Rise of Nations
Civilization meets Rock-Paper-Scissors combat
Rise of Nations has a great team behind it. The same guy who worked on Civ 2 and Alpha Centauri worked on this game, and, well, it�s as you�d expect: It�s Civilization lite. You�ve got your wide and varied civilizations, you have your progress and technology research, you have your peons making buildings, and you�ve got your varied military units which progress through the ages. And, that�s it. That�s all you get. It�s a gussied up Civ 2 for the 2000�s.
Seriously. That�s it. It�s a military conquest game at its heart, but unlike finer RTS games, there�s little or no tactics involved in this effort. You throw your unit piles at the other team and watch �em die. Units have no special abilities, so beyond a ho-hum collection of strengths and weaknesses, there�s really little more to it than flipping armies around the map. Kinda disappointing, particularly when Warcraft has been doing this for a long time and the WarCraft III expansion came out a mere 2 months after RON�
The plot: None. Nada. Zip. Essentially, the maps can be historically significant, in which case there�s a reason why one grubby civilization is trying to mop the other off the map, or they�re randomly generated scenarios, where your randomly selected (or you can choose) nation is trying to conquer the map before anybody of the other random civs do. If you want a historical sim, this probably isn�t your game; each race has their own specific units and abilities, but none of them seem really thorough.
The Gameplay: Let me break this down into the main phases of the game, early civilization, middle civilization, and late civilization. The game plays very differently at each of the three phases, which is cool, but the shift in gameplay is really jarring, and not always very fun. The short form: The game strives for realism, but cut too many corners for it to really work.
Early civilization (Ancient age � Classical age): Each nation starts off with a small city, a few farms and a woodcutter�s camp. Depending on your race, you may get a few perks that help out in the early phase; the Greeks start out with a university, and the Chinese are essentially the Zerg of Rise of Nations � peons build instantly, so you can really mushroom out quickly if you�re a fast clicker. Generally the first order of business is to get enough food collected to do your early research; all of the primitive upgrades require food and maybe wood as a research requirement, so all of your mud hut dwelling peons are paving the way for a bolder, brighter civilization. Actually, never mind. They�re just allowing you to tech up to the point where you can start making armies; after all, the Barracks building requires at least one level of research into military.
There are several fields of research and the all important Age progress bar; Civics allows you to build extra cities, Commerce allows you to build markets and make use of money, Military is relatively obvious, Science allows most of your tech upgrades, and the Age bar allows access to different resources (knowledge, metal, and oil) and the all important military unit upgrades. When you first start out, you don�t even have enough empire savvy to realize that if you put down a second city, you could get twice as much stuff. Starting rulers must have really been dumb back then.
Each civ starts with a scout (or 2, if you�re Spanish), and you can tell them to go explore the map. If they find relics, they�ll glom it, bringing you some cashola, and they�ll help you decide where to plunk your second city at. Essentially, any place is just as good as any other, but cities have radii of effect, and you should probably plop your city near mountains and forests so that your wood cutters and metal diggers can bring home the bacon. Extra cities also helps push forward your national borders, which is important to harvest rare resources and to help support your armies.
Largely, the early phases are uninterrupted by, well, excitement. Rushing is difficult in this game, because you can always sound an alert in your city, and all the peasants will run inside and throw rocks at invaders. Essentially, the early game is all about getting tech upgrades and finding a good spot or two to colonize. By the time you get to your third city, your scout most likely has noticed your foes, as well as a few good resources.
Middle civilization (Medieval Age � Gunpowder Age � Enlightenment Age): For me, this is the most fun age, but perhaps that�s because I happen to enjoy winning a game from time to time, instead of having it draw up into a stalemate. All three of these ages have a fair amount of unit diversity, but suffers from some serious Rock-Paper-Scissors strategy problems. Previously, all you had to work with were melee infantry, light range/melee and long range units. Long range is strong against heavy melee until they catch up, light range is sort of jack of all trades. Horses enter into the equation at the Medieval Age, and the whole RPS thing opens right up. Cavalry slaughter ranged infantry, but die against pikemen. Pikemen die against ranged units, infantry or cavalry. Infantry are cheaper than cavalry, in that you get three for every unit purchased as opposed to only one cavalry, but cavalry move faster and thus don�t die so fast against walls of archers.
You also get access to a few more buildings, such as granaries, lumber mills, and forges, which increase your harvesting efficiency of, you guessed it, food, wood and metal. By now, you�ll really want to be holding onto the rare resources, such as cotton, horses, furs, etc � some spots on the map have rare resources, and the merchant unit can harvest them, but of course, are totally undefended, so you�ll want to protect them, as they REALLY can turn the balance in your favor. Some of them are almost game-breakingly good; horses lower the costs of cavalry production by like 33%, furs lower the cost of military research by 25%, Wine lowers the cost of ALL research by 10%, etc. etc. And they stack, too! In one game, I was playing the Turks (who, surprisingly, get no bonus to being on horseback, but instead get a strangely inappropriate bonus to siege units) and had 2 horse producing resources. In short order, I produced the Cavalry of Doom and mobbed my opponent�s measly archers.
The odd thing about these three Ages is that they go by quickly and, quite frankly, have the MOST influence on whether or not you�re going to be in good position to win the game. Historically speaking, we�re looking at about 600 years, from approximately 1200-1800 AD. That you can tech up rapidly through these periods sorta flies in the face of the historical context the game is supposed to represent. Additionally, you can tech up fast, meaning that if you�re on the ball and your opponent is lagging an age behind you, YOU WILL SLAUGHTER THEM. I can�t stress this enough, and it�s one of the most glaring problems with the game. If you have gunpowder and your opponents are dorking around figuring out how to put a saddle on a horse, you will drive your enemies before you and hear the lamentations of their women.
Now, I can hear the history buffs already firing up e-mails, proclaiming, �But gunpowder was what stopped Hannibal�s march into Asia! And tanks heralded in the modern age of war, making horses completely obsolete!� And these things are true. The problem is, when you �tech up� into a new Age, all of your buildings immediately poof into their modern counterparts. Furthermore, your military buildings allow upgrades to the units they can produce, so you can convert your horse-mounted archers into horse-mounted gunners, and your pikemen into musketeers. Fine, appropriate. The problem is, these upgrades IMMEDIATELY advance units IN THE FIELD. Literally, your opponents can be in battle against the enemy, and as soon as your unit upgrade completes (and, if you have multiple barracks/stables, each can be working on different upgrades, so that they all happen as soon as possible), poof, instant guns. It�s like evolving your Pokemon mid-fight. It�s in the rules, but dirty pool, man. Dirty pool.
I understand this from the standpoint of design simplicity. Your slingers are simply going to get killed horribly against machinegun emplacements, and thus should be retired. In fact, your 1000 BC slingers are unlikely to live long enough to fight 1940 AD machinegunners, just because of old age. But immediately giving tech upgrades to all guys out in the field is silly; they�re deep in enemy territory, they�re not standing in line when the newly invented revolver is being handed out. Because of how seriously imbalanced teching up is, that�s why I suggest that the middle ages have the most influence on the map for the modern ages � consider the middle ages a hockey Power Play against your ignorant foes; you will demolish whatever armies they may have and swipe their cities before they know what hits them. If you�re fighting multiple opponents, expect to annihilate one or two and the others to catch up to your technology level. These are the opponents who are going to be glaring at you across more or less fixed boundaries in the Modern Age.
Late Civilization (Modern Age � Information Age): Oil. It�s all about the oil. Food and wood are no longer terribly important (actually, I think wood is entirely retired as a useful resource at this point in the game), making metal, oil and money crucial. You can buy oil from the world market, so if you can�t find or control any oil patches, there�s always the opportunity to get some, but if you entertain any notion of holding on to what you�ve gotten, you�d better take an oil well ASAP.
I�ll confess that I�ve never won a game once all surviving opponents reach these ages. Nor have I lost. The game degenerates into a standoff. Tanks slaughter infantry, except for anti-tank infantry like bazooka troops. Machine guns are strong versus infantry, weak versus tanks. Flamethrowers are strong versus infantry, weak versus tanks. Aircraft are strong versus tanks, but aren�t very impressive against infantry. Missile launchers are strong versus ground units, helpless against air. Meaning that you have to produce pretty much everything and throw them at your foe, who is likely producing everything and throwing them at you.
Here�s where the game hits its biggest weakness: Units can�t do diddly squat besides move and fight. There�s not even any medic or mechanic units capable of patching up units during the fight. The only units that CAN do anything useful are commandoes, and I�ll be damned if I could ever see any effect from them; whenever they try to do something like saboutage a building, they get noticed by the enemy and get shelled to death. Instead, you have generals and spies, which expend Craft (translation: mana) to support your troops. Generals can produce decoys, which essentially makes mirror images of your troops and turn himself invisible in case your foes target him (strategically a good idea, as they provide a bonus to units around them), and spies can bribe units to change sides. Which is cool and all, except it takes a long time to do it, and by the time you get said unit, your own army has been busy kicking the crap out of them, so the half dead turncoat gets picked apart by his abandoned unit. Goodie. And that�s it. That�s all units can do.
I�ll admit to being spoiled by Blizzard�s n-craft entries, where there are support units like mages, warlocks and priests, certain units can transform, and, in War III, hero units can seriously turn the battle with a well placed spell or two. I don�t expect that much customization in a pseudo-realistic sim, but there are no attempts at tactics. Infantry just stand around in the open and suck it down whenever a tank happens to want to shell them. Hey, guys, how about spreading out? Infantry can�t dig foxholes, they can�t hide themselves in trees, they essentially get no real benefits besides being cheap cannon fodder. Tanks aren�t much better; they can�t squish infantry by running them over, they don�t have some of their crew manning machine guns so as to pick off individual marines, and they really don�t do that much besides being well armored cannons. Nothing does, meaning the late game stages are all about mass resource harvesting and unit production. Yippee.
To counter this, sorta, there are missiles. When you reach the Information Age, you can start producing silos, which means you can either produce nukes or non-nukes. Non-nukes essentially are useful to take down fortifications such as Bombards and Towers, as well as opposing silos, nukes are useful to flatten cities, as you�d expect. If a combined total of 12 nukes are fired (from all players), the world reaches Armageddon and everybody loses. Which would be a real threat, except that nukes just don�t do anything particularly useful. They destroy all buildings around a city, but the city still stands, so while you could run some infantry over there and claim the city for yourself, chances are, you nuked a city you knew was there but was too deep behind enemy lines to take and hold. Meaning that your foe can just run some civvies from another town (or heck, produce them right there in the nuked town), repair the city and start rebuilding all the stuff you blew up. Since build times are generally fast, expect that town to be spewing forth tanks and planes in under 2 minutes. That�s not a real good pay off for coming 1/12th closer to mutually assured mass destruction, particularly since nuking an area has no lasting effects. The area doesn�t become radioactive, for instance. Wha?
Again, the attempt to be realistic sours the game when it�s not done well. Warfare becomes a factor of who can mass produce more stuff. Once you reach the information age and max out all of your research, you have access to 4 ultimate technologies, one of them is game breaking: All build times for units are reduced to 0. That�s right, instant tank armies, so long as you hold enough metal and oil to do it. Once your opponent researches this, expect a stalemate. Mines never run out of metal, oil wells never dry up, so unless you can keep your opponent from rebuilding nuked mines and refineries, you�ll never derail their war machine, same as they can�t stop yours. At least n-craft has a built in sense of urgency when you can see your natural resource producing areas becoming denuded. Not in this mess.
The aesthetics: Meh. Simply put, they�re dated. Unit models are well articulated, in the sense that they walk with full limb movements, but there�s really nothing there to make them stand out. You can zoom in if you want to see the detail on the units, but most likely you won�t bother, as beyond shooting at each other and dropping dead, they don�t do anything interesting. If a marine unit dies from being flamethrown or is shelled to death by a tank, they die amusingly, but after the third time you see somebody being flung like a ragdoll, it gets a little tiresome. Warcraft III has more interesting graphics, even if the models are a little clunkier.
The biggest failure of the game, graphics-wise, is the terrain itself. There isn�t any. Beyond bare ground, shallow water and deep water, there�s nothing there at all. Rocks, which are unbuildable and unclearable, look like inobtrusive grey pebbles. Terrain doesn�t matter a whit in the game, and since there�s no elevation to speak of, there was no need to bother with gently sloping hills, shadowed valleys under mountains, waterfalls, or any of that. This isn�t merely a graphical caveat; terrain should matter a LOT in how effectively your units fight, and leaving terrain out to cheap out on graphics has seriously dumbed down combat.
Sounds are there. There�s some music, units make appropriate marching, galloping and engine noises, the different wonders have their own little ditties, and there�s a bunch of blow up noises when that happens. It�s not that interesting.
The one thing on the aesthetics department that IS well done are nukes. Simply put, watching nukes blow the tar out of a city is extremely rewarding. There�s an initial bright flash, and, as you�d expect, three seconds later a wave of rippling doom flattens every building and unit in the area of effect. As soon as the first one went off, I immediately went back to my silos to produce another one, exclaiming, �That rules! I wanna blow some other city to hell!� Unfortunately, seeing as how nukes really don�t productively wipe out a city, there�s little point to doing it. Ah well. It�s a cool effect.
Final thoughts: Zzzz. Rise of Nations is no Command and Conquer, nor is it a particularly well done combat-version of Civilization. Yet it tries to be both, but the simplistic advancement through the ages and dull unit-slaughter that is combat. The game has other options for victory, such as holding 70% of the land, creating most of the world wonders, or having the highest # of populace, but since all of these things depend on military strength to ensure, they�re essentially dependant on combat as well. When combat is essentially just a factor of production power, the exercise is dull.
I�m a little curious as to why BigHugeGames thought that this would be a good time to release the game. I�m a big fan of Warcraft III, and to throw it out there a mere 2 months before WCIII: The Frozen Throne seems to suggest that the studio figured their game would get some sales to tide people over until Blizzard put out their expansion.