Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: StainlessSteel Studios
Release Date: June 13, 2006
I, as it turns out, am not a fan of real-time strategy. Now, before you go dipping spearheads in acrid goo and lobbing them at my thinly protected cranium, please allow me to qualify that last statement a little. There are, most certainly, exceptions. Seminal and groundbreaking games like those that comprise the Warcraft series, Rise of Nations, and, of course, the outstanding Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War and its subsequent expansions engross my admittedly fleeting attention. In fact, sometimes late at night, I find my sweat-drenched body thrashing in my bed, clutching my sheets with white knuckles as I am beset with fevered dreams of a Warcraft: Dawn of Nations.
The problem is that I find almost every other RTS dull and repetitive. It's all a lot of go here, invade that, and it tires me out fairly quickly. This is all compounded by the fact that I have the tactical know-how of a conch shell, and have yet to understand how I can barely erect my "Building of Warrior Production" by the time that my easy computer opponent has begun to berserk rush me with his horde of "Automated Drones of Everything Destruction." These problems being what they are, I still can't help but get excited when I see a potentially good game in the making.
So it is that I am pleasantly anxious about Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War, an upcoming RTS that seeks, in a couple of major ways, to veer from the standard formula that most often plagues the genre. This isn't to say that the game departs from what definitely does work; it certainly offers the rote sword-versus-spear-versus-axe rock-paper-scissors element that has become the standard of war gaming, but StainlessSteel has thrown in few features that have been sorely lacking from similar titles.
The first of these prominent features is the inclusion of a hero system. While other RTS titles have offered hero units to the player, those units have usually been either peripheral to the storyline, or indeed essential. This is to say that the hero's death is either entirely ignored or causes the mission to fail. Neither of these is the case with most of Rise and Fall's missions. Heroes of the game's ancient Rome will, if defeated in battle, resurrect within a certain time period and rejoin their comrades in battle. It is also interesting to note who these heroes are. Choose Cleopatra's campaign, and you will slip into the bronze-hued skin of Cleopatra herself.
This brings to mind the next of the game's brilliant innovations: the ability to zoom from the breathtaking bird's eye view of the battle all the way into the body of your hero, granting you control of the character for a short duration. This vastly changes the entire dynamic of the game, from a detached sort of troop management click-fest into a down and dirty third-person hack and slash ordeal. Your Legions having some trouble dispatching that formation of Egyptians? Zoom into the body of Gaius Juilus Caeser and put the gladius to them yourself! Can't manage to rush the catapult in time to keep it from lobbing boulders into your dining room? Take control of Alexander the Pretty Awesome and launch an arrow into the trigger man's eye socket. These short moments of control not only do wonders towards breaking the monotony that can so easily infect war games, but they can also quickly turn the tide of a losing battle.
Perhaps my personal favorite of the new features, though, is the dramatic nature of naval battle. Never before has any RTS captured the intense and chaotic spirit of war on the sea so expertly. With the ability to outfit your ship with any combination of fighters that you see fit, ship-to-ship combat becomes as strategic an affair as land battle. Vessels full of archers send volley after volley into an enemy craft, softening up its defenses as smaller, quicker vessels careen into it and unleash boarding parties to finish it off. In all honesty, the naval aspect of Rise and Fall would be an outstanding strategy game unto itself, even without the inclusion of the land-based game.
The graphics seem to be coming along nicely. While individual units seem just a touch blocky in the preview build, hero units are finely detailed, and the terrain is nothing short of gorgeous. The color is easily the most striking aspect of graphical achievement, especially when two (or three) full armies take the field. Brilliant guidons adorn the units as they close into formation and prepare for attack, armor and weapons glinting in the sunlight. Ancient Egypt positively glows with vibrant purples and blues. The models in the game may be excellent, but the devil is in the details, and Rise and Fall is just about as detailed as an RTS can possibly be.
The sounds are no less convincing so far. Oh sure, there are the authentic reverberating rings of Mainz on mail, and the requisite shouts of troops in the sway of combat-induced blood frenzy, but don't you dare turn down your speakers before Hannibal's menagerie arrives. Again, the naval battles seem to excel in this field. I particularly enjoyed the creaking wood and splashes of men gone overboard mixed in with the already-chaotic sounds of war.
Ultimately, the most important thing that I can say about the preview build of Rise and Fall is the single strongest recommendation I am capable of making: I had fun. Be it Cleopatra's valiant struggle for liberation (read: world domination) or Caeser's brutal campaign against the forces of the non-Roman world, the campaigns are entertaining. Battle flows naturally, with moments of repair and rebuilding strewn in among moments of frantic bloodshed; it's your 10 months of waiting, 10 minutes of terror principle, only in reverse. If the shipped product in any way resembles the preview client, then you can bet it will be a game worth owning.
You must understand, to elicit my approval, an RTS must truly conquer the problems of the genre. It must not be boring, and any sort of rock-paper-scissors strategy must be easy to understand. It must have more than pretty visuals and exciting sounds. It must have depth, and it absolutely must be fun. In all of these categories, Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War excels, even in its pre-ship status. Who knows, perhaps come early June, when the game reaches shelves, my fevered dreams will include this new title.
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