On the outside, it may look like a remake of Microsoft's Age of Empires, or Sierra's Empire Earth, but this one is a totally different monster to tackle. Big Huge Games first major entry into the PC gaming community is more than a surprise; it is a welcome change to a proven yet repetitive formula. Published by Microsoft, Rise of Nations: Gold Edition contains both the original title and the Thrones & Patriots expansion in one bundle. If you have never ventured into the title before, then it's definitely worth getting the bundle as the expansion adds a lot to the game.
Graphically, Rise of Nations is a very strong title. Environments are highly detailed, and models are well developed. Attack and defensive animations are fluent and flow nicely with the overall style. The structural models are also really well developed, as players advance through the technology tree the buildings become more modernized. A pair of 19th century battleships duel it out in the sea, watching as they pummel holes in each other. Finally as one sinks to the ocean floor and vanishes, that is the atmosphere in Rise of Nations. Watching planes bomb a small city, only to come crashing down after taking a hit from anti-aircraft fire, or a barrage of missiles take down a building is really well animated. Overall, the graphical element of Rise of Nations is very well developed, one of the strongest aspects of the title.
Along with the graphics engine, the sound effects in Rise of Nations are very engaging, albeit repetitive at times. The background music present in the game is also very enjoyable to listen to; it seems to change depending on the current situation happening on screen. Some of the in-game messages, such as when an opponent begins constructing a wonder, are displayed on screen as captions. It would be much more effective if these were simply indicated by a voice indicating you of the event, as. I found the caption to occasionally get into the way of what I was trying to accomplish. Besides these issues, the sound engine in Rise of Nations is superb and extremely well developed.
Although it may appear to have a lot in common with popular strategy titles such as Empire Earth or Age of Empires, Rise of Nations is a very different game. The gameplay strategy is completely different, and techniques that work well in other titles do not necessarily adapt overly well to Rise of Nations. For starters, Rise of Nations is based around a city model, as players create cities and have national borders. Within these city limits, facilities for producing units, and collecting resources are present. Cities grow based on the number of buildings within them, and the larger the city; the more difficult it is to capture it. The benefit to this city model is that opponents can't simply sneak right outside your city and build a fortress or military facility, nor can they mine for resources within your national borders. This offers a new gameplay dynamic focused on capturing cities, as when a city is captured all of the facilities used for resource gathering in that city become the property of the attacking nation. The city model is one of the most unique elements to come out of a strategy title in a long time, a welcome change to an old formula.
Rise of Nations also offers a very different resource-gathering model than other real-time strategy titles. Instead of simply assigning an arbitrary number of civilians to woodcutting of a forest, a maximum number can be assigned to a resource gathering facility. This makes civilians much more efficient and easier to manage. Secondly, unlike other strategy titles, Rise of Nations makes is easier to predict the income of resources. In other strategy titles, resources simply increase by arbitrary amounts as peasants return resources to the drop-off facility. In Rise of Nations, an indicator is given as to how much of a resource is being gathered of a specific resource per one-third minute. The game also implements a maximum gathering limit for each resource per one-third minute, which can be increased by doing research at the library. This resource-gathering limit is designed to help balance the game and avoid wars where resources are not an issue, something that has been needed in this type of game for a long time.
The resources available in Rise of Nations are wood, food, iron, gold, oil, and knowledge. The process of collecting these resources is very different from other strategy titles, in the fact that it integrates tightly with the city model. Wood, food, and iron are gathered in the usual manner of sending peasants to chop trees or build farms. Exploring the land, and setting up trade routes between your cities produces gold. Oil becomes available later in the game, and is mined by peasants either on land or in the sea. Knowledge is required for most upgrades and advancements, and is obtained by building universities in your cities and populating them with scholars. The large numbers of resources really requires players to micromanage and balance their peasants accordingly, as they count towards your unit cap.
One of the downsides of Rise of Nations is the low unit cap. Although this avoids using shear force to overtake cities and requires a more strategical approach, it can make games last a really long time. I can think of one game I had in which I was playing against the computer and losing really badly. Through some innovative strategy, I fought back and ended up winning the game, about five hours later. It took nearly two hours to capture their last two or three cities on an arena size map, simply because we had both reached the maximum unit production and every time I would send in units the opponent could always counter them. In fact, the computer would usually win as they had the home territory advantage. If the unit cap in the game were higher, even if it was simply available as an option, it would really be beneficial in making games much shorter in length.
Unit-wise, Rise of Nations is a very well rounded title. The game features all of the standard units, from tanks and horsemen, to battleships and bombers. Each race has a unique unit set, which can give players an edge they know how to take advantage of it. One of the more unique elements of the units in Rise of Nations is the missile. Players are able to build missile silos, and construct missiles within them. These missiles can be targeted to hit most units or structures on the map if they are visible, and are extremely important in the balance of the title. One of the benefits (and annoyances) of missiles is that once launched, they will hit their target. The only exception to this is if the player has developed a missile-shield, which becomes available as a research upgrade in final stages of the game. Overall, the units in Rise of Nations are very well balanced, highly detailed, and generally one of the high points of the title.
Although the gameplay in Rise of Nations is generally an improvement over the standard strategy model, there are a few elements I really didn't enjoy. For starters, in other strategy titles such as Empire Earth, players can start on island maps, this is especially useful in multiplayer mode. These island maps are a way to protect your borders and prevent really quick melee attacks, as you have to build transport ships and manually transport your units across to launch a ground assault. This also results in more air and sea battles. Unfortunately, this ability to "protect your borders" is not present in Rise of Nations. The use of transport ships virtually nonexistent, as to transport a unit across the sea all you have to do is instruct them to move to another island. From here, these units become their own miniature transport vessel. This 'feature' allows for easy movement around a map, but really takes away from the sea-battles and importance of controlling the sea, one of my biggest issues with the title. Besides this issue, the gameplay model is superb, innovative, and well developed.
The city model really plays a factor in constructing wonders in Rise of Nations. One of my biggest complaints with games like Empire Earth was the fact you could sit back and simply build two or three wonders in the very back corner of the map. After construction, they could be easily fortified to the point is became impossible to reach them, thus guaranteeing you a wonder victory. Fortunately, Rise of Nations has not taken this approach. By limiting wonders to one per city, it forces players to expose their wonders by spreading them out around the map, thus making wonder victories much more difficult. With that said, the gameplay model isn't quite perfect, as I can't seem to get past a few of the design decisions made. For starters, for those who are "nuke-crazy" in other strategy games, that simply doesn't work in Rise of Nations. The game includes an "Armageddon" countdown, which decreases every time a nuclear weapon is detonated. This forces players to limit the number of nuclear weapons used in the game, as once the limit is reached both players lose. Unfortunately, this works both ways. I've faced a few opponents who were on their last legs, and instead of gracefully taking the loss they chose to finish off the game by causing an Armageddon. It would be much improved if the game offered a feature to disable this countdown, without disabling nuclear weaponry altogether, as they do help provide a balance within the game. Rise of Nations offers a lot of customization; unfortunately a few small issues such as these have been missed.
The Throne & Patriots Expansion included with the gold edition really adds a lot to the title. For starters, the expansion adds a half-dozen new nations into the mix, American, Dutch, Indian, Iroquois, Lakota, and Persian. As each nation has its own unique units and tactics, it allows for a variety of new attack strategies. Secondly, the expansion re-balances several of the units in the game, fixing a few of the balance issues present in the original. Combined with these modifications, the expansion also offers several new campaigns and three new wonders in which to construct. However, the biggest addition to the expansion is the new government models. Players can construct a senate in a city, which automatically changes the capital of that nation to the respective city. From the senate, players can select a form of government to rule their nation, despotism, republic, monarchy, democracy, socialism, and capitalism. Each government type has definite benefits, whether it is increased unit production, cheaper research, or more efficient commerce. This new element changes the balance of the game, and adds yet another strategical element into the mix.
Overall, Rise of Nations: Gold Edition is definitely worth taking a look into, especially if you enjoy strategy titles. The city model is a very innovative approach to the genre, and provides a very different gameplay style than other strategy titles. Besides a few minor issues, Rise of Nations is an engaging and very addicting game. Big Huge Games have taken an old formula and made it their own. Lucky for us, the resulting game is one of the best strategy titles to date.