Here there be dragons!
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.
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.
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.
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.