Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends
18th Apr 2006 | 13:52
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.
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 orc 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, you 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 the 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. The 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 unique 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 longrange 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 II 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.