Rise of Nations
Cast Your eyes around at these screenshots. Looks all right doesn't it? But hold on just a minute, haven't we seen this kind of thing before? OK, it was a few years ago now, but our memory isn't that bad, and if we're not very much mistaken Rise Of Nations looks suspiciously like Age Of Empires. We're not talking AoE2 either - we're talking about the first one.
Yeah, people do have that first five second visual impression," explains Brian Reynolds, lead designer on Rise Of Nations and co-founder of Big Huge Games.
Both games are RTSs about history, so there is a certain amount of natural visual similarity there," continues Reynolds, however, when people get their hands on Rise Of Nations and start playing it, they soon realise that when it comes to gameplay it's actually completely different. RoN does not play like a classic real-time strategy game. Plus, a lot of people have been to that buffet line now and they're comfortably full."
And do you know what? He's spot on. RoN actually has more in common with Civilization than AoE, Empire Earth or Age Of Mythology - not surprising considering Reynolds and Big Huge Games' other co-founders, Tim Train, David Inscore and Jason Coleman have between them worked on titles such as Civilization 2, Colonization and Alpha Centauri.
So, although familiar RTS gameplay elements like collecting resources, building armies and attacking your opponent with everything bar the kitchen sink are still very much in evidence, RoN also draws you into a world where long-term economic strategy is just as important as short term military gains.
I remember putting national borders in Alpha Centauri," recalls Reynolds. It was an early concept of what we're doing now. It was pretty simple and I remember thinking to myself why don't any RTS games have something like this?' We were surprised nobody had done it and thought it was time to try out some turn-based ideas in a real-time world."
And it works brilliantly. As you progress through a game, the borders of all nations expand or contract depending on a combination of factors ranging from number of cities under their control to economic and military strength. During one particularly intense engagement in which our intrepid British forces attempted to occupy Paris, the border constantly moved back and forth as we sacked the city and then lost it again after a series of feisty French counter-attacks.
The types of buildings you have in your cities also influences territory size. Universities, temples, libraries, market places, and Wonders all contribute to national strength.
Of the 20 or so civilian and military buildings available to you, the library is probably the most important. Much of the game is spent visiting these hives of knowledge to research new technology and advance from one age to the next. In total there are ten different ages on offer starting with the Classical Age (1 BC) all the way through to the Information Age (2000 AD), as well as four separate research trees covering commerce, military, civic and scientific innovations.
The commerce aspect of technology allows you to create caravans that can be used to trade luxury resources between your cities and other nations. Goods such as tobacco, horses, diamonds, peacocks(l), relics and more can be uncovered on the map, again in a very similar manner to the Civ games. And in a distinct nod towards Civ 3, commodities such as oil aren't even visible until you've attained a high enough level of research to recognise their importance.
Military research speaks for itself obviously, but it also has another use. Interestingly, RoN doesn't use the hut' concept of army growth, ie the more homes your city has the larger your force. Instead, it's your level of military research that is directly responsible for the maximum amount of units allowed. In other words, the more military technology you've researched, the bigger your army - it actually makes a lot of sense. One advantage of this is that you don't have sprawling shantytowns taking up half the map. Instead you're left with an uncluttered base leaving more space for key buildings, and of course the odd Colossus. Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty. It also means that you can only reach the unit cap (200 units) towards the end of the game, thus virtually eliminating rush tactics early on.
Civic research concentrates on improving quality of life within your towns and cities. Granaries, lumber mills, mines - all that kind of thing can be researched here. And the final research trail, science, imparts important knowledge such as reading and writing, mathematics, physics and all those other egghead inventions that ultimately are likely to cause other nations a lot of pain.
Not In My Name
One thing a game focusing on the rise of dominant world powers needs is an interesting array of cultures, and Big Huge Games does not disappoint. Eighteen different playable cultures have been crammed into the game including Britain, France, Spain. Russia, China, and early Native American cultures such as the Mayans, Aztecs and Iroquois. But just how different can they be exactly? After all, is a Spanish archer so different from a British one?
This is a game about history, so you're not going to get the Zeurg and the Protos or something like that," says Reynolds. But in the context of staying true to history we've made them pretty dramatically different. The Chinese can instantly build any economic unit and that's a huge power to have to be able to instantly pop them out at the drop of a hat. The Spanish start with the entire map revealed, their scouts see further and they get more bonuses for exploring than anyone else."
In fairness, both AoE and AoM offer similar kinds of cultural options, even if they don't have quite as many to choose from. But what neither of these games can offer is the ability to play everybody off against each other at the same time.
By far the most impressive feature of RoN is the option to play the Conquer the World campaign. Unlike most RTSs that are content to offer a story and then take the player through this story mission by mission, RoN goes down the Total War route. Basically, a map of the entire world divided into territories (a la Risk) is shown on screen and it's up to you to dominate the planet as your chosen nation.
Each territory has certain bonuses associated with it. Some may have a supply centre that gives you an extra army, some may have high tribute rating (meaning more cash), whereas others could be rich in resources.
It's here where BHG's turn-based pedigree truly comes to the fore, because essentially that's exactly what this part of the game is: a turn-based strategy game. Fans of Total War will undoubtedly find the whole process remarkably familiar, but what Total War doesn't do is take this turn-based gameplay into the RTS portion of the game. So, once you've selected which territory to invade and begun the real-time battle, that ever present, ever shifting visual border on the ground allows you to picture in your mind the changing face of the entire world map.
Yet, as with most aspects of this game it's not all about military dominance. When the sword or tank fail, you can always try to form alliances or treaties to buy yourself land. RoN's diplomacy options have come straight out of the Civ draw. Aside from the wheeling and dealing in the campaign mode there's also a standard game mode known as The Diplomacy Game.
Give Diplomacy A Chance
Here eight players negotiate their way to victory without spilling a drop of blood on the battlefield. It's a weird concept having an RTS game where you don't have to fight, but again the fact that the developers have actually stuck their necks out by trying something different is commendable. It's yet more evidence of the determination these people have to advance the RTS genre. There are other options too that allow you to configure the game settings to play as you like. For example, you can set it up so that you have no combat until the Gunpowder Age, or even arrange it so nations receive a series of forfeits if they set foot on enemy soil without proper authorisation.
Ultimately RoN offers so many ways to play and so many ways to win the game that it's hard to see how you would ever become bored of playing it. We've waited a long time for an RTS to truly push forward the boundaries of gameplay, and in RoN we believe we may have found what we've been looking for. Watch for a review very soon.
Download Rise of Nations
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode