This first full sequel to the first release from Brian Reynolds and Big Huge Games moves the action from a realistic, historical setting to one of myth and fantasy -- although not the well-worn Tolkien-esque style of fantasy familiar to most gamers. The three nations that rise in this RTS are not found in any particular ancient text, but are defined by details culled from various legends told around the world. The Vinci, for example, is an industrial, "steampunk"-styled faction, conceived from the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, while the desert-dwelling Alim people, inspired by the stories of 1,001 Arabian Nights, rely on spirituality and sorcery for their power, and the Cuotl race blends Maya sensibility with extraterrestrial equipment. Ongoing struggles between technology and magic underlie the game's story.
Gameplay in Rise of Legends should be familiar to veterans of Rise of Nations, although enhancements and additions have been made. The single-player campaign puts gamers in the role of a young, unsuspecting Vinci inventor, who has leadership suddenly thrust upon him and must lead his people to protect their land and overcome their rivals. The "Conquer the World" mode features a turn-based strategy overview that determines where individual real-time battles are fought, not unlike the system in Creative Assembly's Total War games. The original Rise of Nations is also known for its accessible, engaging, fast-playing multiplayer modes, and Rise of Legends is designed to continue this feature by offering epic, fantastical wars that can be won and lost over a lunch break.
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 Rise of Nations 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 Rise of Nations 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 Rise of Legends's multiplayer gameplay, it's basically the same as a normal single player skirmish but against human opponents. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any traditional game browser in Rise of Legends. 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 Rise of Legends'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 Rise of Nations, 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 Rise of Legends is not quite as open ended as the CTW mode seen in Rise of Nations. 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 Rise of Nations 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 Rise of Nations, 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 Rise of Legends, because it plays very similar. This is a good and bad thing - good because Rise of Nations was a great RTS, but bad because given Rise of Nations is around 3 years old, it definitely isn't very fresh. While some of the gameplay elements regarding upgrading, constructing etc have been tweaked, Rise of Legends 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 Rise of Legends 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 Rise of Legends - 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? Rise of Legends 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 Rise of Legends 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 Rise of Legends 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 Rise of Legends if you want the best outcome.
However, there is one area of Rise of Legends'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 emphasized 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, Rise of Legends'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 Rise of Legends's gameplay, but that's really only because the bar for RTS titles is so high these days. Rise of Legends rarely exceeds this bar, but it almost always at least matches it, so don't get me wrong, Rise of Legends 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, Rise of Legends 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 Rise of Legends, 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, Rise of Legends won't require a mega PC to look great.
Control wise, Rise of Legends won't surprise you, just about every control function follows common RTS standards. However, all is not well with Rise of Legends's I/O components - despite being patched up to date as of May 27, Rise of Legends 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.
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