Rise Of Nations
4th Jun 2003 | 15:17
If you're going to start a war, then do it from the safety of your PC. Keith Pullin did just that - and now he rules the world
When was the last time you played an RTS and thought, "Yes, this is different, this is new"? At a guess, it's probably been a while. OK, C&C: Generals is good, but it's still nothing spectacular - the same old chassis with a few external modifications. 3D engines may look good, but they're also guilty of putting gameplay ideas on hold. In some cases they even hinder it - just look at Highland Warriors.
The last truly evolutionary RTS has to be Total War. Aside from the ridiculously large 3D armies (even if controlling 8,000 pixels on the horizon is still not everybody's cup of tea), it boasts an inner tactical depth that goes beyond mere 'rush' tactics and allows the player to consider the global situation away
from the battlefield. It is without question the most accomplished and thoughtful RTS on the market. Until now.
CIVILISATIONS IN DISGUISE
What we have in Rise Of Nations is innovation, imagination and the creative impetus of designers who have basically said, "Right, we're turning Civilization into a RTS game."
If you read last month's preview, you'll be familiar with this quirky idea by now. Still, we'd better apologise, because this is something we will come back to time and time again over the course of the next six pages. The inescapable fact is RoN really is a real-time version of Civilization III - this is an RTS that plays by turn-based rules.
But Civ is not RoN's only source of inspiration. Visually, it's the absolute spitting image of Age Of Empires. The first time you emerge onto the main isometric play area, you will be convinced that the pale-faced apprentice who works down at your local game shop has swapped CDs and given you Ensemble's erstwhile RTS classic by mistake.
Sadly, these days AoE is hardly a glittering showcase of cutting-edge visuals. Consequently, RoN's graphics do the job and nothing more. Frills such as birds circling the battlefield as well as decent unit animation breathe a little life into the static landscapes. And you have to admire the way each culture in the game has a different graphical style, and in many cases completely unique units too. But overall, there's none of the beauty of C&C: Generals' lush 3D world.
Yet it matters not. Big Huge Games has taken the sensible if not fashionable view that gameplay comes before looks. Besides, show us a strategy game that's become a classic purely because it's pleasing on the eye. Great gameplay comes first. Graphics are, and always will remain, secondary in this genre.
One of the main reasons RoN has gamplay in abundance is down to its concept of national borders. This real-time, shifting coloured line across the battlefield indicates the limit of your territory. Yet, it also represents so much more. By watching your border edge forward or slip backward, you can gauge exactly how powerful your nation is compared with your neighbour.
One of the most obvious ways to increase the size of your territory is to found new cities. In fact, success in RoN lies in your ability to spread out as quickly as possible from your capital city in a manner similar to a turn-based game we may have already mentioned. But like Civ, you can't just wander about setting up cities here, there and everywhere.
Firstly, there's location to consider. Is it near a good source of metal and wood? Is the land fertile enough to farm? Is it easily defendable? You also need to have enough food and wood available to actually start building. But most important of all, you need to make sure you have researched civic technology at your library. Each level you advance up the civic tech tree allows you to build one more settlement. There are seven levels in total, so while you can only build seven cities per map (which is more than enough - believe us) there is of course the added option of capturing enemy cities to increase your numbers, and ultimately your overall national strength.
Technology is crucial in RoN. As well as civic technology, you need to research military, commerce and science. As a general rule the nation that wins a battle tends to be the nation that's completed its research tree first. The knock-on effect of this is that you can often become bogged down in managing your economy in order to gather enough resources to research your tech, when all you really want to do is raise an army and, well, raze.
Thankfully, the single-player skirmish mode provides a variety of options aimed at minimising this problem. There's even a turbo resource-gathering mode that means you can literally forget about your economy and concentrate on destroying the planet instead.
It may also be worth noting that due to the immense amount of upgrades available, it's very easy to forget where to find the upgrade you want. This problem is compounded by the fact that sometimes an upgrade seems to be completely misplaced. Why, for example, is the upgrade to increase your ships' speed found in a granary? Call us picky, but maybe that kind of technology is more suited to the docks building.
THE WONDER OF TECHNOLOGY
Other ways to push your borders forward include constructing things like universities (which also increase the knowledge of your nation), temples, farms, fortresses and markets.
Markets are particularly useful as they allow you to build caravans that link your cities and increase your income through trade. They also produce merchants who ride out on their faithful mules to set up shop next to various luxury resources dotted around the map, such as lemon trees, gems, horses, rubber, uranium and oil. These luxury resources differ from the five basic resources of wood, metal, food, money and knowledge, mainly because they only become visible when you have reached a certain technology level. Oil, for example, can only be collected once your nation has reached the Modern Age. Your nation will have no real use for it before then anyway. With no tanks to run, ships to sail or planes to fly, what use would you have for it anyway? Another perfect example of how RoN manages to take an idea from the turn-based Civ III and convert it seamlessly into an RTS.
Adding other essential constructions like barracks, stables and war factories to increase your military presence is yet another way of expanding your borders. And Wonders too play a significant role in defining the relative strength of your nation. Knock out a quick Palais de Versailles or Taj Mahal and watch as friends and foes alike recoil in awe.
Borders effectively add a whole new dimension to RTSs that simply hasn't been considered before. But some will no doubt argue it's merely a gimmick to make the map look more interesting. In fairness, if you analyse actual battle mechanics there isn't a huge difference between RoN and its peers. The same tried and tested RTS theories apply - elevation is critical; don't use archers against heavy infantry; establish defence before offence - it's all the usual stuff. And yet if you take away the borders, there's no doubt the game would change significantly. Attrition damage and major game options associated with this attribute would disappear, and many of the technology upgrades would be useless too.
There's no doubt the advantages of seeing your borders drawn on the map are easy to appreciate. With them, you can instantly see how your actions are affecting the overall strength of your nation. If a border is gradually falling backwards, you know you've got a serious problem that needs to be dealt with. If a border is constant or moving forward you know you're onto a winner.
NIGHT AT THE THEATRE
RoN sets itself apart from other RTSs for another reason - the campaign mode. Bucking the current trend for story-telling, RoN goes down the same route as Total War by having an overview strategic map (the entire world in this case) which is divided up into territories.
Placed into this international theatre of war are 18 nations including Britain, France, Spain, Germany, China, Egypt and Russia, to name but a few. You can choose to battle it out for complete global supremacy as any one of these at the start of the campaign.
Each territory on the map contains prizes such as resources, cash tributes, wonders and supply depots offering extra armies. And the AI-controlled nations are more than aware of the strategic advantages of these features. Some home in on resources, others rush to simply gain as much territory as possible, while others head straight for the supply depots.
AI for all 18 nations is wonderfully varied and well balanced. You can expect the same kind of tactical variation when you get down onto the actual battlefield too. Germans in particular are extremely defensive and take a lot of breaking down. Aztecs meanwhile are overtly aggressive yet leave gaping holes in their lines that can be gleefully exploited by the resourceful aggressor. The only part of the AI that is even slightly dubious is the occasional tendency for units to struggle finding a way across water. Pathfinding eh? As always we're at its schizophrenic mercy.
Decisions are not just governed by what territory to take though. Buying, or indeed capturing, bonus cards is something that proves just as important. These handy little trump cards can be played before a battle and can benefit you in several ways. Some cards allow you to collect battlefield resources faster (like food, wood and metal). Others completely disable an opposing nation's special power for the duration of a battle. If you were fighting the Spanish, for example, you could play a card to eliminate their ability to see the entire map from the start. And propaganda cards are especially welcome, seeing as it's something we've all become so accustomed to recently.
In total there are 20 cards available, and it's pretty amazing how often you find yourself relying on them, and not just your traditional RTS, skills to gain the upper hand.
CAN'T BUY ME LOVE?
Managing your campaign is reminiscent of those maps of Iraq we keep seeing on television. Arrows indicate where reinforcements can move in from, and you can see at a glance exactly in which territories your armies are positioned. However, unlike the war in Iraq, RoN provides you with a chance to buy territories using an ancient art called 'diplomacy'. It's very effective, it averts bloodshed and we highly recommend it.
The amazing variety of strategies on offer makes RoN a truly unique gaming experience. You can actually find yourself pondering for what seems like hours over your next move. Invade France? Form a treaty with China (after all they keep those feisty Japanese at bay)? Push on into Africa and capture the Pyramids? The options are endless, and it adds up to a non-linear RTS experience you can play over and over again.
ON YOUR OWN
If the world domination campaign doesn't tickle your fancy then panic not. As mentioned earlier, you can participate in one-off battles against up to seven other nations. These skirmish battles have so many configurable settings you could play a hundred games and face a different challenge each time. 'No Rush', 'Diplomacy', 'Assassin', 'Barbarians at the Gates', 'Peaceful Tech Race' - the variations on the tried and tested RTS theme are immense.
You can even adjust the starting age. So if you want to fight in the Information Age with tanks, battleships and nukes as opposed to the swords, carracks and catapults of the Classical Age, you can. It's up to you whether you want to fight in 1BC, 2000AD, somewhere in between, or battle your way through all seven historical ages in a gruelling war spanning two entire millennia.
Further increasing the challenge are six difficulty settings. The easiest allows you to smother your foes like a wrestler pinning down a small kitten. Yet, at the other end of the scale you struggle to chop a tree down without your wily foes mysteriously appearing from nowhere to slaughter your hapless lumberjacks. Rounding off the one-off battle mode is a selection of around 16 maps. Granted, this is not a huge amount, but it's more than enough when combined with the other customisations on offer.
Again, like the campaign mode, RoN's ability to conjure up so many options and provide the player with so many ways to play the game is extraordinary. What's more, you'll be pleased to know that all the above options can be implemented in the multiplayer game.
So, Rise Of Nations is here, and with it comes a foil-wrapped freshness and unique perspective that we have never seen before; revolutionary national borders, a world domination campaign, 18 different playable cultures, 32 luxury resources and crucially, that all-important gameplay.
Graphically, there is certainly room for improvement, and doubtless a full 3D assault on the likes of AoM, Generals and Total War is the next step forward.
Sticky moments in economy management and the occasional pathfinding mishap are further shortcomings, and ultimately it means RoN equals but doesn't better Total War. But these are minor flaws, and we're not taking anything away from what BHG has achieved with, and let's not forget this, its very first release.
If you're looking for an endlessly entertaining, bold new direction in strategy gaming then look no further than Rise Of Nations. Quite simply, it's one of the most satisfying and addictive RTS games ever crafted.