Urge to play rising.
First-person shooters might grab headlines, but the hardest of the hardcore find much more depth and value in a well-designed real-time strategy game. Last year's crop was outstanding thanks to games like Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, Ground Control II and the unsurpassed Rome: Total War, but despite a new Age, 2005 was more about fragging monsters than snagging resources as the RTS took a back seat to the FPS.
So perhaps the world is itching for another great strategy game, which is exactly what Big Huge Games and Microsoft are hoping as they prepare to unleash the anticipated Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends in the Spring of 2006. Other than a penchant for the kind of redundant naming that drives men like George Carlin absolutely bonkers (Big Huge?), they also have a knack for kickass strategy design. After spending some time with their upcoming baby, I certainly won't argue.
[image1]Don't let the similar names fool you, though. While Rise of Legends shares some basic design elements with its distinguished forbear, it takes off in a sexy new direction by ditching the historical aspects of the original in favor of a brand new fantasy backdrop. Unlike most games of its ilk, Rise of Legends doesn't downshift to the typical geek conventions of mysterious elves, tattered humans and nasty orcs, instead introducing a totally new mythos that's more League of Extraordinary Gentlemen than D&D. Only two of the game's three factions have been released thus far: the industrial Vinci and the Zerg-like Alim.
Drawing inspiration from their multi-talented namesake and the stylish visions of contemporary artists like the great Hayao Miyazaki, the Vinci are mad, brilliant inventors. With giant clockwork men, helicopters pulled right from Leonardo's personal design docs and sprawling, steam-powered fortresses complete with whirring cogs and pumping pistons, they establish a fresh look with nary a pointy ear in sight. The Alim, on the other hand, forgo robotics in favor of organics, with buildings made of glass and sand, dragons, genies and enough spiritual trickery to make Ali Baba jealous. The obvious conflict between machinery and magic highlight the different play mechanics of these two factions; one can only wonder (currently) what the other faction might bring to the table.
Little is left to the imagination when it comes to the core game design, however. Those familiar with Rise of Nations will be psyched to know that the great single-player mode, Conquer the World, returns with some significant and promising tweaks. The plot puts you in the sandals of Vinci hero Giacomo, taking over territories on three hefty, R.I.S.K.-like maps. Sacking lands grant you additional reinforcements or other buffs to help you conquer more. Meanwhile, your enemy is doing the same, so you also have to defend previously conquered regions.
New to Legends is the ability to construct buildings from the map screen, which then become part of the map if you have to defend against an invasion. This not only gives you a head start in certain battles, but also allows you to send reinforcements over to adjoining territories if a battle takes place there instead. Maintaining standing armies at any location helps, making the strategic control of map locations key.
[image2]The battles themselves are filled with deep strategic elements but manage to avoid becoming too heavy-handed by trimming some of the typical RTS fat. Only two resources require management – timonium and gold – and neither deplete. This makes the maintenance of a steady supply line more important than starving out the other player(s) by rushing in and securing all the resource points on the map first. Say goodbye to the classic war of attrition.
A 'district' system expands the size of your city while giving out important bonuses to your overarching army. Military districts increase your pop cap and your overall offensive and defensive capabilities, while Merchant districts beef up the efficiency of trade caravans, leading to a better influx of resources. The more you have of any district type, the more potent the effects. Each faction has one unique district, not to mention a slew of unique units and buildings.
Even more depth comes in the form of new Dominance abilities, which reward players who accomplish certain goals first. It's something of a race; you can gain 'Army' Dominance by being the first to build four battalions, which then gives you a nice buff…until someone reaches, say, eight battalions and swipes the buff back. As the game progresses, figuring out which Dominances to go after and which to forgo becomes an important strategic consideration.
Perhaps the most dramatic change of all is in the game's fancy new engine. Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends is a fully 3D beast, complete with total zoom, a rotating camera and all kinds of nifty effects. Cities are now interconnected monstrosities; as districts are added to a Vinci city center, for example, they quite literally connect with groovy bridges and tubing. Pile on more and eventually you can upgrade to a sprawling clockwork metropolis. It's a helluva set piece.
And hopefully we'll say the same about Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends when it ships. What we've seen so far is an RTS brimming with both style and substance…and that's still a faction shy of a full house. Provided Big Huge stays on track, this is more than the most promising of 2006's RTS crop – it's a legend in the making.