Publisher: Microsoft Games
Developer: Big Huge Games
Release Date: Q2 2006
Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, the upcoming real-time strategy title from Big Huge Games and Microsoft, is one of those games that comes out of nowhere and really surprises me. When I installed the preview build, what I expected was a fairly polished, and fairly complicated, RTS experience. What I got instead was a highly polished, truly fun RTS game. For any who have read my other articles, you know how I normally feel about real-time strategy games and my general level of success; for those of you who haven't, it's enough to say that the words "complete lack of skill" and "cannon fodder" come up frequently. The single-player scenarios I played in Rise of Legends still managed to abuse me, but I had a lot of fun in the process, and fun is what it's all about, isn't it?
Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends is the story of competing civilizations. The Alin, a race of warriors from desert regions, are a magic-wielding force heavily inspired by Arabic mythology. The Vinci are their immediate counterpart, representing a technological society whose design is heavily inspired by the work of Leonardo Da Vinci. The preview build only had these two races available, but the developers have since revealed the third playable race in Rise of Legends - the Cuotl. The Cuotl are an alien race whose technology is so far advanced that it appears to be magic.
The first thing that struck me when firing up the game for the first time was the stunning visuals for Rise of Legends. The designers truly took the theme of each race to heart and have created amazingly detailed and inspiring units and buildings, and the programmers have implemented them with true artistic talent. The world of Rise of Legends is a great mixture of steampunk and magic, and the competing nature of the two is well represented by the design and art for each of the two races.
Beyond the visuals, Rise of Legends is a highly refined RTS experience; Big Huge Games has taken some of the best of the genre and polished it, leaving behind much of the tedium of other titles, resulting in a game with great depth and tremendous fun. For example, the buildings available to the player are not just about what units they provide, or the improvements they can research. Many of the buildings also provide overall bonuses to the players' units, forcing players to make strategic decisions on multiple levels about which structures to build.
The concept of districts is a perfect example of this concept – three types of districts are available as additions to the cities a player controls. Each of the districts allows for different paths, military, commercial, etc., and, depending on the player's focus, each will lead to a different playing experience, even when playing the same race. I didn't play Rise of Nations, so I don't know if this is new to Rise of Legends or something carried over from the previous game, but either way, it is an innovation to a genre that has too often been labeled stagnant.
This shift in the approach to structures and units has led to a significant change to how this particular RTS plays, and I have to state that is a most welcome change. What I found as I played through the preview build was that I no longer had the luxury of the "building phase." I can be a real turtle when it comes to RTS games, and I found I really had to push myself to keep up with Rise of Legends. Players no longer have those 10 minutes at the beginning of the game to build and accumulate forces before going out to slaughter their opponents, or, at least, that time has been greatly compressed. The choices I made from the very beginning had a significant impact on how the match went; the time it takes to get into the action, or to the decisive part of the match, has been seriously shortened. This leads to a very entertaining, very fast-paced game that seriously challenged me.
Another major difference I noted was the real difference between the two races. The Alin and the Vinci are not merely re-skinned versions of each other but are two unique forces that play completely differently and have very distinct strategies. The Vinci units, as follows suit with their inspiration, are works of art that are built to last. Their units are expensive and become increasingly more so as the player continues to build, so purchases must be carefully considered and weighed. The Alin, on the other hand, as the magical race, are all about units that are quick and easy to build, but disposable. They are unable to go toe-to-toe with the Vinci. Where the Cuotl fall in relation to the other two is a bit unknown, but undoubtedly, it will be well balanced, as the other two are exceedingly so.
When I first fired up Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, I expected another polished, straightforward RTS experience. Given the reputation of Big Huge Games, I had expected nothing less, but I had few expectations for anything new or innovative. What I experienced instead was a streamlined, terrifically enjoyable game that gets you into the action quickly and keeps you thoroughly challenged and on your toes.
Even in this early state, Rise of Legends is already an experience with great depth, fully realized strategy, and tons of potential. Microsoft and Big Huge Games have another hit on their hands here, and the RTS genre has a much-needed infusion of creativity and imagination. If this early build is any indication of the quality of the final product, fans of the genre should keep an eye out for this title and grab a copy without hesitation.
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