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 ZONE 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 orcs - 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 start, 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 steampunk 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.