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Rise of Nations

Published by Microsoft Game Studios
Developed by Big Huge Games
Platform: PC CD-ROM
Released - Out Now
Price : £34.99

To fans of turn-based strategy games, Brian Reynolds is a legend. Designer of both Civilization II and Alpha Centauri, it's fair to say that he's behind some of the greatest games of all time. Of course as you all know Brian had begun work on Civilization III but was to leave Firaxis (and his fabled partnership with Sid Meier) to form Big Huge Games. Rise of Nations is the first game from BHG and what a game it has turned out to be.

When Age of Empires was first released it was claimed it had elements of Civilization. While there may be similarities it's fair to say that Age of Empires, and its sequel, are basically combat heavy RTS games. Whilst the Civilization analogy was incorrect for Age of Empires, it would be accurate to say that Rise of Nations is perhaps as close as we are going to get to a real-time Civilization. If you've seen the screenshots Rise of Nations looks very similar to the AoE series but playing the game for any length of time reveals a deeper, more satisfying experience that you could only previously obtain from a turn-based strategy. Rise of Nations is just as comprehensive as Civilization in the amount of history it covers too. There are 8 ages to progress through in all (as with Age of Empires, various criteria must be met in order to be able to advance an age) and these range from Ancient Age to the Information Age. Unlike Empire Earth though, there are no space ages which will come as relief to a lot of RTS gamers out there.

On paper the game seems like a twin brother of the Age of Empires games. There are 18 nations which include the Romans, Incas and Egyptians. As with AoE, the greatest feature is the random map game, or as it is known in Rise of Nations, the Quick Battle. Here a huge range of maps and conditions can be selected. Maps such as Nile Delta, Australian outback and Himalayas can be selected. You can opt to play with peace time settings (a fixed amount of time where no one can attack each other) if you so wish. There are a nice collection of game modifiers such as only playing in one age if you so wish. You can also pick a variety of game modes such as Assassin (which gives you a specific enemy nation and you must only attack that nation), Deathmatch, Barbarians at the gates (where one nation is attacked by two others) etc. The amount of variation these modes offer is impressive and will ensure that you don't get bored within the next couple of years at least. There is also a scenario and script editor included so the potential for downloadable content from the Internet is huge and no doubt we'll be seeing great scenarios to download from the top strategy resources such as Heaven Games and Apolyton, as skilled individuals get creative with the editor. The Multiplayer game is very similar to the single player Quick Battle mode except you can't pause the game. You do, however, have a feature called Cannon Time which allows you to put the game, temporarily, in slow motion. A multiplayer game can either have 1,2,4,8 or no cannon time uses. Games can either be set up through Gamespy, LAN or Direct IP address but curiously enough not through Microsoft's Zone gaming website.

Brian Reynolds has an impressive history of being involved with games that offer unlimited replayability and Rise of Nations is no exception. Whilst games in the RTS genre usually offer a story driven campaign that will never be played again after it's completed, Rise of Nations offers a replayable alternative. The Conquer the World Campaign is rather like a cross between Risk and the Total War games. You pick a nation and basically the idea is to try and conquer the world. The strategic part of the campaign is turn-based in that you take your turn, move your armies into countries that you wish to attack, play bonus cards that can give you temporary advantages, buy territories, view world events, collect tribute and conduct diplomatic affairs. If your actions, or others actions, caused you to go into battle then at the end of your turn, you'll encounter one of a few scenarios. You'll either have to seek and destroy the enemy with a pre-constructed army, hold out against an attack for a set amount of time or you'll have to establish an economy and build an army, attack and conquer an enemy. This is actually a pretty impressive way of organising a campaign. Different regions have different economic qualities and this further adds to the strategic nature of the campaign. Everything is tooltipped and you only need to place your mouse over items to find out details on them. Clicking on your army will result in arrows coming from them that shows the countries that can be attacked. The territory and data and strength of the opposing forces is also displayed to further help you in your decision making. Of course the wonderful strategic map is just a vehicle to string together battles (like a paper thin script usually strings together skirmishes in other RTS games) but it is refreshing and will never get old no matter how many times you play it.

There are quite a few gameplay elements that have been bought over from Brian's previous turn-based games. Your civilisation has national boundaries, which are useful as you know how much of the map you control. Where the peace time option has been selected, it also prevents rival nations from entering your territory too. Rise of Nations also models attrition. Should your enemies men enter your boundaries then they will succumb to attrition, a feature not often found in an RTS. Civilisation II encouraged you to build multiple cities and Rise of Nations is no different. A city only permits the building of five farms which of course isn't enough to allow you to construct an appropriate army. Constructing multiple cities is also better for trade. You simply create a caravan (another classic unit from Civ) and he will find an appropriate route and commence it to bring in extra wealth. Wonders can be built and give your nation bonuses. There are various ruins scattered around the map that could bring you bonus goods. These are very similar to the goodie huts so beloved in the Civ games. There are many more elements that have been bought over from turn-based games (in fact too many to mention), suffice to say that miraculously they all work like a dream in Rise of Nations.

BHG must be applauded for keeping micro-management to an absolute minimum. Do you remember in Age of Empires how farms would run out, forests would eventually be cut down? It proved a pain to keep an eye on your economy and organise effective military strikes. Well Rise of Nations is far better in this respect. First of all you can pause the game at any time and give orders. Farms do not expire any more and you can harvest food from them indefinitely. The same is true for forests. To balance this out, as we mentioned earlier, you can only have one farm per city and one lumber and mining camp per city. As a result of these indefinite resources the game feels a lot less hassle than many other titles in the RTS genre. There are other nice touches that enable a more fluid game. Scouts can be set to auto explore. Infantry units are produced in threes instead of as single units which makes creating an effective army less of a pain, especially in the early game. Say you want to take your army across the water to the enemy. There's no need to build boats to carry your men. Simply click on the location you want them to go to and they will automatically put themselves into a boat and sail across the water. Yes it's not completely realistic but it makes the game enjoyable. All the research and age progressions are carried out from the library, although upgrades are still carried out from the relevant buildings, which makes things much easier to manage.

As a player of RTS games for a few years now, the one element of Rise of Nations that shines above all its other qualities is the impressiveness of its AI. The game features six difficulty levels that range from Easiest through to Toughest. For a seasoned RTS gamer it's usually no time at all before they are playing the game at its highest difficulty setting. Try heading for Rise of Nation's highest difficulty setting though and you'll be in for a very painful surprise. The AI is good, very good. Even at the Moderate difficulty setting the AI is only giving away slight mistakes and even these are not particularly bad and are more like temporary chances for you to take the advantage. Should you not be able to take your chances when they become available you'll be punished (and this is only the Moderate setting). To make matter worse the AI has no advantage at all or have any edge over you until you reach the Tougher difficulty level (the 5th out of 6 difficulty levels). Of course there are those that suspect the AI is cheating in RTS games but this is not so in Rise of Nations. You can view a recorded replay of any game that you have played and this enables you to watch your AI opponent in action. This shows you that the AI is not creating building and units in milliseconds, which of course is not humanly possible, but is actually making intelligent decisions. You can actually learn a great deal by watching the replays of the AI's actions.

As everybody knows to become a successful online gamer (and also against the very impressive AI in the case of Rise of Nations) with RTS games you're going to need to know the game inside out and be able to create a fluid system of play. In order to aid you in your quest to become proficient at the games' various stages, skill tests have been included. Altogether there are eight skill tests that encourage you to progress through the ages as efficiently as possible, control armies as efficiently as possible and there is even a hotkey test that will show you just how well you know your hotkeys, which as you all know are crucial to success in RTS games as they allow high speed control of units and buildings. This is the first RTS I have come across which actually encourages you to become an accomplished player.

Whilst the gameplay may have raised the bar in the RTS genre the graphics cannot claim to set the benchmarks. That's not to say that there are not any nice touches though. You can see the wheat of your farms swing in the breeze and your units will wear hats and coats if the climate is particularly cold, which is very impressive to see. If you have idol units they will begin to play around, which is quite amusing to watch. Rise of Nations utilises a 3D graphics card but it isn't a revolving, full zooming title such as Age of Mythology. The game has 3 levels of zoom which help somewhat when you're trying to get an overall picture of your nation. Some might argue that the game does not zoom out enough to allow you to see all of your units if you're organising your military and to some extent this is a valid point but generally what's on offer is sufficient.

Generally there are no problems for deaf gamers with Rise of Nations. What is disappointing though is that although there are a collection of tutorials, they are made difficult for deaf gamers because they are delivered with speech and only very brief instructions are given in text. These brief text instructions are sometimes obstructed too. Take the last tutorial for instance. You are asked to open the diplomacy menu and declare war on Hitler. The diplomacy menu covers up the text instructions and therefore renders them useless. One of the tutorials is called Quick Learn and this is basically a fully-fledged game that offers vocal support on what you should be doing. Unfortunately this is also hopeless for deaf gamers as no advice appears in text. This is an awful shame because they are excellent tutorials and hearing gamers will be up and running with the game in no time because of the excellent advice. This wouldn't be such a bad thing if the manual was more informative and described the gameplay basics in more detail but alas it does not. I don't know whether it would be possible to subtitle the tutorials via a patch. Once you've learnt the basics of the game it isn't an issue but all the same it would have been great if the tutorials had catered for deaf gamers as well as hearing gamers. On the plus side though the background to each tutorial (given whilst the tutorial loads up) is given both in speech and text. Text tips also appear before you start a game too. Using the Ctrl + F10 key in a game will bring up the victory conditions should you need to be reminded of them.

Rise of Nations is a hell of a first game from BHG and it's clear that they have set the benchmark for historical RTS games (with Civ III being the top turn-based title and the Total War series fitting into neither RTS or TBS). It's impossible to convey just how much more depth the game has over the Age of Empires games (which are combat heavy and lack depth but nevertheless are still great games). My disappointments are more to do with the tutorials not being fully subtitled and the fact that the game doesn't ship with a tech tree in either pull out or electronic form and with a game of this nature it's an absolutely shocking omission. You can't even access a tech tree in the game. Still I can't help but feel I have reviewed the game of the year. Bring on the expansion packs.

Overall Game Rating: 9.3/10
Absolutely fantastic stuff from BHG. It may be an RTS but it has the Brian Reynolds' trademark of excellence stamped all over it. It's a shame that no tech tree pull out (or in-game tech tree) has been included though.

Deaf Gamers comment:
In all honesty the tutorials are not deaf gamer friendly (it would have scored slightly higher if they were) but once this small obstacle is overcome you'll be able to enjoy the best RTS out there.

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