By Todd Allen
With the release of Rise of Nations it looks like leaders of the strategy genre are going to have to make room for a new player. Big Huge Games, the company behind Rise of Nations, has struck gold by blending the best aspects of turn based and real-time strategy gaming. The product is a game that's deep enough to hold you for hours, but retains the approachability and pace of good real-time title. Nations has looked good all through its production and the final copy is right in line.
Right off the bat you can see the close ties Rise of Nations shares with both the Civilization series and the Age of Empires games. When you call this game a hybrid, basically think of it as a middle road between those two franchises. The buildings and units have that great detail you associate with Age of Empires. As you zoom out, though, and get a look at the big picture you know you are looking at something quite a bit deeper. Cities dot the landscape for one thing. You also have roadways and trade routes crisscrossing the terrain. You are not looking at a fort or even a sprawling town, but a whole civilization.
This becomes apparent as you progress through a scenario. Usually you start out with only one city, a couple farms, and some citizens (peasants in other games). As you build structures around your city it begins to take on quite an identity. As your resources and knowledge grow you are able to build more cities, which is where this idea of a civilization really shines. One city may be more industrially inclined, being situated in the foothills of a mountain where you grow food, mine minerals, and collect timber. Another city down the road may become a center of knowledge and religion, with libraries, universities, and a beautiful mosque or cathedral. Yet another city is located on the coast and enjoys a thriving maritime industry of fishing and naval activity. All of these small and large cities come together to offer a rich and diverse experience.
Rise of Nations is a mechanically sound game, where all of those things I described above happen in an organized fashion. As your resources grow you can gain new knowledge on how to run your nation in four distinct areas: militarily, civically, commercially, and scientifically.
These areas can be researched at any of your cities' libraries and progression within them yields great bonuses. For instance, the more military research you do the more units you can create and the more advanced your ability to make war becomes. Civic research leads to the ability to build more cities and expands your nation's borders. This is especially important for two reasons. First of all most structures cannot be built outside your nation's borders. Secondly, in most situations you can win a game by being the first to control 70% of the map. Borders may also grow with the production of imposing military structures like castles. Commercial research lets you harvest more resources and bolsters your merchant fleet that travels between cities. This is important because every time a trader enters a city you receive gold. Obviously more traders means more coin for yours truly. Scientific research leads to structures that enhance your efficiency like refineries, granaries, and lumber mills. As your knowledge progresses you are able to further your nation through the ages of time.
Age progression is handled very well in Rise of Nations. Your nation is not on a timer so you can feel free to stay in any of the eight timeframes you like. Once you have researched enough of the required areas you are able to enter the next age. Naturally you would not want to enjoy looking at your Praetorian Guards too long, though, while your opponent is developing machine guns and bazookas.
Something you'll also run into as you gain prominence is the ability to erect wonders. Several are available to choose from depending on the timeframe you are in such as the Roman Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower, or the Russian Kremlin. Besides adding luster to your city, each wonder adds bonuses like improved defense, faster troop movement, and improved line of sight. Indeed these are important structures for they embody the second form of bloodless victory available to you. Each scenario has a wonder point requirement. Each wonder you build produces wonder points for your nation. The first to reach the requirement automatically wins. Be careful, though, because your opponent is notified anytime you attempt to build a wonder and will no doubt do anything in his or her power to hamper your project.
Even though Rise of Nations offers a couple different ways to win without firing a bullet, the game really shines during military conquest. Players will command massive armies, navies, and later, air forces. The unit allotment is huge in Rise of Nations and rightly captures the feel of two actual countries clashing. Watching your troops march in battle formation, line up and begin firing on ones another, then break up to pursue opponents is cool, but to see it en masse is beautiful.
Armies will be hotbeds of variety, too. Besides light and heavy infantry players will eventually have access to machine gunners, flamethrowers, special-forces commandos, spies, assassins, and generals. Rise of Nations also supports unique units for each nation with special abilities. Troops are supported by a full spread of armored units like various tanks, artillery, and anti-air vehicles. The navy and air force sport just as much variety. This all adds up to endless strategy of how to mix and match forces as you send waves of troops to the front. With the tools Big Huge Games is handing us we can stage full-scale campaigns just like the real life nations today. That does include the threat of nuclear war by the way.
Rise of Nations comes packed with an addictive single player campaign mode fittingly dubbed "Conquer the World." You choose one of the 18 playable nations then go to work on a screen resembles the board game Risk. You are allotted territories at the beginning then go about moving troops to stage conflicts. Each territory offers several incentives to its capture with some offering more than others. A territory may contain a rare resource like diamonds, textiles, or precious metals all of which give your nation various bonuses. Territories may contain supply centers that add to the amount of armies you control. Also you may find that a territory holds a card. Each card offers a certain bonus that you may enact before battles. Every territory pays some amount of tribute. The game is round based, much like Risk. Instead of rolling dice to simulate battle you figure it out using the real-time scenario that has been described above. Also offered with Rise of Nations is a deep scenario editor that you could spend equally as long with, even staging some of the most famous battles in history.
Rise of Nations is a huge experience that will take you quite some time to fully grasp and digest. Thanks to a user-friendly interface and solid gameplay you'll no doubt come back to it long after you've beat it. Why not the fifth star then you ask? While Rise of Nations is an original and engrossing experience, it does borrow much from two established franchises. While you will no doubt enjoy yourself immensely, you probably will not feel that you have entered the "uncharted waters" of a trailblazing title. Still, even if you feel that this type of game has been done before in one way or another, few can claim to have done it better than Big Huge Games with Rise of Nations.