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PC Review - 'Rise Of Nations'

by Rainier on June 5, 2003 @ 1:12 a.m. PDT

In Rise of Nations, you'll create new cities, improve city infrastructures and expand national borders. Conquer foes through military might using everything from sling-shots to cannons to stealth bombers to nuclear weapons; corner the market on key commodities and consolidate power under your rule; wheel and deal across time with history's eminent cultures.

Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Big Huge Games
Release Date: May 20, 2003


After playing a major role in the development of several of Sid Meier’s classic turn based strategy games, Brian Reynolds set off to start up his own company, Big Huge Games, and to create his own masterpiece. That game is Rise of Nations, a strategy game built around the standard RTS engine. Widely touted by every faucet of the gaming community, it has been the hope of many that Brian Reynolds turn based roots would lend itself to Rise of Nations, and that many of the annoying aspects of the RTS genre would be absolved. By bridging some of the concepts of turn based strategy, with the pace and excitement of real time, not to mention the backing of the most powerful software publisher on the planet, could Rise of Nations defy both genres and take gaming to a whole new level?

Rise of Nations starts out in a lot of ways just like every other RTS games out there. It has 18 distinct civilizations, all with specific bonuses, and as many as five unique units per culture. It requires the player to gather resources, build up and army, and conquer enemy civilizations. There are eight different ages to reach, and each offers the player distinct advancements along the way. What separates Rise of Nations from the rest of the pack is the implementation of concepts common to turn based games, but not so common with real time strategy. For starters, you no longer build bases in Rise of Nations. Instead, you build cities, each with their own buildings and resources. Cities are how you expand in this game, and there are a lot of subtle little strategies that go along with them. Not all cities can have all buildings, and there are limits to how many of each buildings a city can have. The more cities, the higher your population, the quicker you gather resources. Cities are the very essence of Rise of Nations, and are the single greatest factor in the newly defined game play.

National borders is another concept new to this genre, which is essentially a large circle that surrounds your territory, the significance being that you can only build up your nation inside it. As you research technologies and build cities, your national borders expand, giving you more room to work with, and the enemy less. There are caravans that trade and raise gold between your cities, merchants that raise revenue from any of a multitude of rare resources the game features. And speaking of resources, none of them ever run out, but it is possible instead to experience another concept with resources, that being the commerce cap, which only allows you to collect so much of a resource before you start losing a percentage of what you gather. And its yet another concept generally new to this genre that ties all of this together, that being the concept of technology, and the implementation of a technology tree. Now be careful if your thinking massive technology tree, because that’s not the case.

Rise of Nations tech tree is divided up into four disciplines, military, civic, commerce, and science. Each discipline has eight levels of research to it. Want to raise a larger army? Research your military techs to raise the population level. Want to build more cities? You can build one additional city for each civic tech you research. Hit your commerce cap? Better check out your commerce techs so those extra resources don’t go to waste. All of the new concepts are tied to the tech tree, and every one of them can be manipulated from there. After researching a set number of technologies, and possessing the required amounts of resources, you can research the next age level, which will then give you access not only to the usual new buildings and units, but also allow you to research the more advanced technologies.

As with any RTS however, much of the emphasis is on conquest, and Rise of Nations hits a few new strides here as well. With over 160 units stretched out over the different ages, there is a lot of diversity. The battles themselves are really good and have that rough, edgy feel that few games of this type get right. The game actually awards bonuses for attacking the rear and flanks of your enemy, which is a nice touch and adds a subtle tactical layer. Of great importance here is unit balancing. While I haven’t played a lot of games yet, to this point I haven’t discovered any major balance issues between the units. As long as you advance through the ages and don’t get too far behind in military technologies, you should be fine.

Another subtle feature is that unlike other RTS games, Rise of Nations builds some units in groups of three. Not all of them mind you, but some of them. This takes a lot of tedium out of raising an army, and gets you a lot of soldiers quickly. At the same time, you don’t need a whole screen full of warriors to be victorious. Another notable concept is attrition. When your armies cross over into your enemies borders, they take attrition damage in the form of resource expenditure. This is done to model the effect of supplying your armies over long distances, and does have an impact on your economy. This concept alone all but abolishes the rushing tactics so prevalent with this genre. You can build support units to minimize attrition during war, but you still need a bustling economy to sustain battle for any length of time. While combat in most RTS games is almost exclusively about destroying the enemy, in Rise of Nations, its more about capturing territories and expanding. You don’t destroy the enemies city. Instead, you pound on it until it gives in. Once it does, the city then changes to your colors, but its still not yours yet. A two minute timer comes up, during which the city is actually being assimilated into your society. This gives the enemy that one last ditch attempt to beat you, and will be a welcome addition during multiplayer battles.

In an area where so many games in this genre fail, no review of Rise of Nations would be complete without mention of its stellar interface. Everything is all there. How much of a certain resource you need, how much you can gather per civilian, and virtually everything else you would want to know about your empire is right there, easily accessible. In fact, the interface here has the mesmerizing quality of at once showing you how complex this game really is, yet how easily it pulls it all together. It is all done very intuitively, with everything exactly where it should be. And a personal thanks to BHG for placing the majority of the tech upgrades in one building, the library. Its a lot easier than rolling around from this building to that building, trying to find a button to push. Very well done.

The graphics in Rise of Nations are slightly above average for an RTS game with a combination 3D/2D engine. Everything has this cartoon like appeal, and it generally fits the overall feel of the game well. There is the civilization specific architecture, and the unit models and animations are generally very good. Sound is a little less noticeable, but nonetheless effective. The usual orchestral flair is present during battles, but a nice, haunting little ditty shows up during the games more progressive moments. All good stuff.

There are however, a few nits that need picking. As good as they all fit together, the various new concepts and tweaks don’t always affect game play as much as you might think they would. While some of the nuances and mechanics are different, the final result is still the same. Raging battles that devolve into uncontrolled chaos, resources that take time to gather up, expensive upgrades, and the like are all still apparent here. The tech tree, for all that it brings to the table, is really nothing more than a bunch of upgrades assembled into one place and given a different name. The desire for one leads to the need for another. While it’s true that all of the new concepts make you think a little more, they also serve the dual purpose of controlling the pace of the game, and pace is the major issue here. Rise of Nations was designed so that it could be experienced in a ninety minute session. While this is kind of a neat idea, developers creating games that fit a time frame, it doesn’t necessarily fit well with the turn based hook. It’s important to keep in mind that, while the game employs several concepts normally associated with turn based games, those concepts are employed within the standards of what is a hardcore RTS. Rise of Nations is fast. Yes, it can be toned down quite a bit, but the standard game, on normal difficulty, cruises right along.

Another issue that might be a genuine problem for some is that the game doesn’t have a campaign of any kind, but instead ops for a mode entitled Conquer the World. In this mode, the player chooses a civilization and is then taken to a large map of the world. The player has one territory, with one army to go with it. There are of course other nations on the map, each with their own territories and armies. The player can either attack, or skip their turn and build up resources. If they opt to attack, they are taken to the normal game screen, and given one of many different scenarios, everything from fending off an invasion for fifteen minutes, removing a barbarian tribe from the area, to an all out assault on an enemy capital. Rewards for winning the various scenarios can be anything from resources, armies, or special cards that the player can use down the road. The idea here is to, well, conquer the world. While this mode is fun in its own right, it’s nowhere near as developed as the rest of the game. It IS fun, if not a bit simple. The problem is that some players may miss a true campaign mode. The game does come with a very advanced editor that allows you to create your own scenarios, so its likely that user made content will be available soon. One other eyebrow raiser would be the small pop cap of 200 units, although that can be manipulated through the technology tree.

With all of that said, there is still much to this game that I haven’t touched on. The game can be tweaked in just about any way you like, both through the games interface as well as through a script found in the games directory. While generally a hoot, a slight knock to multiplayer is the use of Gamespy to get connected. While Gamespy has come a long way, a game like Rise of Nations deserves its own built in multiplayer component, like the Age of Empires series. Otherwise multiplayer is very accessible here, with a ton of different options to set up any kind of game you could want. The game has really refined the whole civilian issue so that now they actually find something to do on their own rather than wait for you to tell them. When control grouping units, they are given a cool name like ‘1st Infantry’, or ‘2nd Combined’, giving things a neat little twist. The game is simply chock full of simple little innovations that really give it a feel all of its own, and has that special something about it that comes from being built with care. Despite the fact that the game is amazingly clean right out of the box, a patch has been released that deals primarily with a few multiplayer issues. Another patch is currently in the works, but as of right now it’s only going to tweak things a little, nothing major.

Truth be told, Rise of Nations generally lives up to the hype it created for itself. It’s not exactly the all encompassing hybrid some might have been looking for, but it comes mighty close, and does so much right in the process. I believe the game will appeal more to RTS fans than fans of turn based, and your personal preference is really the biggest judge, with your idea of fun being the most important concept of all.


Score : 9.3/10

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