Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends
My Fellow Journalists mumbled something about a tuba, but it was clear the decrepit cab driver wanted us to bounce his own question back at him. So we did. "Nah, I don't play any instruments," he wheezed in response, "but I write songs... Ain't none of 'em been published though." Then, upon our request he started singing a ballad about being horny for George Washington as he veered dangerously about the streets of Baltimore at two in the morning, ignoring red lights and stopping in all the wrong places. We clapped our hands on our knees and sang along once we got the gist of the chorus ("I love you George, I love you, I do" followed by a hiccupping noise), and as we meandered through the peaceful Maryland suburbs I reflected upon how much fun I'd had on my very first press trip abroad. We were all in mortal danger of course, but that's hardly the point.
I hadn't gone all that way for an insane, musical cab driver though. Neither had I gone for a pair of British Airways socks (which I was alarmed to discover, disintegrate after a single wash). I'd been sent to play Big Huge Games' new strategy game, Rise Of Legends. Sound familiar? Well it should, it's the sequel to Rise Of Nations, a game PC dubbed "one of the most satisfying and addictive RTS games ever crafted", before giving it a Classic award and running along the platform with tears streaming down our faces, waving handkerchiefs as the game sped off into stardom.
Flight Of Fantasy
Some of us weren't running along that platform though, and admittedly the game only just snuck a Classic award. Despite its greatness. Rise Of Nations' isometric 2D graphics looked a tad dated and dealt with subject matter which strategy fans were all too familiar with. Tim Train, Big Huge Games' vice-president of development and operations explains why Rise Of Legends will turn that accusation on its head.
"With Rise Of Legends, we wanted to create a world in which as soon as you see it you're in awe of the way that world works and the way the graphics look. When we started off with that as an idea, we thought 'alright we want to do a fantasy game, but everyone who sets out to do a fantasy game starts using Tolkien'. Tolkien's the inspiration for pretty much every fantasy game out there, you've always got the elves and the dwarves and the ores -and while those things are certainly fun, we thought it was time for something different to come into the strategy market."
Creating a fantasy universe from scratch is no mean feat, but from what we've seen of Rise Of Legends so far, the developer seems to have carved out its own niche in terms of setting and style.
For a stall the game revolves around three new races which I'll list for you now in my own personal order of ascending coolness. The Alim are an Arabian race based in ancient Middle-Eastern mythology and dependent on monsters, genies, spirits and giant scorpion creatures - their cities float impressively on huge lumps of rock in the desert. The Vinci, on the other hand, are a race of Renaissance-themed steanipunk tech-heads, with machines, weapons and vehicles inspired by the sketches of Leonardo Da Vinci. Imagine massive, lumbering clockwork men and bizarrely shaped helicopters and you're on the right track - their buildings are brass and copper behemoths.
The final race, as if it couldn't get any weirder, are the Cuotl, a bunch of bloodthirsty Mesoamerican Aztec types who were enslaved by a group of aliens who crashed on the planet. These aliens set themselves up as the gods of the Cuotl, and as such the race acts as the halfway point between the technical Vinci and the magical Alim, using advanced technology which essentially constitutes magic. Their cities, as you'd expect, look Aztec in design and bizarrely enough, when you build new districts they're constructed somewhat digitally using a big red laser from the sky. Told you this would be weird.
Taking such a dangerous step away from traditional RTS themes was no doubt a brave choice on Big Huge Games' part. Tim Train continues: "The tricky part, and something which we realised once we'd started, is that the reason everybody draws from Tolkien is because people feel like they know that an ore is evil and warlike, and that elves are good and kind and in touch with nature. So the way we approached that problem was by drawing inspiration from our cultures throughout human history. That allows people to feel like they have a connection to those cultures and races. I mean, when you look at the Vinci race, yon understand they're inspired by Da Vinci, you know they're inventors and that they're all about technology. They dominate nature and extract all the resources from it'.
Besides the hugely original setting and the fact that the game is now in full 3D (another discarded gripe from Rise Of Nations). Big Huge Games has taken steps to add everything it missed out on the first time around. It's also refined the gameplay by removing many of tlie resources and replacing them with a few basics such as Timonium, an ore that can be mined, and Wealth, which can be gained through trading with caravans. Again, even things like trading are dressed up in Rise Of Legends' fantastic new style. Tlie Vinci race transport goods in propeller-driven blimps, while the Alim use scarab beetles to get from one city to the next.
The cities, while we re on the subject, have been overhauled too. You now start with a capital city which you can physically expand by building one of three types of districts around it For each of these districts you build, bonuses are granted in the form of more caravans for increased trading, more available military upgrades and other treats. The much-loved dynamic borders system has been left intact, and each race has been given a whole host of unigue spells, technology and units.
The Sky At Night
For example, one of the high-end Vinci technologies is a massive copper telescope which, while looking fantastic, allows you to cast your line of sight across a narrow cone-shaped area of the map in any direction. Couple this with another power, such as an epic spell which shatters an area of ground with nature-killing death machines, and you've got a powerful long-range attack combination.
Equally, heroes now take on the form of ancient Aztec gods, massive clockwork beasts and mythological scorpion kings, capable of laying waste to squads of foot soldiers with ease.
The Holy Trinity
Next on the list of things that weren't in Rise Of Nations but probably could've been is Rise Of Legends' full campaign and storyline. Three of them in fact one for each race, which follow the adventures of a young Vinci inventor named Giacomo. More interesting however, is the redesigned online mode which promises to refine the multiplayer game from the hour-spanning grinds of RON to 20-30-minute games. Micro-management has been toned down to negligible levels, while the district building aspects of the single-player game lend themselves to three distinct playing styles online: rush, economy boom or defend. Improvements to the online game also come in the form of custom maps with randomly generated elements such as mountain passes and rivers, and matchmaking algorithms taken from Xbox Live, as well as persistent stats and even a built-in messenger service.
So while Big Huge Games deserves every plaudit for attempting to forge ahead and take the genre to wonderfully new places in terms of style and art direction, it remains to be seen how well the three radically different races can hang together, and whether the Rise Of Legends universe will be even remotely believable.
Or perhaps a market drowning in World War 2 remakes and Lord Of The Rings lore may simply soak up such an innovative and dangerously brave idea. "When you put out a game, you never know how people are going to respond," enthuses Tim Train. "We're putting all our chips on people who are more or less done with the Tolkien stuff. The feedback we've had from the fan community leads us to believe we're on target - people are really responding to the new races. People have been saying for a long time that they want something different, and this game will deliver that, in gameplay and in the entire setting. We're happy with that and think people are going to be really into."
Whether it's in the cackle of a cab driver as he finishes his third performance of the evening, or in the minds of the guys at Big Huge Games, creativity is definitely abundant on the streets of Baltimore. However, we'll have to wait and see if either will be successful. And our money isn't on the George Washington guy.
You've got to dominate to subjugate
Now instead of pummelling your foes with brute force, you can meet objectives such as having the most wealth, or having the most foot soldiers to achieve Dominance in one of four areas and unlock special abilities. "You're competing for these Dominances in a non-military way,'' explains Big Huge Games' Tim Train. "It's not just about building up the biggest army and fighting in the centre of a map. Sure, that's a way to win, but another way is by being sneaky and taking Dominances, so that if the enemy comes along with a huge army, you have the power to summon your allies or steal his troops. Dominances allow you to gain an edge, not just because you've built a big army but because you were smarter than the other guy."
And to think I was starting to despair. After a barren 2005 for strategy games, things were beginning to look pretty bleak for a genre that had taken us to new realms of pleasure the previous year with the stunning Rome: Total War and brilliant The Battle For Micldle-Eartli, which, coincidentally, also happened to be the last RTS we gave a Classic award to. But finally, 19 issues of your favourite PC gaming mag later, we have ourselves another strategy game worthy of our highest accolade. And it's about time too.
Rise Of Nations: Rise Of Legends is a game that bucks the genre's recent trend of lazy follow-ons and substandard rehashes with such aplomb, that it not only eclipses the majority of its competitors, it beats them like it's their daddy.
Creating A Legend
As you probably already know. Rise Of Legends is the seguel to another PC Classic, Rise Of Nations. However, this isn't your standard rehash-of-the-original-with-better-graphics type of seguel. Oh no, no, no, far from it my warmongering friends. Instead of adopting this slapdash approach. Legends has focused its attentions on refining and expanding the original's already exquisite gaming mechanics - and the result is triumphant Apart from the core gameplay, there's little similarity between this and the original game. Gone is the historical earth-based setting, replaced by the sci-fi world of Aio, a planet dominated by three nations, all of whom are as diverse in culture as they are in unit types.
The Vinci is a fractious nation of industrial states, whose technology bears a strong resemblance to the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Their units are made from cogs and pistons, and include towering clockwork men armed with lasers, stomping walkers, mechanical spiders and some truly gargantuan super-units that have more kick than a crate of expired orange juice.
Next up are the Alin, a mysterious race of desert dwellers whose magical approach to life is in stark contrast to the Vinci's technological culture. Proficient in three schools of magic - Glass, Fire and Sand -their troops are entrenched in mysticism with fire-spewing dragons, scuttling scorpions and fat genies proving the mainstay of their armies.
Finally, you have the Cuotl, who not only sound like the noise you make when you choke on your pint, but also possess the game's most powerful and technologically advanced units - thanks to the influence of an alien race that crashed on the planet and installed themselves as gods among this primitive jungle-dwelling nation.
Divided into three campaigns centred on each race, you play as Giacomo (pronounced Jacka-mow, like you're an Italian or something), a young Vinci inventor who finds himself the unlikely saviour of a world threatened by three powerful and sinister forces.
A Game Of Two Halves
Just like Rome: Total War, Legends is divided into two sections, a turn-based campaign map and a real-time 3D battlefield. However, that's where the comparisons end, as Legends bears far more resemblance to traditional real-time strategy games than its epic rival.
For starters, Legends' campaign map is simplicity itself, proving much more streamlined than Rome's all-encompassing freeform war zone. The idea is to move Giacomo from one province to the next, conquering each as you progress on a realtime battlefield. The more regions you capture, the more powerful you become. Some of these provinces are simply there to help bolster your strength for the more challenging story-driven missions that are key to completing each campaign (with each conquered territory, your power grows while the enemy's diminishes). In fact, it's imperative to plan your campaign carefully, as successes and failures have a knock-on effect towards each campaign's final confrontation.
Time To Fight
Apart from a small entourage, you begin each real-time mission from scratch, meaning that you must build up a city, army and economy before you can begin conquering any one level. These expand-and-conquer missions are offset by an abundance of levels, which challenge you in a variety of ways. Defensive levels see you coordinating with sympathetic AI-controlled local factions and provide some of the game's best moments, while other mission goals include escort assignments, strike missions (which also require co-operation with computer-controlled allies) and a smattering of quirky hit-and-miss levels that delight and irritate in equal measures.
Legends' true genius, however, doesn't lie with its superb collection of missions, challenging AI, or its expert melding of a turn-based campaign with more traditional real-time skirmishes, but with its concept of expanding and contracting territorial borders.
You begin each real-time mission with a capital city, which can be expanded with military, economic or industrial/magical provinces. A simple two-click system makes this easier than stealing a blind man's shoes, which is just as well as there's a wealth of buildings and upgrades to concentrate your attentions on instead.
The size of your capital city and holdings determine how far your national borders extend, and how much territory you possess. Neutral cities can be found scattered across each level, and must be either bought (or in the case of the Cuotl, subjugated) or overrun to help extend your nation's borders beyond the reaches of your capital city.
Mine All Mine
As you'd expect, resources also play a huge role. However, rather than overburdening you with countless resource types like many other old-school RTS games still insist on doing, Legends has streamlined this often cumbersome process by only carrying two resource types: wealth (power for the Cuotl) and Timonium. Die former is generated by caravans, which dart around the map shipping goods from one outpost to the next, but their numbers are limited by the amount of economic provinces that your cities possess. Timonium however, must be mined, arid it's here that Legends once again shows its strategic innovation.
Y'see, Legends doesn't allow you to build a mine on any resource patch you feel like, instead restricting you to constructing mines on patches of Timonium in your own borders. What this does is force you to leave the confines of your city and expand, and as a result, missions rarely if ever deteriorate into slow-paced bores of attrition.
Hide behind your walls like a wuss and it'll only be a matter of time till your opponents expand around the map and become so economically powerful that they'll be able to build armies considerably larger than yours. After that, it's just a waiting game...
Bang For Your Buck
Forced to expand, missions become thrilling races for territorial dominance, where intelligent use of terrain advantage and canny positioning of buildings and defensive structures is paramount Once again though, there's a twist. Just like the legendary turn-based Civilization games (to which Rise Of Legends bears many similarities), you can use cunning economic tactics - rather than a brutal, warmongering, military approach - to gain the upper hand.
Concentrate on expanding your cities with economic and industrial provinces and you'll soon have enough cash to buy the loyalty of neutral tribes and cities, enabling you to stretch your borders without spilling a drop of blood. And seeing that each neutral site's armies become yours once you've bought them, you'll quickly find yourself controlling a sizeable force for the final push against your opponents' capital cities.
But wait there's still more. Other great features include Trump Cards that give you temporary bonuses, unique, branching tech trees for each race and a superb collection of heroes (see 'Blowing Your Own Trumps', page 67 and 'Legends In The Making', left). In fact, not since Warcraft 3 has there been such an intelligently and imaginatively designed set of champions, with each hero blessed with unique powers and skills that either augment your armies or cripple your foes. Using these abilities wisely really can be the difference between a heroic victory or a humiliating capitulation.
So, let's say you've captured a territory and you're back on the campaign map. Now what? Now you allocate the bonus points you've earned during your last mission to various categories, that's what.
King Of The World
Enhancing your provinces with military, economic, magical or industrial upgrades will benefit your overall war effort Be aware that military upgrades are especially important, as the enemy will constantly attempt to retake the territory that you've wrested away from it.
Points can also be spent on boosting your heroes' powers, unlocking new units and upgrading existing ones. The sheer scope and depth of Legends is immense, yet its interface has been crafted with such care that you rarely if ever feel overwhelmed at the mass of options and possibilities on offer to you.
Rise Of Legends is a joy to play, a beacon of light shining out from the glut of RTS mediocrity we've been assaulted with over the past 18 months. But despite its mountainous merits, Legends could have been even better. Had it not been for a few shortfalls, it could have been the closest game in years to threaten Total War's dominance of the genre.
For starters, the plot, while fairly entertaining and at times intriguing, lacks a certain amount of direction and cohesion, often making giant leaps without adequately filling you in on essential background information and details. The tutorials also leave much to be desired. Incorporated into each campaign's early missions, they prove little more than adequate, and while there are help menus, it's a chore to have to wade through them to uncover some of the game's more subtle features. Voice-acting is also a little hit and miss, with some accents slipping more than a greasy sausage on an ice rink.
The game also seems to lose its way a little in the barren wastelands of the second (Alin) campaign, relying a little too heavily on quirky, directionless missions rather than the tightly crafted levels of the excellent Vinci and Cuotl campaigns. Don't get me wrong, the Alin campaign is by no means poor, far from it in feet and it's perhaps testament to the sheer quality of the other two that it stands out as one of the game's weaker areas.
The Rts Is Back
Whatever you do though, don't let these few negative niggles put you off, because Rise Of Legends is a work of genuine brilliance, an RTS packed with innovation, strategy, imagination and endless hours of enjoyment Its ' three factions provide one of the most diverse collections of playing approaches and unit types of any RTS game in recent years. Plus, its multiplayer features are among the best I've seen for a long time and the game's sheer attention to detail is complemented by an interface that's more streamlined than a bullet.
Despite being more focused than its predecessor (thanks to its story-driven/freeform campaign), Legends still possesses more than enough freedom and scope to satiate the tactical cravings of even the most hardened commander.
By taking all that's best from the realtime build-and-conquer template, mixing it with elements of Civilization and Total War, and wrapping it up in an impressive (though not quite eye-popping) engine, Big Huge Games have taken the genre in a bold and exciting new direction.
Put simply, Rise Of Legends is the Rome: Total War of traditional strategy games -and the title that's finally put an end to a barren period for the genre. And with Medieval 2 and Supreme Commander on their way, this could just be the start of a very exciting new era for RTS gaming. Here's hoping.
Download Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode