Reviewed: June 25, 2006
Released: May 9, 2006
I knew from the first seconds of watching the Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends opening cinematic that I was in for a wild ride Ė the kind of ride you normally have to buy tilt-a-whirl tickets at the county fair to experience.
A spaceship rips apart and hurtles to the world of Aio below, chunks of wreckage crashing down on a lush jungle, a darkened desert, and a peaceful autumn forest. Suddenly, Iím watching a pitched battle between humans and strange looking monsters. A dragon brings down a gyrocopter after a fiery dogfight Ė but then a giant mechanical walker rescues the pilot. Soon after a clockwork robot electrocutes a giant scorpion.
At this point, all I really know is Rise of Legends is going to be one of the most bizarre but exciting RTS titles Iíve ever played. Itís certainly a departure for developer Big Huge Games and publisher Microsoft Ė the makers of such historical classics as Rise of Nations and Age of Empires.
To sum up Rise of Legends new fantasy setting: human heroes using steam punk weaponry battle dark and powerful warlocks and Aztec aliens bent on world domination. You have the Vinci, a race that uses weapons first imagined by Leonardo da Vinci. Their grenadiers and pistol-wielding dragoons march into battle alongside steam tanks, gyrocopters, and clockwork men. Then you have the Alin, a race of sorcerers inspired by Arabian myth. They can summon palaces and fantastical monsters such as dragons and fire elementals from the desert sands. Last but not least are the Cuotl, a race of aliens who seem inspired by Aztec gods. They wield laser staffs and rule over their jungle homeland with a titanium fist.
The gameís fantastical setting is certainly a departure for Big Huge Games, a developer studio thatís best known for the historical Rise of Nations series. But Rise of Legends gets more than just an A for creativity Ė the graphics are stunning and the gameplay is well balanced. This game takes what works best from other bestselling titles and cuts out a lot of the tedium in micromanaging your war effort. There is even a turn-based map campaign that allows you to explore the gameís storyline as you choose.
In theory, this mish-mash of the first Rise of Nations, Starcraft, and Civilization should be a strategy gamerís dream come true. Yet my biggest complaint about Rise of Legends is the way the turn-based campaign doesnít quite meld with the RTS elements. Itís a tough balancing act to combine turn-based and real-time gameplay, and while the Big Huge Games developers didnít completely fumble the ball, their efforts fall short of the Total War or even Heroes of Might and Magic series.
That being said, I will applaud Rise of Legends for very polished gameplay and for giving me a break from ancient Rome/medieval England/WW-II Germany.
At its core, Rise of Legends is a solid, by-the-numbers RTS. You build your base, send out raiding parties to capture key points, and finally blow up your enemyís base in a hail of gunfire. But the RTS elements we all know and love are flawlessly executed.
The three races have very unique playing styles and are superbly balanced. The Vinci have solid infantry and ground machines plus deadly fliers and devastating steam tanks. The Alin have cheap but hard-hitting hordes of swordsmen, scorpions, and fire elementals. The Cuotl have some of the coolest units with their robotic jaguars and eagles, priests armed with laser rifles, and floating death spheres. Cuotl units are hard to kill but theyíre also very expensive and slow to produce.
I couldnít help but be reminded of Starcraft ó with the Vinci playing the role of space marines (good middle-of-road units and great fliers), the Alin filling in for the Zerg (cheap units and lots of them) and the Cuotl playing the role of evil Protoss (hard to build but hard to kill). But itís only on a superficial level because Rise of Legends adds mega units and powerful heroes to the mix. The Alin dragon and Vinci mechanical spider dominate the battlefield every bit as effectively as the titans from Age of Mythology. Heroes can sway the course of battle with their powers to mind control enemy units, summon deadly sand storms that fling foes into the air, or in a blinding flash teleport with their army across the battlefield.
The combat is fast-paced but I found the units very easy to marshal thanks to streamlined controls. Itís the little things that impress me with a RTS title, and Rise of Legends offers superior unit pathfinding and a unit command system that work as intended. If you put soldiers on defense to guard your base, they will actually fire back as soon as the enemy approaches but not wander off if the enemy retreats (what a concept). Hero powers are simple to hotkey and use ó a big improvement over the clunky hero controls in Warcraft III. Maneuvering around the 3-D terrain can take a little getting used to but fortunately Rise of Legendís camera controls are a breeze.
My only complaints with game mechanics were problems with air and ground units interacting, as well as issues with the fog of war. For whatever reason, I found it difficult to select both ground and air units in the same group. I also noticed some targeting issues, such as air units shifting fire to ground units even if youíve ordered them to attack other fliers. I also found the total fog of war blackout very frustrating given the 3D terrain. More than once I found my troops trapped on an isolated ridge while exploring the map, and I would have traded my last fusilier to see an outline of the entire map, even if I couldnít see enemy units.
One of the things that sets Rise of Legends apart is the national strategy element. Bases are not just bases; they are thriving cities where you can build military, economic, and research districts. Furthermore, there are national borders that provide a small but critical defense barrier. Troops automatically heal while in friendly territory but take attrition damage across the enemy border. Borders also prevent the enemy from ďtower rushing,Ē or building their own defensive structures right next to your base.
At the beginning of a game, the map is dotted with neutral cities. This provides you with the choice of trying to win those cities to your side by sending caravans from your merchant district, or sending out a raiding party to conquer them. The military districts allow you to build more units and automatically defend your city, while the research/industrial district allows you to expand your borders, heal units more effectively, or collect resources faster.
This may seem like a lot of micro managing, especially when you factor in having to build old fashioned barracks, steam fortresses, etc. in order to crank out units or research weapon upgrades. The good news is there are only three resources in the game Ė Timonium, gold, and energy (which the Cuotl collect instead of gold). This takes out much of the grind of building up an army, since you only have to focus on capturing Timonium mines and protecting your gold caravans. The Cuotl have the advantage of not having to trade for gold, but the disadvantage of not being able to peacefully recruit neutral cities.
The computer AI makes for a competent opponent; itís not very strong when it comes to blitz offensives but is very good at defending key spots and counter-attacking if you leave yourself open. But where Rise of Legends really shines is in multiplayer, where players get to explore the intricacies of combining strategic with tactical options. There seems to be a million split-second decisions to make at any one time, though I will say victory normally goes to the player who best balances nation expansion with army building. Forget about trying to tank rush because Rise of Legends rewards well-thought out strategies. You can even get ďdominanceĒ bonuses if youíre the first to say, accumulate 500 resource points or capture a certain number of mines.
Now that Iíve covered the best parts of the gameís RTS elements, I feel itís time to turn a critical eye to the single player campaign. I did like the overall storyline staring Giacomo, a Vinci inventor who must stop his arch-enemy, the Doge, from discovering an ancient secret and conquering the world of Aio. The good news is you have complete freedom to control Giacomoís destiny as he overthrows the Doge and becomes leader of Vinci, pursues his hated enemy into the Alin desert, and later leads a rebellion against the Cuotl overlords.
Instead of a linear progression of battles, the story unfolds as you move your army turn-by-turn across the campaign map. Move your army onto a certain province and you may fight a special escort mission, unite roving bands of bandits into your army, or encounter one of the Dogeís super weapons like the Sky Crusher fortress. Some of the missions are actually quite challenging too, such as the one where you must help Giacomo survive while heís delirious and lost in the Alin desert.
But there are two problems with the turn-based campaign. The first is the story becomes disjointed if you conquer provinces out-of-order. The second, and far more serious, issue is the campaign map starts to drag after awhile. You can improve provinces, which in turn give you bonuses for your next mission such as extra troops or advanced research. Heroes also gain experience and new powers in-between battles, adding a nice amount of roleplaying elements. However, the campaign lacks any of the depth of Civilization or Rome: Total War and I never felt like the decisions I made on the campaign map truly influenced the outcome of real-time battles. While itís a clever concept, the single player campaign just doesnít work as well as intended.
Rise of Legends is one of the most beautiful strategy titles Iíve seen in a long time, including the new Age of Empires and Civilization titles. The artists have really captured the intricacies of Leonardo da Vinciís sketches when creating the clockwork units and steam-driven cities of the Vinci. Likewise, Alin cities shimmer above the landscape and the Cuotl temple fortresses exude an aura of awesome dread. Troops look great from a distance and have a good amount of detail up close. The landscape is equally well detailed with ruined deserts, rolling hills, and thick jungles.
I found the 3D graphics, lighting, and physics well done. The graphics engine makes buildings collapsing or air units strafing infantry appear extremely realistic. Or as realistic as you can make a battle between a clockwork man and a giant scorpion appear. I will end with saying the terrain truly feels 3D, something I havenít experienced in many RTS titles. For the first time I felt like I was watching troops actually struggling up a steep slope under fire instead of an artificially steep 2D surface.
The music, sound effects, and voice acting are all solid if not exceptional. The music is great but repetitive, and there is not enough difference between the Vinci, Alin, and Cuotl musical scores. While Rise of Legends doesnít feature such famous actors as Leonard Nimoy (who narrated Civilization IV), the voice acting is still competent.
Itís hard to rate the sound effects because in an RTS the sounds of gunfire and explosions seem to all blend together anyways. I will say I could have used a few more sound cues letting me know when a group of infantry versus a steam tank had been created.
Rise of Legends is a great buy for any RTS fan, but it is a bit of a connoisseurís title. The level of detail and strategic/tactical planning makes this not an easy game for casual strategy fans to pick up. However, RTS fanatics can look forward to months of multiplayer goodness. Rise of Legends has some of the most robust multiplayer features Iíve seen. If you want a long game, you can play on an 8-player map and prevent rushing for the first 10 minutes. If you want a quickie, choose a small map with the ďsudden deathĒ option (first player to lose a city is out). This eliminates one of the biggest complaints of the earlier Rise of Nations series Ėgames that drag on forever.
As mentioned previously, the single player campaign only has so much replay value. Battle scenarios are scripted by province and not dynamic, meaning there are only so many ways you can play through the campaign before it gets repetitive.
Rise of Legends may be one of the last great traditional RTS titles in a quickly changing genre. This game ties together many of the great aspects of earlier titles (national borders, heroes, mega-units) seamlessly. The new fantasy setting, with its grand theme of magic versus technology, is a welcome change from orcs versus elves.
If youíre looking for a strategy fix this summer or a new way to embarrass your friends with your tactical cunning, itís hard to go wrong with Rise of Legends. This is one wild ride that itís worth buying the all-day tilt-a-whirl pass for.