Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends

Here there be dragons!

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When Big Huge Games released Rise of Nations in 2003, I had already written myself off as finished with an RTS genre I considered bland and out of ideas. My decision to play Nations at all ultimately came down to my unerring respect for former Civilization/Alpha Centauri designer Brian Reynolds and his attempts to bring something ambitious into a game that might have otherwise looked like an Age of Empires clone. Before my ensuing mania passed I would put some two-hundred hours into Rise of Nations and its outstanding expansion pack Thrones and Patriots, devouring the Conquer the World campaign, epic multiplayer conflicts and more practice sessions against the most formidable AI that I could summon than a rational man might dare to number. So, when Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends was announced in the days immediately preceding E3 2005, my anticipation was both instant and vast. Now, a little over a year later, in the aftermath of E3 2006, Rise of Legends has shuffled onto store shelves in a troubling release that can be described as stealthy in the best case, and widely ignored in the worst. Without even the pomp or fanfare given to a high-school senior on graduation day, Rise of Legends simply appeared on the retail shelves while everyone was paying attention to E3, a style of release that suggests a troubling lack of confidence. Was Rise of Legends not a worthy successor?

In the interest of immediacy and doing my part to calm a world far too full of unnecessary tension, I'll get the crux of my opinion on the matter out of the way first. Rise of Legends is an outstanding title, one that compliments the game from which it is derived without copying, and despite a number of annoying technical issues, it is the kind of game that improves the more you play it. It is faster paced and less technology reliant than its predecessor, which actually puts it closer in line with other titles in the genre. It is not necessarily a better game than Nations, and it does not do as much to forward the mechanics of real-time strategy games, but what it lacks in technical distinctiveness it makes up for in a rich and engaging environment. In fact, the familiar mechanics help mitigate the inevitable learning curve associated with a completely unique set of races and units.

Rise of Legends is a departure in setting, scope, and pace from its predecessor, though it retains many of the distinctive features that made the original such a critical success. Big Huge Games has made substantial efforts to refine and tighten Nations' often intimidating scope while offering a unique setting, though their success at those goals might dismay fans of the series who were expecting to play Rise of Nations with a fantasy facelift.

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City-building has been eliminated, and territory expansion options have been entirely revamped. To expand your borders, you must send a force to capture preexisting neutral sites from a defending garrison and assimilate them under the mighty thumb of your oppressive regime, or you may also choose to spend your hard-earned resources to buy the location outright, or simply trade with it long enough that it joins your capitalist pig-dog corpocracy. There are numerous sites populating each map waiting, like a French border town, to be captured and annexed into your fluid borders, and each offers some specific boon along with stretching the span of your territorial influence. Along with cities to capture there are trading posts that allow you to purchase mercenaries for a short time, altars that heal nearby troops, barracks that produce unique units, and locations that boost your resource gathering.

Encouraging players to employ combat directly into their expansion efforts makes sense when you consider that Rise of Legends has pulled back significantly on the scope of developing your cities and civs. Without needing to expend resources and attention on the winding and improbable course that turns spear-hunting cavemen into a nuclear power through the process of upgrading multiple research branches across eight ages, the game naturally lends itself toward developing armies and infrastructure efficiently. Research is still present, but in a much more manageable form with far fewer permutation. The same units that form the foundation of your early game may still be around as a support role in the end game, whereas in Rise of Nations it's not just unlikely but beyond the scope of the game to support your battle tanks with roman era foot soldiers, not that one would necessarily want to.

The inclusion of "hero" units in the game further brings Rise of Legends into a more familiar and well-explored RTS environment in the model of Warcraft III, though the concept plays like an evolution of the Generals from Rise of Nation's expansion. These increasingly expensive units are purchased and improved not by experience, but through resources, and their effect on combat when used properly is significant. A fully upgraded hero exerts a huge effect on battle, though they are thankfully incapable of acting as an army unto themselves. Only the race-specific and dangerously expensive master-units have more of a battlefield impact, and when unleashed they are glorious in their destructive realization.

As mentioned earlier, the game is not without technical issues. Among the title's more serious problems, some widespread connection and game stability issues in online multiplayer, framerate slowdown during heated firefights, poor pathfinding where units get "stuck" moving through tight terrain such as bridges and chasms, and the always disappointing limited area of visibility common among graphically intensive RTS games.

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These problems, though troubling and disappointing, are not show-stoppers, and should be weighed against the crisp pace, unique environment, and the outstanding replayability of the game. Legends boasts some of the most interesting and inventive art direction seen in a game of any genre. Avoiding the classic humans versus generic role-playing-game stereotypes common to most games with fantasy trapping, the Vinci, Alin, and Cuotl are engaging races that offer distinct styles from the art of DaVinci, the mythology of 1001 Arabian Nights, and an unusual marriage of Mayan design with alien technology, without losing the careful balance that is absolutely critical.

The learning curve of playing these unusual races effectively is a little steep simply because one may not have the same frames of reference for countering fire breathing salamanders and laser wielding Mayans as they do, say, Elven archers and cavalry. You tell me whether you'd send a clockwork man or a clockwork spider against a mechanical Mayan death snake, I don't know. But, the more I played each race, the more familiar I became with how to use the units best in battle. As I developed a reliable build order, understood the strengths and weaknesses of the units, and managed my resources and research properly, the unfamiliarity of the game evaporated and my experience improved. To me, the mark of a good game is one that improves the longer you play it. By that measure, this may be a great game.

The single-player game is directed by a passable story that follows the leader of the Vinci, Giacomo, in his pursuit of the arbitrarily evil Doge across the desert. Split across three campaigns, an unsurprising number considering the number of playable races, Giacomo proceeds through each third of the story capturing territories in a conquer-the-world derivative. The story, when it does rear its head, is not one that will haunt you with its subtle characterizations and meaningful narrative. It does, however, give you an excuse to keep following Giacomo through the game.

Multi-player, when it works properly, is the centerpiece of the game. With a wealth of multiplayer options, tons of maps (many with map specific rules), and a matchmaking system that shows much promise once all the bugs are kicked out of it, Rise of Legends is a blast to play against friend or foe. Sending your Land Leviathan, imagine the giant mechanical spider from the Will Smith Wild Wild West, against an unprepared enemy is magnificent, and even watching impotent and defeated as the Cuotl master-unit, which can only be described as a foul-tempered and well-armed floating city, devastates your own city is as interesting as it is disappointing.

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Because of the accelerated pace of the confrontations, games seem to reach the point of conflict much quicker than they did in Rise of Nations, but at the same time units seem to last longer against both enemy fire and attrition, so that the total time spent playing is not decreased.

Rise of Legends may be an occasionally flawed game, but it deserves far more attention and even praise than it seems to be getting. It is a strong addition to a genre that could use more inventiveness in both setting and gameplay, and though it may take some time to become familiar with its distinctive setting, the reward is worth the pursuit. It should not be considered a sequel to Rise of Nations, not only because of the dramatic change of venue, but because fundamental play mechanics have been altered, which some will consider for the better and others for the worse depending. But, they have not been changed without a goal in mind, or in a way that disrupts the balance of the game. It is simply different.

With a gorgeous 3D engine, breathtaking art design, a new implementation of familiar concepts, and great replayability, it's easy to recommend Big Huge Games' Rise of Legends. Though there are a few troubling bugs, and some concepts that may seem like a step backwards for RoN purists, it may not appeal to every fan of the original title, but when placed against other games in the genre it stands out for its uniqueness and gameplay if not its polish. Once you get past the initial lack of familiarity, the game shines and rewards the time you spend.

Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends
Official Site
Released: May 2006
Developer: Big Huge Games
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

- Elysium

Comments

Nice review, Mr. Elysium. From the first, I was attracted to it, as it sounded like a newer/better/improved "Total Annihilation: Kingdoms".

You make is sound *very* attractive; I am afraid that the system requirements condemn me to wait until my next computer- two years from now....

Speaking of system requirements, what were you running it on?

I think the learning curve is quite a bit steep as far as build orders go. I would even say that upgrades arent the most intuitive.

I am seriously tempted to play the game on easy setting. The art direction is so fantastic, I dont want my experience of it to get hampered by frustration.

In prior RoN games, even if you werent talented at memorizing the rock-paper-scissors, attrition more than likely favored you. The question wasnt if you could win the map, it was how long it took you to accomplish this feat. Someone with an expansive knowledge of racial particulars could wipe the enemy in 30 minutes while retaining 2/3 of his army. Others would take 3+ hours and just barely tip the scales of victory.

RoL does not follow this design as early as the 3rd or 4th campaign mission. I built up my force by taking over all the nuetral sites. As soon as I started taking out the bunkers and most of the ground forces protecting them, it seems the enemy had a secret stash of advanced air power that yanked the tug of war rope out of my hands. The air force wiped out my city, any attempt to rebuild my army, and the allied city I was supposed find and defend in ~15 minutes.

I think the biggest mistake that RTS's make isnt the zerg rushes of any race's end-all-be-all race. I think its that each race only has one for players to gravitate to. There should be options, through simpler/faster upgrades, to turn any one of your units into a powerhouse backbone of your army.

RoL has lots of really cool units early on that I have no idea what their strengths are or how I became able to build them. And so I cant develop a play style. (I will admit I am fond of the clockwork dudes but they need an air offense upgrade. it doesnt have to do much but something so that they arent helpless)

Agree completely, I love it to death.

I think the learning curve is quite a bit steep as far as build orders go. I would even say that upgrades arent the most intuitive.

I agree, though I wouldn't characterize it as quite steep. The Vinci play fairly straightforward, though the jump from Vinci to Alin is a jarring one (and Alin to Cuotl can be paralyzing, be prepared to unlearn all that you learned). Learning the different strategies and blending a smart mix from pillars of sand, fire, and ice is key. I think each race has one go-to unit (clockwork men for Vinci, Afreet for Alin, and the Jaguars for Cuotl) and building off the foundation of having solid base units makes it easier. Again, I stress that each turn I take with the races makes them easier to play and more familiar. Unfortunately, I don't think the single-player game does a good job of getting players accustomed to the strangeness of the individual units.

RoL has lots of really cool units early on that I have no idea what their strengths are or how I became able to build them. And so I cant develop a play style. (I will admit I am fond of the clockwork dudes but they need an air offense upgrade. it doesnt have to do much but something so that they arent helpless)

You will develop a play style as you learn the units. I, for one, am grateful that there is this sense of unfamiliarity, of discovery even as I learn that by fully upgrading clockwork men (either during one skirmish, or throughout the campaign) they gain ranged attack. That's a great, "oh, cool!" moment, and it is sadly missing from the cookie-cutter formula of unit design across the genre.

However, Clockwork men and clockwork spiders, supported by siege units make a wonderfully formidable relatively early army, and I think you'll find that the more you play the races, the more you will see that your concerns have been addressed.

I like having layers of careful design to uncover. I think RoL's mixed early reviews have a lot to do with the differnces between people who want to jump in and know how to play and those who are interested in exploring an entirely new battle system.

Speaking of system requirements, what were you running it on?

A mid to low-range system. AMD 64 3200 (1.8ghz), with 1GB Ram, ATI Radeon x1600 Pro 512MB card. I played at 1280x1024 with mid-range detail.

*tire screech*

I take back everything Ive said prior. It's like a switch flipped and I get it after about 3 hours of play.

Who knows what more I'll discover in the next dozen.

Right now, I am at times loving the clockwork spiders or men. I understand the campaing map and see how gaining territories will get me the tech points sooner so that I can test out the air destroyers. Im sure there is a human counter to them in skirmish, but in campaign mode a few are devastating.

I think the point of the game is at the start, dont blow your wad on a few expensive units. Round out your starting army with your cheap, but quite capable riflemen and then gradualy introduce some clockworks or mighty airpower. (the zepplins are brutal too).

The game seems very deep. Its well worth the confusion during the first few hours. I highly recommend, unless you are a RTS Guru, to set the difficulty to easy after the first few missions. You can always scale the difficulty back up once you get more familiar with the new units thrown your way.

Whomever was worried about hero units being too powerful, dont be. A couple of basic infantry units can surround and make the hero's life difficult. Hero's are not frontline units. The advanced units are stronger but dont have the unique special powers. And I just encountered my first superior advanced unit and it took a sizable army including my hero to take it down.

My pro tip of the moment: Trample units are your friend, with a little micromanagement you can take a fight against overwhelming numbers of infantry to victory with a couple of trample units. To properly trample, select a unit that has trample damage (clockwork spider for example) and hold the ctrl key when you right click, that unit will then move to that spot directly through any troops in the way flattening them. Once down they rest of your troops can pick them off with impunity, just make sure you send your tramplers stomping through them every few seconds to keep them down.

I dearly love trample.

My pro-tip for Vinci: remember Clockwork men only cost gold, so they are good early units that won't impede on your ability to fortify your city infrastructure. Using your precious timonium to upgrade your cities, create a research center (and upgrade it), and build a second mine with miners, I follow a few ranged units with plenty of clockwork men to help my expansion.

Because of my reliance on gold early game, an economic district so I can build a second caravan is my first city expansion.

Also, be sure and micromange your caravan and send it to a location that you don't plan to attack early, but do plan to annex. That way, when the time comes you can simply buy the location (and its garrison) on the cheap, or even have it just automatically join your civ. Plan ahead, and you can save yourself a battle. This way you don't have to choose between a decent army and infrastructure. You can have both!

Pro-MP tip: beware creepjacking. Know where your enemy is before taking a neutral location, particularly in the very early game. Otherwise your enemy may just wait over the next rise while your units battle it out and become weakened by a neutral garrison, and then come in to mop you up before you capture the site and while you're still weak. You both lose your army and the location.

I am playing the game at 1024x768 with an AMD 2500+, 1gig ram, and a 9800 pro. A lot of the settings that make the game gorgeous are turned off or at least turned down but the game runs pretty dam smooth.

I have really enjoyed the time I have spent playing, especially Tuesday when Pyro and I took down Elysium and Certis.

I'd let Pyro do the bragging on that one considering he had to save your butt from me twice. Even fighting a war on two fronts, I still nearly took you down there, sparky. Oh, there will be a reckoning!

Yeah Pyro was the main reason we won that battle. He kept us in the game long enough for me to bring the hammer down on your capital city! Good times.

Agreed on all parts with the review. There comes a moment (as fang as found) where you reach a "critical mass" in game play knowledge and everything changes. Instead of running through the single player campaign, I've been playing 2v2 versus the computer with a good friend and both of us experienced this transformation -- at first we could hardly handle 2 Moderate opponents, now we handily spank 2 Toughs with the transition coming in the span of a handful of games.

My pro-tip for Vinci: I've found that most folks end up going for either the Prosperity or Mining techs early for their obvious and immediate return on resources. What I've been finding myself doing more recently is actually researching through the first 2-3 levels of Politics instead. What this allows me to do is purchase my first city -- not only sparing the damage on my initial units, but providing an additional 2-3 units and removing the need to repair. The additional units offer a very obvious advantage, but the Timonium saved from not having to repair can be put to much better use in building your base.

So when are we going to get together for our multiplayer fun times?

I want to get on RoL with Thin_J so he can show us how it's done like he did with RoN.

I'm up for it all weekend. Hit me up on xfire.

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Gameplay question: I really liked the slower pace of RoN, which differentiated it from all the other flashy RTS'es out there. I haven't had time to play the demo yet, but how does RoL compare to RoN in this aspect? I gather it's more fast-paced than its predecessor?