Rise of Nations

Developer Big Huge Games
Publisher Microsoft
Release Date Spring 2003

Cindy Yans

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This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150

So, why do so many real-time strategy games—no, why do so many games, period, venture forth in historical regalia? It’s simple. History is interesting, it’s relevant, and perhaps, best of all, it’s free. Just slapping Aztecs, Napoleon, and Tiger Tanks on top of a weak game system doesn’t cut it, though. You have to have a real game under there…somewhere. Ensemble Studios succeeded in this regard with its Age of Empires series, Stainless Steel Studios also scored a solid hit with Empire Earth. Now comes Brian Reynolds and Big Huge Game’s Rise of Nations. But is there room for yet another Civilization- meets-WarCraft experience?
One look at Reynolds’ new game strongly whispers the answer: “Yes.” At first glance, you’ve seen it all before. There’s a collection of historical civilizations; a progression of technological ages; a basic game system rooted firmly in standard real-time strategy mechanics; and extensive multiplayer and skirmish modes. But a closer look reveals some rather compelling diversions from the norm. The 18 playable nations (an astounding number considering what you usually get) are almost Civ-like in their weirdness, ranging from the trade-centric Nubians to the fast-breeding Bantu, with gun-toting Turks and hyperactive Mayans in between. You also get the usual British, Germans, French, Russians, Greeks, and Romans, along with a smattering of others for a truly multicultural explosion of diversity. The tech tree moves through no fewer than nine ages, from the ancient world to “The Future,” where presumably the Simpsons is still in first run. The game mechanics, while superficially familiar, are subtly different from other strategy games. Units can auto-scout, scouring the map efficiently without micromanagement. National borders define and limit territorial dominion, and resource and population caps are fully integrated with a sophisticated gathering and upgrade system that hands-down tweaks the usual rote upgrading process.
And then there’s the Conquer the World mode. Of all the features that Big Huge Games is cramming into Rise of Nations, this seems the most significant and entertaining. It goes like this: you pick a nation to begin your path of world conquest, then you can choose which neighboring country you and your army will visit. This triggers a match against the defenders, who are either a developed nation or a band of barbarians. These matches play out like skirmishes, where your overall strategic choices actually define the ultimate parameters. As you gain territories, you gain more armies, and then… there are [drumroll] Bonus Cards. These are special abilities that will help you to, like, Rule. The single-player experience is compelling, even in the early version we played. Contextual skirmishes and the existence of an “overall goal” are amazing stimuli. 
If you are a veteran of the Age games, you’ll be able to jump right in, to some extent, but the general interface similarity between these games is deceptive. You’ll notice at once that Rise of Nations has more sophisticated and simpler controls, although there is quite a bit more to keep track of. This will be a boon for solo players, but for multiplayer folks, you know… those people who still play “Zerg rush”, you wonder whether it will just throw a stone in their serene pool of carnage. Given that the game offers you a “no rush” option as one of the many custom game types, it’s pretty clear that one goal of Big Huge Games is to finally give solo gamers a real-time strategy game that doesn’t feel like a real-time strategy game. In practice that may prove problematic, but it’s an interesting idea. Also, even the most fumble-fingered of fanatics will still be able to deal with the controls.
At first glance, the game doesn’t really seem very different from its predecessors, but there are features, such as national border expansion, that separate it a bit from the norm. As your nation expands, its borders highlight (in vivid color) the extent of your progression. You can build and develop only within your sphere of influence, and with the right technologies, enemies will take damage and your troops will benefit. This adds a lot of structure to the otherwise chaotic landscape of a real-time strategy map, but its effects are subtle. You won’t notice them fully until you start butting up against rival civs, and you won’t fully appreciate the borders until you get to higher tech levels. That’s like a lot of things in Rise of Nations, though. It’s shaping up to be the sort of game during which you’ll be saying “Hey, I didn’t realize you could do that!” an awful lot. Since the Nations will rise in April, it might be a good excuse to hibernate during pollen season.

This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150