Genre: Real Time Strategy
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Big Huge Games
Release Date: Q2 2006
From the opening cinematic, you know you're not in familiar RTS territory. The battlefield scene which is short on logic and big on imagination features giant clockwork contraptions in a heated battle with fire-breathing dragons. Stone golems launch rocks at towering two-legged mechanical droids, and it's when the four-armed genie calls in the scepter-wielding soldiers riding colossal scorpions that you want to check what's in your drinking water. Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends takes place in a highly inventive alternate universe which is fresher than your mom's just-baked cookies, but if you prefer your logic to be logical and have a hard time suspending your disbelief, you might have difficulty swallowing this latest outing from Big Huge Games.
The three-part campaign mode follows the fate of Giacomo, leader of the Vinci people whose steampunk devices look like they were designed by the lovechild of Leonardo da Vinci and William Gibson. Giacomo's adventures will take him to the kingdom of the Alin, a land straight from the pages of 1001 Arabian Nights. In contrast to the quirky-yet-somehow-rational aesthetic of the Vinci, the Alin run on magic with genies, fiery dragons, glass golems and castles that float like hallucinations above the desert sands. The third race that you will encounter is the mystical Cuotl, who meld Mayan and Aztec imagery with futuristic alien technology to create units like the sun jaguar, the battle snake, and the devastating sun idol.
Of course, each nation has unique talents, abilities, strengths and weaknesses that will take a lot of play time to figure out and master. They are well balanced, and the key differences lie in their initial power. The Alin are fast starters with an emphasis on flying units, while the Cuotl are powerful but slow. The Vinci rely on technological advances conducted in the prototype lab to realize the true power of their units like the titanic land leviathan, a steam-powered nightmare held together by cogs and gears.
It's as if the designers hired three different artists from entirely different disciplines, gave them carte blanche, and threw their resulting work together. The result is a wondrous mishmash of genres and inspiration that has to be seen, and then you'll still have trouble believing it. The problem is that the three nations are thematically like oil and water, and founded upon entirely inconsistent rationales. Supernatural magic, invention, deity worship and alien technology are strange bedfellows. The linear revenge tragedy plot, which veers toward the lackluster end of storytelling, makes no attempt to explain their coexistence or history. The story leaves many motives unexplained, recycles the timeless and tired theme of good versus evil, and throws in some forgettable subplots, ending with an epilogue that promises a cash-cow sequel at some point in the future. That said, it is a nice change to not have to attack Nazis, and if you give it enough time, it's easy to get immersed in this fantastical endeavor.
Everything that made Rise of Legends so eminently playable is here in Rise of Legends. City borders and attrition damage are back, as is the ability to bribe or capture neutral outlying settlements to expand your influence. Research is similarly implemented with each nation possessing unique research tracks that confer strategic bonuses and the ability to buy new technologies. Instead of housing, you build up your city in districts, which increase the caps on your resources and population. Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, the city building aspect forces you to think strategically about what to build next, given your limited resources. Should you add another military district to allow you to grow your army, or build a merchant district to increase trade and wealth? In addition, you can grow your city to a large or great city which confers different bonuses and the ability to build new units. Like its predecessor, in between fights, you use the strategic overview to move your forces in turn-based fashion between provinces, and guard the territories you've already conquered by buying reinforcements and upgrading their infrastructure.
New to Rise of Legends is the ability to storm enemy cities. This can only be accomplished by foot soldiers, meaning you'll have to think tactically about the balance of your forces. When you attack the city, a number will appear, telling you how many foot soldier units are required to storm the site and reduce it to zero health immediately. It's an incredibly powerful option that can be difficult to pull off, and one that adds a new dynamic to capturing cities. Also new is the dominance power, which is awarded to the player who uses out-of-the-ordinary gameplay tactics. For example, the resource dominance, which allows healing of units in combat, is granted to the player who first accumulates, without spending, 500 total resources. Finally, each nation has its own powerful heroes who can acquire experience points in combat, which can be added toward their special abilities. These additions, along with upgrades, national powers and three different AI difficulties, mean that there are just as many paths to victory as ways to lose, and the fun comes in figuring out which ones work best for your style of play.
Some attempt is made to mix up the scenario objectives, so in one mission, you'll have to escort and defend your hero as he succumbs to desert-induced delirium. Another mission sees you chasing down a genie through a gauntlet of enemies to gain a key item, and elsewhere, you'll have to free key allies from prison before the enemy reinforcements arrive. These, however, are the exception rather than the rule, and many scenarios simply require you to capture the enemy city and defeat the enemy troops. Sometimes, a landscape will be divided by a yawning chasm, meaning you'll have to build cargo dirigibles to float your troops across to your opponent. Other times, a solitary bridge spanning a gorge will be the choke point where all the action will take place.
Each of the campaign parts has a distinctive visual style. The Vinci battles take place in a Mediterranean countryside resplendent in the colors of fall foliage and littered with the relics of ancient industries long since derelict. The Alin inhabit an arid and dusty region punctuated by the skeletons of enormous mythical beasts, while the Cuotl campaign is waged in the dense tropical vegetation of an almost supernatural rainforest. Although the environments are pretty static, they evoke the correct feel for each nation. When the battles erupt, the graphics shine, and the battlescape comes alive. Buildings erupt into flame and collapse in convincing shrouds of smoke, and the whole screen shakes under the impact of a large artillery shell.
The sweeping orchestral score with brass and strings adds a touch of epic to the proceedings, but the sound effects don't do justice to the fiery explosions and collapsing masonry. The only other thing that might ruin your enjoyment is the high demands placed on your system, especially in some of the more intense epic battles, where dozens of units crowd the screen.
Alongside single-player skirmish against the reasonably able AI, the game features a streamlined interface allowing you to enter online multiplayer battles with a reasonable degree of ease. Given that it's still fairly new, setting up an online game on a weekday was pleasantly pain-free.
Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends showcases great design that pays attention to what RTS gamers want. It doesn't tamper too much with the underlying engine that made the first game so great but adds just enough novelty to justify a second iteration. The fantasy setting may not be to everyone's taste but is unique and well worth a try. While the single-player campaign can drag in places, the almost idiot-proof online multiplayer option gives you a good excuse to keep coming back for more.
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