When the original Rise of Nations was released for the PC, Microsoft already had a pretty solid grasp of the PC RTS market, in fact they have had for years prior to RoN's release thanks to the ever popular "Age of" series. However, this already strong series could have meant that the new style RTS found in RoN had little to offer, it does feel a lot like an 'Age Of' style game after all, however this was not the case. RoN scored big with RTS fans world wide and Microsoft are at it again with the release of RoN: Thrones & Patriots, and add-on for the original RoN, and we had the chance to check out an early beta copy.
First of all, it is clear from just reading the features of this add-on that quite a considerable amount of new goodies have been brought to the table. One of the basic aspects of RoN is its included nationalities, and T & P brings six new ones - Iroquois, Lakota, American, Dutch, Persian, and Indian. The most interesting inclusion to the nation list here is probably America - now available for your complete control. Of course, each nation can basically reach the same level of supremacy, but the novel idea of controlling the world's biggest powerhouse is appealing.
In fact, the use of the words "complete control" will soon have a new meaning under T & P. New in this add-on pack is a "Government" feature, impacting on both your military and civilian worlds. Naturally, T & P allows you to choose your style of ruling, which includes Democracy, Republic, Monarchy, Socialism, Capitalism and Despotism, each with their own set of advantages and disadvantages from both your point of view as the leader, and the point of view of the citizens. For example, Despotism offers military research and barrack units 25% cheaper than usual, while Capitalism attracts material rewards, such as extra Oil income. To follow a government, you must first build a "Senate", which changes the city it is built in to your capital, and research the model of your choice through the ages. Whilst the form of government does not have a huge effect on the gameplay, it does add an extra layer of depth to the game's already long lasting playability.
Also is new supply are single player campaigns, with a few already in the beta - including "Alexander the Great", "Napoleon", "The New World", "The Cold War" and an entire world campaign as seen in the original RoN. We are not sure if extra campaigns will be included in the retail copy, but you can also load custom campaigns, so no doubt unique wars and battles between nations are only a download away from the official website and fan sites alike.
Fundamental gameplay is essentially the same as in RoN, with the inclusion of 20 new units, each of which belongs to a specific nation. However besides this, I did notice a few subtle improvements. Probably the biggest of these subtle improvements was the oil resource and its availability. In the original RoN sometimes I found it was very hard to gain any oil wealth due to the lack of oil resources on the map, however it seems, atleast in my gaming sessions, that oil is a little more plentiful. Oil is very important to build many units in later ages, so this is a relief. On the other hand, some of the characteristics from the original remain - each foot unit you research comes in a group of three, most resource stations such as a forrest are never ending etc.
As far as the technical aspects go, T & P is no overhaul, it appears the same somewhat dated engine is used with seemingly identical graphics from the original, however this is just an add-on, so it is not entirely fair to expect more. Some people will probably rejoice with the fact that the "Age of Empires" style engine is still going strong in RTS gaming as it is very un-picky when it comes to system specifications. I agree, I mean the Age of Mythology engine would have been great but it is hard to argue against what works, and the engine in RoN certainly works well.
Like most add-on packs, I'm not entirely sure if Thrones & Patriots will attract a whole new flock of gamers to the series, but it will most certainly give the RoN fans out there some impressive new features and gameplay. Price is always a factor when it comes to justifying an add-on purchase, but with that feature yet to be set in stone, all that you can gauge your interest off at the moment is the additions to the series, and if you ask me, these additions are most certainly welcome enhancements. If you loved the original like so many gamers out there, then RoN: Thrones & Patriots will probably be to your liking.
Make sure to check back for more Thrones & Patriot goodness as we approach its Spring (US) 2004 release.