancing act at the beginning of the game. Don't get me wrong though, in the hands of an experienced player the Lakota are going to be a force to reckon with.

I also found that the Iroquois mysteriously echo the originals games Mayan's with their subtle little defensive abilities, although not quite in the same manner. Healing for free is always a good thing, and it makes defending your territory a little less foreboding. The Iroquois are dressed for war, there is just no doubt about it. The Persians present several unique options at the start of the game, and played right, could have you well ahead economically as well as in the ages. Their focus on food, caravan maximum, and taxation upgrades all target important areas of the early game. The Persians may become one of the choice nations for new players, as their special abilities come in really handy early, when there is a lot going on. India can lie down and economic foundation with the best of them, and the freely upgraded war elephants do indeed pack quite a punch. I also found the Dutch to be fun, requiring a fairly different approach that I didn't recall experiencing with any of the original nations. The Dutch have certain gritty, down and dirty feel to them in this game. Though seemingly subtle, the Dutch point out one of Rise of Nations most key strategies, that being to get the absolute most out of what your nation does the best.

I have to say that this is only a small portion of the many new strategic options this expansion pack offers. An overview article on the government strategies alone would go a few pages, and the more complex decisions with patriot units and national abilities is going to take some extended study. The biggest single comment I can make is how seamlessly all of the new material fits into the core game. Rise of Nations still whirls and beeps along like it always did, with that ominous, heads up display of an interface silently updating itself like some grand dungeon master, keeping track of every kill and gold piece that comes along. This game is a work of art. There's no other way to describe it. With all of the comparisons made between the original game and the Civilization series, I have to say that this expansion pack does give Rise of Nations an even bigger Civ feel than before. Again this has a lot to do with the government feature.

As with the original, each of the new nations have specific architectures with some of their buildings, though some are more pronounced than others. The American buildings look particularly good, with their colonial motif and weathered appearance. Both the Iroquois and the Lakota have the wood and canvas look you would expect, yet the two are easily distinguished. All of the new models look really good, and despite the cultural and geographical similarities between some the new nations, the developers did a good job applying some variety here.

Thrones and Patriots also adds four full fledged campaigns to the game. The campaigns are Alexander the Great, which follows in the footsteps of one of the greatest generals ever. The Cold War, which pits America against the Soviet Union and allows for both conquest and peaceful outcomes. The Napoleonic Campaign, which gets into the subtle tactics and strategies that Napoleon utilized. The New World, which deals with many of the tactical considerations of the era. Finally, there are also some upgrades to the Conquer the World campaign that was native to the original game. All of these campaigns focus more on specific actions and occurrences, all designed to give the combat a little meaning. Despite the fact that this is only a beta copy, I can say that all of the campaigns seem well done technically, and will likely be an enjoyable experience for those that like to play strategy games in this way.

The expansion includes three new wonders, which are the Hanging Gardens, Forbidden City, and the Red Fort. With the Hanging Gardens, you get a +50 to your knowledge production, as well as a 66% reduction in economic upgrades. Forbidden City acts as an additional capital for your nation, and increases your food and timber gather rates. You are also not affected by either capital timer elimination or sudden death. Finally, the Red Fort offers several military bonuses, one of which is free fortress upgrades when playing in Conquer the World mode. It also packs a serious wallop. As with every other aspect of this expansion, these new wonders bring welcome additions to the game, and fit in well with the originals.

Another aspect with the beta is the new music. Myself, I considered the music in the original game to be the best music ever in any PC game. I enjoyed it so much that I actually purchased the games soundtrack DVD, and listen to it quite often. This expansion seems to offer several new tracks, all of which sound as if they were recorded at the same time as the original music. These new tunes are all quite good in their own right, and one of them in particular has a sort of funky bounce to it that had me humming much like the originals still do. Despite Rise of Nations overall lack of sound, no other game uses sheer music so effectively, switching dynamically on the fly depending on your current situation. Somebody should have won an award for the music in the original game, and the same appeal can be found here with the expansion.

I did also notice a few front end and interface innovations that seem to streamline some things. Nothing drastic however. Although the preview guide that came with the beta doesn't mention it, the graphics do seem a tad more defined with this expansion. Perhaps a slightly more pronounced feeling with the entire game. Aside from that, I've never seen an expansion pack quite like it. Thrones and Patriots adds to the Rise of Nations experience. It doesn't alter or change much of anything, and that's good because it didn't need to. It just adds to the mystique that this game already has. Consider that this is an expansion pack to an RTS game, and offers so much for the player to explore, yet it only has one new building! It adds new units with names like eagle feather horse and fluyt, but it all works. And that's Rise of Nations. Whoever moaned the distinction that the sum of the parts equals the whole could have easily been speaking of Rise of Nations.

Throne and Patriots is currently scheduled for an April release, which is a little upsetting because this is by far the most complete and secure marketing beta I have ever dealt with. Much of the game itself seems in place. There is a little art missing but everything else seems polished and tweaked just right. Get this, I've played at least ten solo games with this beta and have not had one crash. Not even so much as a slow down. In any event, it's a little sad that we have to wait until April. But rest assured that when April gets here, Rise of Nations will only get better, and based on what I have seen of Thrones, there is going to be some happy little Patriots out there.

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