Rise Of Nations is a real time strategy game developed by Big Huge Games. One of the frequently noted aspects regarding Rise Of Nations before its release was the involvement of Big Huge Games President Brian Reynolds. Brian has previously been involved in popular turn based strategy games such as Civilization II and Alpha Ceuntari. Rise Of Nations is Big Huge Game's first creation.
However, as any gamer knows the involvement of a successful and possibly talented game personality doesn't always guarantee quality. So lets start talking about the actual game.
While Rise Of Nations (RON) is a unique real time strategy game (RTS), it is an RTS at heart and thus it conforms with all the usual real time strategy concepts. After starting a game you gather resources, produce units, build buildings, and more cities all in an attempt to meet certain victory conditions (diplomatic, military, etc). Rather than hash through the basics of a RTS game I'll deal with what Rise Of Nations a great RTS game.
Options Options Options
For whatever reason as RTS games have evolved there have been fewer and fewer options available to players in regards to changing game play. The focus seems to have moved from many options and single player replay value, to online play with relatively few options that might influence game play or strategy.
Fortunately, RON has a plethora of options available to change game play for both single and multiplayer. Anyone familiar with turn based strategy games will likely find the opening menu for RON's quick game (RON's skirmish mode) quite satisfying.
RTS only fans might find themselves a bit overwhelmed by the number of options, but not to worry, you'll still get a great game if want to leave the options as is, or only make minor or experimental changes.
An example of the available changes is the ability to limit or slow (or both) technological advancement. I'll get into this feature a little more is later when I talk about technology and the pace of the game.
Another great option is the ability to select particular types of random maps. If you're not interested in any sea battles you can chose to generate a land map or visa versa.
I could go through all the options but instead I'll touch on them as I comment on other aspects of game play, and just say that the various options are plentiful and balanced.
National borders aren't anything new to strategy games, but RON does make them more significant than most RTS games. National borders are established by the location of your cities, forts and your level of technological advancement.
In addition to raising your score and improving your view of the map, your borders also can serve as a means of defense. After the initial levels of technology your territory can deal "attrition damage" to the enemy. Essentially enemy units in your territory will slowly lose health.
The enemy can overcome this if they build supply wagons to accompany their expeditionary troops, however supply wagons are slow and thus slow down the enemy's advance, and add the job of protecting the supplies to the attacker.
In the end attrition is not a defense unto its self, you still must ultimately defend with your units. However, at the same time neither you nor your opponents can just sweep into town and take a city with no harm done.
The technology tree layout is simple, and well balanced. Unlike some games you won't be invincible if you're just one or even two military technologies ahead of your opponent, but you will still have an advantage.
The technology tree for RON is not complex. In fact it's less like a tree and more like just five bars associated with five types of technology. Since RON is an RTS and you don't have all day to decide what tech to upgrade, making the simple layout is convenient.
Also note that when you place your mouse over the type of technology you might wish to advance you'll get a great description of exactly what you're going to get out of it and what it will cost you. Just a quick glance and you will know where you stand.
Fast Pace & Technology
On standard settings RTS fans will probably find that they progress through technologies quite quickly compared to other games. Since the standard pace is pretty fast, you won't spend forever in any one period of advancement. However, you probably still will get a fight or two in most ages with the difficulty at a reasonable level.
If you wish to fine tune the tech advancement speed you can do so through the options menu. There you can select both the starting and ending technologies for that game, and/or adjust how quickly technology advancement occurs.
I am very pleased to see these options. Anyone who's played a lot of real-time strategy or turn based strategy games knows the boredom that can come from starting a game and playing with that same spearman for what seems like forever when you really just want to get some Rommel action on and tear it up with your tanks. Alternatively, you can become frustrated since it seems only late technologies allow for large-scale conflict due to limited resources. With the tech adjustment options in RON this is not an issue.
IMHO these options, while small, add a great deal of replay value to Rise Of Nations.
For some gamers the user interface is not a big deal, for others it can make or break the game. Personally, I'm a member of the later group.
If anything has frustrated me in RTS games over the last year or two it has been the incredible growing and elaborate taskbar at the bottom of the screen. While I appreciate someone might want to add some atmosphere to a medieval themed RTS with a neat gargoyle attached to my taskbar, it is quite annoying when it takes up valuable real estate and covers up the fact that my knights are being butchered by a dragon.
Of course there is a balance between a large taskbar giving you lots of controls, and the amount of space dedicated to game play. RON's taskbar is probably no bigger or smaller than most RTS games, but it is decidedly less distracting than most. It provides a large amount of easy to see and click buttons as well. It also can disappear if you wish leaving the mini-map up and giving you more screen to watch the action with.
The best UI feature in my opinion is the mouse over popup help. Both in the pregame menus, and the in game menus you only need to hover your mouse over a button, option, unit, resource, or just about anything and after a moment a surprisingly detailed description will popup to explain that item to you.
Note that for whatever reason the popups never seem to happen when I don't want them to. So when I say they work for everything, don't think they're going get in your way.
Single Player Campaign
The single player campaign mode in RON is called Conquer the World. It has been described as a glorified version of Risk. In fact this is somewhat accurate but I think alone is not a fair description by its self.
Basically here's how it works. You are presented with a map that looks like a Risk game. You have a world map, armies, and regions with fixed borders. This aspect does play like Risk. You start from your own land and can take empty lands or attack you opponents.
Once you make a move with your armies into empty land or land of your opponents you then are taken into what the manual calls the "Rise Of Nations Scenario". Basically it is a rise of nations RTS game, just like playing a skirmish game (RON calls skirmish games Quick Battles).
You then are presented with a goal. It could be to build a city and conquer your opponents, or defend a city for X amount of time, or take an expeditionary force of fixed size (ie no city to build more units with) and defeat your opponent. Accomplish that goal and you win the territory.
So in the end the single player campaign is just an excuse to play skirmish after skirmish that are tied together with a common goal, but still a good excuse.
The units in Rise of nations are the types of units you might find in any real time strategy. You have workers, military, and special units. When working with units you'll spend most of your time working with the military units, so that's pretty much my focus here.
The military units are also what you would expect to find in a traditional real time strategy game. You have infantry, cavalry (become tanks later on), siege weapons, and of course with later technology aircraft and missiles. The unit progression is balanced in RON in the sense no one upgrade suddenly gives your opponent a great advantage over you or the other way around.
Special units are units like spies, scouts, and leaders. Spies allow you to gather information on other nations. Scouts can scout around revealing areas of the map and are quite useful when operating with military units to spot spies.
The last special unit is the leader. When attaching a leader to military units that leader enhances their performance, and can use special abilities to enhance the units. An example is the entrench command. If you're about to be hit by a large army you can have the leader order your units to entrench. This provides them with a sizeable defensive bonus. There are other leader abilities as well.
Unique units are also included in Rise Of Nations. Each nation has several unique units. They basically take the place of standard units and have extra capabilities like improved defense, attacking power, etc. I'm not sure if each nation has a unique unit for each era but there are lots of them. Note that all units including unique units have their strength and weakness so if you know your enemy and properly counterattack you won't have to worry about them too much.
It depends on your point of view if the relative weakness of RON's unique units compared to other games is a good thing or not. I enjoy this aspect since the unique units can still be an effective tool, but aren't the beginning and end of combat.
Formations are pretty simple. Your units can line up in different formations such as line, envelop, and so on. The only downside in formations is that when lining up your troops they move to bring the most units as possible on the front line. This is not a bad thing alone, but this can be annoying since some lines can get quite long when deploying a large number of troops who line up in just a two man deep line.
I would like to have seen an option to be able to alter how thick or thin your lines are at times, and maybe have had an additional defensive formation like the British box formation for defense against cavalry. I should note that the long thin lines are often the most useful in the end, but other options would have been nice.
Unit upgrades are easy. When you advance to a technology where you can upgrade your units you select the building associated with your units (be it Barracks, Seige Factory, etc) and chose the upgrade. After the upgrade is completed (it doesn't take long) all associated units are upgraded.
There are two main types of resources in RON, one is standard resources and one is rare resources.
Standard resources are resources that everyone gathers by building the appropriate buildings to do so. They are the same standard resources you would expect in any RTS, Food, Wood, Wealth, etc.
Resource management is simplified in RON since the amount of workers assigned to a resource gathering building is a fixed number depending how much of that resource is near the building (i.e. A woodcutter camp can use more workers the more trees that are around it).
You do not need to gather rare resources, unlike standard resources. Rare resources serve as enhancements to your civilization. Those enhancements depend on the resource and can mean cheaper unit upgrades, more income from a standard resource or other such enhancements.
Note that if you are short on a particular standard resource you can expand by building more cities near more resources, but that is not the only option. You can also build resource-gathering enhancement buildings that will allow you to gather more resources from your current sources, or trade on the market. I'll comment on the market in the economy section shortly.
The ability to enhance your resource gathering abilities without necessarily expanding your empire makes the size of your empire and your starting location much less of an issue than it is in other games.
If you're short on a resource or have excess of any of the standard resources you do not have to go hungry, or waste. There is a fluctuating market where you can buy or sell your standard resources. Basically you have a screen with rows and a column for each available resources, one with buy, one with sell, and prices.
As far as I know the fluctuation of the market is random, but quite active (it changes every second), so you don't have to wait long to get a reasonable price in my experience.
Like the ability to build resource enhancing buildings, the market also allows those nations who might not have a great deal of one particular resource to still compete with larger nations.
The diplomacy options themselves are standard. You can declare war, peace, make alliances and exchange standard resources.
If there's a glaring shortcoming in RON it is the diplomacy options. The diplomacy screen is pretty straightforward for issuing proposals and understanding what your relation to other nations is. However, it provides almost no assistance for understanding the relationships between nations other than you own (i.e. alliances between other nations).
The way the diplomacy menu is laid out you'd think diplomacy was added late in the game as an afterthought. It is too bad because diplomacy could add a lot of depth to this game, but unfortunately the difficult menu takes nearly all of it back.
Sound & Music
The sound in RON won't blow you away, but it is adequate.
The music is a little more like music that you heard in a game like Civilization III, except a notably more dramatic. The music is thematic and changes from theme to theme. This collection of themes becomes more modern depending on the era you're in.
While I like the music as always I think it would be better if it had some sort of embedded MP3 player added as well.
If there's common complaint about Rise Of Nations that I've read most it is that the graphics are not all that special. Considering that Big Huge Games President is experienced with turn based strategy games, I wasn't surprised by the graphics leaning more toward the utilitarian rather than fireworks and giltz.
I tested RON on an 800Mhz system with 512 megs of ram and a GeForce 3 video card running at 1024x768 with 16 bit color. The only time I ran into slowdowns was during later stages of the game with large battles involving airplanes.
For the most part the graphics are simple but effective. They are not as cool as some other RTSs, but still a great deal more active than those in turn based strategy games like Civ III. They are still good enough to make battles plenty enjoyable to watch and in my opinion that is what counts.
The limited graphics also seem to make the camera zoom feature much more smooth than graphic intensive games.
I have to admit, I don't play much multiplayer (human). I'm going to leave the multiplayer review at this, the fast paced nature of RON, well balanced resources, and numerous options would seem to have the potential make multiplayer games a great deal more efficient and interesting than past games. However, since I have not played RON multiplayer I cannot say if this is the case or not.
I'm also hesitant to comment on multiplayer since it seems just about every strategy game that comes out that has online multiplayer support has some serious issues with it in the first few weeks, requiring a patch or two.
If anyone has tried Rise Of Nations multiplayer feel free to comment.
For those new to RTSs or those who just want a refresher, RON has a good tutorial that teaches the basics of RTS games and also shows off some of the unique features provided by RON. It's a good thing.
I've played a lot of RTS and turn based strategy games in my time and have become quite disillusioned by the hordes of uninspired RTS games released recently. I had hoped that someone would finally put out a quality product with some improvements, and Rise Of Nations is that game I was hoping for. Rise of Nations clearly benefits from experienced, knowledgeable, and most importantly, passionate development staff.
In the end Rise Of Nations takes the best aspects of real time strategy, polishes them up, combines them with some of the best aspects of turn based strategy, adds some new stuff, and makes it into one heck of a great RTS.