The Da Vinci Code movie is out this week, and by most reports, it’s about as much fun as going to church. So if you simply must sample something inspired by Signore Leonardo, Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends is a much better alternative. While not as brilliant as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it has a sparkling originality that helps it get past some of its more mundane problems.
[image1]Rise of Legends is the sequel to Big Huge Games' terrific first title, Rise of Nations, and it plays a lot like its progenitor. It also takes the series down a new path - a very strange and original one. The real world has been tossed out the window, along with actual history. The setting and style of these entirely original “Legends” are refreshing and compelling, if wildly eclectic.
Here’s what I think happened: They hired three different artists, locked them away from each other, told them nothing about the game, and then told each to design one of the three warring factions. If you can handle the bizarre mash-up that results, it’s actually very cool.
The Vinci army is basically composed of conquistadors driving steam-powered machinery inspired by the art of Leonardo Da Vinci. Wobbly gyrocopters take to the skies, while lurching clockwork men batter the enemy with steel arms. Zoom in on any of the games hero units, and you can actually see the human operator at the controls, pulling on oversized mechanical levers. The Alin, on the other hand, come straight of 1001 Arabian Nights, with floating, onion-domed golden palaces, sinister wizards and rampaging genies. And the Cuotl are an ancient Mayan / Egyptian race of aliens with laser beams and shielding technology.
[image2]This leads to some of the craziest conflicts you’ve ever seen as battlefields swarm with steam-powered tanks, giant glass insectoids, robots, snake-men, sword-wielding cavalry, dragons, and laser cats. It’s truly bizarre, and so truly original that it is Rise of Legends' best asset.
How do you explain a conflict like that? Well, you don’t, at least not very well. The story behind the game supports my three-artist theory as well, as the complicated mess of a plot feels tacked on. There’s a spaceship crashing into a planet, some guy’s brother gets killed, revenge must be had, some ancient relic is making people sick, there’s a sexy female air-pirate for romantic entanglement…all of which is barely explained through the game’s cut-scenes.
However, the throwaway story can be easily skipped and you can get right back to the cool- looking action. The great unit design is complemented by a graphics engine that shows off that creativity. From the rickety gait of a clockwork spider, steam pistons pumping furiously, to the smooth, floating assault of a giant four-armed genie, the game looks great. There can be some slowdown in larger conflicts, and you will need to update your video card drivers to the very latest ones to get the game to run well, but barring that the game runs very respectably on a mid-level computer.
The sound, on the other hand, seems to have gotten lost in the mix. Some of the missing noise I don’t miss at all, like how units don’t shout “Yes sir!” ad infinitum every time you select one. The crackle of musket fire is good, but other units seem to have gotten less love; giant, rampaging behemoths can be eerily silent.
And while the units look great, there are surprisingly few of them. Each of the three races has fewer than ten units to work with. This is augmented a bit by the Legends themselves, as there are a huge number of very cool, unique hero units, but the lack of variety tends to make all your battles look the same.
In fact, the whole game has been simplified from the original Rise of Nations. There are no longer any “ages” as it all takes place in one time period, so the tech trees are much less interesting and much smaller. And unfortunately, in some places the simplification is more of a dumbing-down.
[image3]Like, for instance, the game's global strategy map. Rise of Nations featured two strategy games in one: a metagame map that plays much like the board game Risk and the RTS battles themselves. But instead of expanding on the global game introduced in the first Rise (like Rome: Total War), they simplified it to the point where it’s almost meaningless, and although you do choose your next territorial conquest, it’s all much more linear than it appears.
And speaking of dumb, there are some A.I. issues plaguing both parts of the game. On the global map, for instance, your opponent will never change tactics. He will simply attack the same territory over and over, and as long as you keep building a new military base there to get destroyed every turn, he’ll never take it or any other area, leaving you free to do whatever you want.
Similarly in the real-time battles, the A.I. never seems to react to what you’ve done. Build a bunch of turrets to cover an area the computer wants, and watch endless enemy units get sent to their death over and over again. At least the individual unit A.I. is good, and troops will acquire their own targets, won’t just stand around getting shot, and will shoot while moving.
Smarter organic challenges can be found in the online multiplayer, but this has been simplified a bit as well. There are fewer game options than there were in Rise of Nations and only one victory condition: kill the other guy.
However, none of these problems make the game unplayable. On the contrary, Rise of Legends is easy to pick up, start having fun, and get into some great looking battles with little fuss. A playable piece of art, Rise of Legends is a very pretty painting even if it is on a very standard canvas. Leonardo would probably approve.