Sunday, July 02, 2006

Rise & Fall: Civilizations at War Review

Rise & Fall: Civilizations at War, developed by Stainless Steel Studios/Midway Games and published by Midway.
The Good: Glory is an interesting resource, formations are automatic and important, naval units are significant, clear objectives, advisors make historical sense, game editor
The Not So Good: Hero command is tedious instead of fun, excruciatingly slow pace, different civs aren’t different enough, some user interface issues, non-voiced tutorials
What say you? Despite some minor innovations, a real time strategy game that feels and plays out-of-date: 5/8

What happens to a game in development when the developer closes its doors? Normally, the game suffers a quick death, but as in the case of Rise & Fall: Civilizations at War, it may get picked up and finished by its publisher. Midway was willing to tie up the loose ends of the game and release it to the general public. Rise & Fall adds hero units and several other innovations to the real time strategy game to hopefully be able to compete against more established titles.

Rise & Fall generally uses Empire Earth’s graphics, and the overall effect is underwhelming. The graphics are not up to the standards of Rise of Legends, SpellForce 2, or Rush for Berlin. Since the game usually doesn’t feature large battles, it doesn’t even have the appeal of Rome: Total War. A lot of the units are blocky, the textures are bland, and the overall game looks like a title that was released eight years ago. Honestly, the best part of the graphics is the good building construction animations. The structure starts out flat against the ground, roof and all, and then “inflates”. This looks better than a completed building just rising out of the ground that’s used in other games. Now, if that’s the best feature of the graphics, you’re in trouble. Playing Rise & Fall looks exactly like playing Empire Earth 1 or 2, and it’s a little disappointing that not many enhancements were made in the span of five years. The sound is along the same lines: a basic RTS affair. The battles sound convincing enough and the over-the-top dramatic background music fits the bill, but there’s nothing too overly impressive about the sound (or the graphics) in Rise & Fall.

Rise & Fall has two single player campaigns, skirmish games, and multiplayer. In the two campaigns, you lead either Cleopatra or Alexander the Great on their quests to kill lots of people. The campaign missions themselves are pretty difficult, mostly because the odds are stacked against you with lots of enemy troops. Multiplayer and skirmish games can be customized somewhat. You can change the population limit, game speed (a good thing as you’ll learn), AI difficulty level, and amount of initial resources. Instead of the usual team deathmatch, you can also play “outpost victory,” a domination-style game where you must control a certain number of outposts (seen previously in Rush for Berlin). There are a number of set maps you can play on (around 20), but no random map generation. Maybe as games get more sophisticated the algorithms for creating maps on the fly become too complex, but I’m pretty disappointed in the lack of random maps in the recent RTS games I’ve played (this and Rise of Legends). The game also provides editors to create your own maps and scenarios, so the basic number of maps could be extended. Overall, pretty standard stuff.

There are four civilizations in Rise & Fall (Rome, Greece, Persia, and Egypt) and they are almost identical, except for a couple of unique buildings (just different in appearance and name) and some unique units (just different in appearance and name). Other than the heroes you get for each civilization (just different in appearance and name…see a pattern?), you won’t be able to distinguish between the civilizations. The city center serves as the center of your city (amazing!). Two of the game’s resources, gold and wood, are collected by citizens and dropped off at city centers. Citizens are taxed by the city center they drop their resources off at, and upgrading those drop off locations can bring in more cash. Getting citizens to collect a specific resource is harder than it has to be. First, newly created citizens cannot be told to collect a specific resource without manually placing the rally point of the city center. Existing idle citizens can be selected by clicking on an icon or pressing tab, but must be manually assigned one at a time by right-clicking on the resource location. Selecting an idle citizen also re-centers the camera, so after selecting them, you must go back and find the resource location. The first Cleopatra campaign scenario has around 20 idle citizen right off the bat. Imagine pressing tab, moving the camera to find the resource, right-clicking, pressing tab, moving the camera back to where it was before, et cetera, 20 times. There is an easier way to do this (seen in other games), but Rise & Fall makes it more difficult and tedious than it should be. To unlock most of the buildings in the game, you must build an additional settlement. There is already a town center when you start the game (which is simply an upgraded settlement); why must I waste resources on a building that’s already present?

Your civilization has a population cap that can be increased by building altars or granaries. Upgrading these structures (instead of building more of them) raises the cap even more; this cuts down on a lot of the building clutter seen in other games that may have ten cap-raising buildings per city. Morale can also be increased by granaries/altars (again: same building, different name), which will cause your military units to fight better and citizens to gather resources more quickly. You can also raise the morale by constructing shrines/markets and temples/bazaars.

The third resource in the game is actually pretty interesting. Glory is earned in the game from exploring the map, expanding your cities, building statues, and killing stuff. You can then spend glory on leveling up your hero unit, upgrading military units, or gaining advisors. Advisors replace the research seen in most other games, and work almost exactly the same as the research tree in Rise of Legends: each advisor gives a specific bonus to your civilization, such as increased resource gathering rates or improved production time. Since the game takes place over a short period of time, I like that the developers have adapted research into a context that makes more sense.

Military units are recruited at your military buildings: the barracks, stable, and archery range. One “unit” actually consists of 3-6 units on the map, and eight or more units of the same type can be organized into formations. Formations can be done automatically by the game as units reach their rally point; this is really cool and cuts down on some of the micromanagement. Units that are in formation will receive attack and defense bonuses, so it benefits you to build enough units to put them into a formation. Rise & Fall uses a rock-paper-scissors approach to unit balancing: each unit has one good target and one bad foe. Defensive structures can be built (walls and towers) to make invading armies work harder. The generic orders can be issued to units, although units issued a “move” command will not engage enemy units along the way, even if they are being attacked (I guess people weren’t that smart back then). Thus, almost all of your move orders will be an “attack-move,” done by pressing T and then clicking on the destination. I actually wish “attack-move” was the default; it makes more sense that way.

One of the main features of the game is naval combat, which takes an important role in Rise & Fall that’s not seen in other games. Each ship acts as a unit-producing center, a floating barracks of sorts. This makes invading by sea a viable alternative, as you can recruit replacement troops on the fly, instead of waiting for them to traverse halfway across the map. Boats can run into each other (ramming speed!) and be boarded by the enemy and taken over (almost better than destroying it, because of the unit producing capabilities). Unfortunately, most of the skirmish maps are devoid of oceans to involve big naval battles and all of these innovative features, so the lackluster campaigns are about the only place to experience hot naval action.

What’s “in vogue” is the addition of hero units into RTS games. SpellForce 2 did it. Rise of Legends did it. And now Rise & Fall does it. Like SpellForce 2, you can take direct control of your hero unit during combat. Unlike SpellForce 2, it’s not fun at all in Rise & Fall. The combat in Rise & Fall is so messy that controlling your hero just comes down to pressing attack and making sure you are somewhat facing an enemy unit. The units clump together so much that it’s hard to tell which units are which, so you might be inadvertently been attacking your own forces (oops!). Because of the historical context of the game, all you can do is attack (there were no spells in ancient Egypt, apparently), so controlling your hero is akin to a really bad hack-and-slash first person shooter. Your hero unit is so powerful, you need to enter command mode, especially if the other side is doing so. A lot of the single player campaign missions are so one-sided against you that you must command your hero and lay waste to tons of enemy forces. The idea is good, but the execution is poor, and made even worse by the fact that you’re essentially required to do it if you want to win.

The default game pace of Rise & Fall is agonizingly slow. I don’t want to have to wait for resources to be gathered with nothing to do; that’s the hallmark of a poorly balanced real time strategy game. You should always have something to do. I was never bored (as much) with Rise of Legends because you’re almost always occupied with something to do. Rise & Fall involves too much waiting for resources at the default speed. Luckily, multiplayer and skirmish games can be sped up, but the campaign scenarios will unfold at the default speed. Still, even “fast” and “fastest” settings involve a long, drawn-out building up process. I don’t mind hour-long matches, but not if they’re boring.

Good things about Rise & Fall: naval combat is fun, glory is cool, and formations are actually semi-useful. Bad things about Rise & Fall: citizens are cumbersome, resource collection is slow, heroes are not entertaining, and the rest of the game is unoriginal. The campaign is not terribly interesting, but skirmish and multiplayer battles are better because they can be played at a faster pace, but they are still pretty generic when compared against the slew of real time strategy titles. Rise & Fall is just behind the times, and the “unique” features of the game (heroes and naval combat) are annoying and underutilized, respectively. Combine bland, routine strategy and a cumbersome first person mode, and you have a title that falls short.