Thursday, June 29, 2006

Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends Review

Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, developed by Big Huge Games and published by Microsoft.
The Good: Unique races and units, easier resource gathering and buildings, beautiful graphics, still fun to play
The Not So Good: Many multiplayer/skirmish options removed including no randomly generated maps, campaign not the best, may be too basic for some
What say you? Streamlined to appeal to the masses, Rise of Legends may be too simplified for its own good, despite its distinctive setting: 6/8

I’m sure that by now we’re all tired of the World War II real time strategy game. Even if they are good, it’s about time that we have something other than Nazis rolling around in their tanks. Those cries have been answered with Rise of Legends (we’re on a one-name basis here), the follow-up to the highly popular and generally fantastic real time strategy game Rise of Nations. Rise of Legends comes at you with three inventive, distinctive races encased in the classic (if 2003 could be considered classic) Rise of Nations gameplay. Will Rise of Legends prove to be a worthy successor?

Probably the biggest jump from Rise of Nations to Rise of Legends is the graphics. Where Rise of Nations was 3-D units on a 2-D background, Rise of Legends is full-on 3-D, and it looks great. There are some sophisticated features of the graphics involving lighting, and plenty of detail with the unique units. The buildings have pieces falling off while they suffer damage, the weapons look really cool, and the landscapes are filled with detail. Of course, all of this detail comes at a price in the form of system requirements, so make sure your system is up to snuff. The sound is also pretty good. The theme music from Rise of Nations is intact with some fantasy elements added. Most of the units have just a singular acknowledgement phrase or sound effect, but none of them are too annoying. The weapons sound like what you’d think they’d sound like. Battles generally devolve into a mish-mash of fighting sounds, but that’s what happens in most games anyway. Rise of Legends shows what happens when a large budget can be put into a real time strategy game, and it is easily in the upper echelon of RTS graphics and sound.

Rise of Legends features three single player campaigns, quick skirmish battles against the AI, and online play. Each of the single player campaigns centers around one of the game’s races: the industrious Vinci, the magical Alin, and the ancient Cuotl. The campaigns use the Conquer the World mechanic from Rise of Nations. On the strategic map, you move your army around, invade neighboring territories, and make upgrades. Each new territory come with a bonus or two for capturing it. This is similar to Battle for Middle-Earth (or, Battle for Middle-Earth is similar to Rise of Nations) in that there isn’t much strategy from this perspective (unlike Rome: Total War), just a place to select your next target. The storyline does drive the Conquer the World mode better than just “invade everybody” and introduces the mission for each battle, but the story is not as involved as some other games. From the strategic map you can recruit new armies, research new units, build new districts for your conquered cities (which will provide upgrade points in the different areas), or upgrade your heroes. The campaigns also serve as a tutorial, gradually teaching you about all of the structures and units available for the races. The campaigns of Rise of Legends seem to strike a balance between linear missions and the freedom of Conquer the World well enough: it gives the player the freedom to choose where they want to go, but also injects some background story into the skirmishes.

I don’t know why, but the number of multiplayer game types and rules from Rise of Nations has been greatly reduced. In Rise of Nations, you could customize the teams, game speed, game rules, initial resource levels, population cap, rush rules, elimination conditions, victory conditions, or pick from any number of game types, like Assassin. Rise of Legends lets you choose sudden death, random teams, and rush rules. What the heck? Rise of Legends has also done away with randomly generated maps that were present in the previous title. I just don’t understand the reasoning behind this. It’s very disappointing that they would remove options from a previous game. I hope that they are not saving the multiplayer modes for an expansion pack, because that would show too much greed for my tastes.

The game’s interface is a slight improvement over the previous version. There is a clickable button you can set to one of many different hotkeys (such as select all military and select all flying units), although there are so many choice to pick from, switching it to your favorite during gameplay is tedious and it’s just better to use the keyboard hotkeys. The tooltips are greatly appreciated and extremely helpful during gameplay. Since the methods of each of the game’s races are different, you may forget which structure produces wealth or research points: Rise of Legends will tell you without having to look in a manual. A toolbar that listed the unit producing buildings like in SpellForce 2 would be helpful in addition to selecting all units using a hotkey. There are a lot of hotkeys in the game to select all sorts of different things, but adding a slew of graphical icon to click on for the important buildings would be helpful. Also, repeating queues have been removed. Before, you could select one infantry and one heavy infantry for production, and click an infinity button and that building would produce those two units and only spend the resources when the unit came up in production. In Rise of Legends, all the resources you spend on units must be paid up front, and nobody has the resources to pay for an infinite number of soldiers up front. A repeating queue is extremely helpful in the late stages of a game, where going back to your barracks every 30 seconds to queue up units is a waste of time when your attention should be paid somewhere else. Why Rise of Legends removed a repeating queue is beyond my level of comprehension. Otherwise, the interface of Rise of Legends is wonderful.

When you start a new game, you start with a single city. Unlike the previous version of the game, there is only one city per side, so they really act like the capitals in Rise of Nations. New cities can only be gained by conquering existing neutral or enemy cities (similar to Kohan II). Conquering enemy cities includes a simplified version of the assimilation timer from Rise of Nations, where after you defeat an enemy structure, it takes some time to completely take it over. Expanding your cities is done by attaching districts. Military districts increase the population cap and creates some free soldiers, merchant districts allow for the construction of a caravan to produce wealth, and palace districts increases the city size. Each race has their own unique districts as well, allowing for quicker construction, additional research points, or increased attrition. The districts must attach to the city center, resulting in a large city instead of scattered buildings like much of Rise of Nations. The districts replace only some of the buildings from Rise of Nations, so you must still construct others independent of the city center. It’s kind of odd to have some of the buildings attached to the city and others not, but that’s the way it is. Buildings are now automatically constructed, eliminating the need for “citizens” in yet another streamlining approach. Various buildings are used to create military units, gather resources, provide defense, expand the national borders, and transport units across the map, or several other functions depending on the race. Damaged buildings work less effectively, and buildings can only be placed inside your national borders. National borders are the limits to your country; enemy units lose health (through attrition) inside your borders, the amount of which can be increased through research.

A scout unit is used at the beginning of the game to search for relics (which provide a one-time timonium bonus) and neutral cities. There are many different neutral sites you can encounter on the battlefield as well and each of these sites provides a different bonus. For example, an oasis heals nearby units, increases the population cap, and increases the national borders. These sites can end up being key chokepoints on the map that the several sides will fight over during a match, instead of just fighting over user-built cities. Whereas Rise of Nations was kind of daunting on new players with several different resources to gather, Rise of Legends involves only two resources: mined timonium and wealth from trade (or energy for the Cuotl). Rise of Legends includes the ramping costs of Rise of Nations, where each successive unit costs a little bit more than the previous unit. Research in Rise of Legends doesn’t have quite the importance seen in Rise of Nations. Each race has its method of adding research points (usually constructing a specific building), and these research points can be spent to give bonuses to your civilization. Bonuses include healing in friendly territory, generating timonium and wealth, increased health, and enabling the national power. The national power is essentially a super weapon that you can unleash on your enemies. You can also gain dominances during gameplay. Domiances are awarded to the player who achieves a specific objective and grants them a bonus. For example, the first player who accumulates a set amount of timonium and wealth (the resource dominance) gets to heal friendly units.

Rise of Legends features some unique units for each of the game’s three races, but in general the units fall into three categories: infantry, armored, and flying. From the screenshots of the game, it might look like Rise of Legends features some original units, but this is not really the case. They may look unique, but they actually behave just like the infantry, tanks, helicopters, and artillery found in every other strategy game: just change a Sherman tank to a giant mechanical spider. Rise of Legends has eliminated oceans, but has replaced them with large chasms that you must cross using air transport craft. In a good addition, you can now upgrade and build units at the same time; I hated having to mess up my queue with upgrades when they became available. In Rise of Nations, unit upgrades were gained when a new age of reached. In Rise of Legends, you can expand your city from small to large to huge, which will unlock more powerful units. Rise of Legends features the decent tactical AI seen in Rise of Nations, where units will automatically attack nearby enemy units (assuming they have the correct stance). New to the game are hero units. These units have special abilities that can be activated during gameplay. They don’t have a huge effect on the outcome of a battle, but they are generally cool and give a slight edge. Heroes are starting to get used a lot in strategy games, as we saw them in both Rush for Berlin and SpellForce 2, although it was done better in those games, as the powers are available without clicking on the hero in both of those titles. In Rise of Legends, you must first select the hero and then select the power; that extra mouse click can get tedious after a while, especially if you have several heroes in your ranks.

The gameplay of Rise of Legends is generally the same as previous version of the game, except it’s quicker. Because the number of resources and importance of research have both been diminished, games are over much more quickly than the hour long matches common in Rise of Nations. There are not 15-minute quick like Rush for Berlin, but a nice compromise in the middle. Each of the three races have slightly different tactics: the Vinci are more traditional, the Alin enjoy massed troops, and the Cuotl utilize few but powerful troops. Although each race is played essentially the same way in the core gameplay, having slight differences between them is a nice touch. The core game is still quite enjoyable: balancing your resources, military, buildings, and research. There are a lot of interesting strategic choices that must be made during gameplay. Despite the differences in the races, the game seems pretty well balanced. The units are probably not as specialized from race to race as appearances would indicate, but the fact that the three races allow for differing strategies is welcome. The AI is a pretty decent competitor once you turn up the difficulty. It takes some getting used to the mechanics of the game since they are somewhat different (at least in terms of specific execution) from other RTS titles, but the overall gameplay is pretty solid.

Rise of Legends is actually much more friendly to the new player than Rise of Nations. The unique setting is probably the best aspect of the game and, along with the awesome graphics, depict a convincing world to play in. Although the races and units in Rise of Legends are not as “off the wall” as others might make you think, the are built on a solid foundation and prove to be a worthy RTS entry. The core gameplay remains solid, and the modifications made to the overall mechanics makes games faster and more intense than the slugfests seen in Rise of Nations. However, multiplayer fans will be disgusted with the number of options that have been removed since Rise of Nations for no apparent reason. Once the novelty of strange units wears off, Rise of Legends ends up being an above average real time strategy game. Rise of Legends is not a bad game, it’s just that Rise of Nations is a better game, so Rise of Legends could be considered a step backwards. The game will appeal to a much wider audience with simpler gameplay, and if that’s what the goal of “dumbing down” the Rise of Nations engine was, then mission accomplished.