After coming to an agreement with Microsoft to publish their games in 2000, Big Huge Games then went on to develop Rise of Nations, and the ensuing add-on pack, Thrones and Patriots. At the time of release, the original RoN was an instant classic RTS that really came together well, but with so many other great RTS titles available for the PC, it usually takes a truly unique effort to make it big. This is the theme for Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, a standalone RTS from Big Huge Games, because while it is indeed a solid game, it ultimately falls short of elite status due to a lack of innovation.
Rise of Legends takes the RoN series in a totally new direction. Rather than realistic weapons in real world environments, we have fantasy weapons, fantasy locations and fantasy races. The Vinci are a human based race that work mostly in steam and clock powered devices, the Cuotl are a race based on worship and technology, while the Alin are a magic driven race. Overall, this produces a broad range of different types of combat, units and technology across all three races, but the one thing in common is almost everything is fantasy based.
Like any good RTS, Rise of Legends features a fully functional single player campaign mode, a quick play single player skirmish mode, and a multiplayer mode for LAN and online play. The MP modes on offer are pretty basic - you can choose between 1 vs 1, team vs team, free for all, team free for all or "Diplomacy", which allows the gamers to form teams in real time via alliances. There is really nothing overly special about RoL's multiplayer gameplay, it's basically the same as a normal single player skirmish but against human opponents. It uses Gamespy, which some gamers tend to shy away from, but I found it to be completely painless - I had an account setup in under 2 minutes without having to even supply an email address. Unfortunately though, there doesn't seem to be any traditional game browser in RoL. You simply define the game style you'd like to play and it auto matches you with someone else, or you can add a friend to your list and organize a game yourself that way.
Most of RoL's depth comes with its offline single player campaign mode, which is quite similar to the campaign mode in Rise of Nations, dubbed "Capture the World". This basically means that like RoN, you have a map to conquer, and the path you take and the armies you battle are your decision. However, the "Capture the World" style single player campaign mode in RoL is not quite as open ended as the CTW mode seen in RoN. For starters, this time around you're really only capturing one continent in each of the three campaigns, so it's not really the same as RoN which let you have at the entire Earth world map. On top of this, you only seem to control one army throughout most of the campaigns, not multiple armies at a time like RoN, and while you choose where you go and what you do, storyline developments such as cut scenes are linked to specific map locations so you're still ultimately following a linear storyline.
However, that's not to say the single player campaign mode is lacking, it is still very detailed. As you progress throughout the maps, you will accumulate points which can be spent on upgrading your captured cities, upgrading your units, and buying access to new types of units. While, as mentioned, you still follow a basic linear storyline, your path can still very much influence your success - for instance, you may choose to take the quickest path, but by doing so you could go into battle lacking enough resources, meaning the more you conquer, the more points you gain, and the stronger you become.
As far as the in-game gameplay goes, fans of Rise of Nations will feel very much at home with RoL, because it plays very similar. This is a good and bad thing - good because RoN was a great RTS, but bad because given RoN is around 3 years old, it definitely isn't very fresh. While some of the gameplay elements regarding upgrading, constructing etc have been tweaked, RoL is hardly a ground breaking RTS gameplay wise. You build your cities which consist of military, industry, merchant and palace districts (names vary slightly per race), which in turn influence such things as population cap, military capabilities, market strength, and your resource cap to name a few, while at the same time ordering production of units, upgrading technologies and collecting resources. These aspects are all to be expected - it's just that RoL structures them in a manner that is perhaps too simplified and plain.
For instance, there is really only one true collectable resource that you mine in RoL - Timonium - whilst Gold is collected by simply building trade Caravan's, which manage automatically by themselves. The Cuotl race also have a unique resource, Energy, but collecting it is no harder than Gold. Neither resource seems to run out either, or at least I never saw a mine run out, so once you get established, there is basically an endless supply of resources providing you maintain control of them, and this can become a problem. Due to the fact there really isn't a massive amount of upgrades and technology enhancements available, once you get rich enough, which is only a matter of time, you can basically just click randomly on upgrades and purchase them without really knowing, or caring, what they do. I mean, they've got to be good, right? RoL could have really benefited from more diverse technology paths - paths which don't allow you to master most things at the same time so some sort of variation and choice was on offer. There are a few choices here and there, but nothing overly integral to the storyline.
The upside to this is RoL is a game you can learn very quickly, which is definitely appealing for more casual RTS gamers. That doesn't mean the game is easy though, it's still as challenging as the next RTS, because the majority of the outcome still relies on combat, which RoL does well enough to make challenging. However, yet again the game's simple nature comes through - there are only two very basic formations, and a few basic Rules of Engagement options - you know, the usual; aggressive, defensive, do not attack etc. On top of this, the combat AI can be quirky at times, particularly when concerning automatically instigating battles - for instance, if you have a few units standing ground, and one unit is attacked, a lot of the time the other units right next to them won't join into help, which can be annoying. You pretty much have to baby sit your units in RoL if you want the best outcome.
However, there is one area of RoL's combat that does shine through and that's the variation of units in the game, whether that is the variation of units in your own race, or the variation of units across all 3 races. When you commence an attack, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of not only your own units, but your enemy's as well, can mean the difference between success and failure. This aspect is further emphasised by the game's "hero" units. Each race has a few unique hero's who can be summoned into action mid game. Each hero has his or her own unique abilities as well, ranging from mass devastation to defense enhancements. On top of this, each race also has at least one "king" unit - an expensive and usually physically dominating unit you can only have 1 of, and each of these also have unique abilities. For instance, the Vinci have a giant mechanical spider. When it comes down to it, RoL's units are some of the best I've seen in the genre.
It may be clear I have not said a whole lot of good things about RoL's gameplay, but that's really only because the bar for RTS titles is so high these days. RoL rarely exceeds this bar, but it almost always at least matches it, so don't get me wrong, RoL is not a bad game to play, it is actually a very solid RTS when it comes to gameplay, it just isn't overly fresh or innovative. As stated, the units are great, but they're really the only part that stands out - there is much more to RTS gameplay than just the units.
Visually, RoL is about mid range for a PC RTS. As with a lot of RTS titles these days, the individual units themselves aren't overly impressive and tend to become less and less impressive the closer you zoom the camera in, but the environments are very nicely done. On top of this, there is typically a lot of animation going on in RoL, particularly when concerning cities, which are always busy producing, upgrading and generally looking like a real alive city. Unlike a lot of other visually impressive RTS titles though, RoL won't require a mega PC to look great. However, RoL will apparently support the Agiea PhysX PPU peripheral card with a patch coming sometime soon, but I'm really not sure how much of an impact it would have as there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of opportunity for real world physics processing in RoL.
Control wise, RoL won't surprise you, just about every control function follows common RTS standards. However, all is not well with RoL's I/O components - despite being patched up to date as of May 27, RoL still seems to suffer from quirky audio. At times, the game will sound fine, but at other times the background music and objective voices will be the only audio you can actively hear - no gun fire, explosions, clunking metal, nothing. Luckily, we didn't encounter this issue a whole lot but it was enough to consider it noteworthy.
Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends is a mixed bag. While it offers solid, easy to learn but challenging to master RTS gameplay, these days such a feat just isn't enough to push an RTS game into the frontline. There have been so many good RTS games on the PC, that it's pretty easy to make a solid one if you don't stray from the generic formula, which Rise of Legends is definitely guilty of when you look past the aspects which are easy to make unique - the units, the buildings etc. With that said though, Rise of Legends is still very much worth your time and money if you can't get enough RTS gaming, it's just a shame it wasn't more than yet another solid RTS.