RTS and empire building games are generally a stuffy lot. SimCity may require a mind for planning, but where's the humor? The Civilization series is a finely honed empire experience, but it, too, lacks a funny bone with the possible exception of its clever advisors. The Nations, the sequel to Amazons and Aliens (released as Alien Nations in Europe), fills the void of challenging RTS games with a sense of humor. There's no doubt, though, the game owes a large debt to The Settlers series, as did its predecessor.
The Nations revisits the planet of Lukkat and its indigenous three strange races: the easy-going Pimmon, the proud Amazons, and the prankster Sajiki. Each race, as in the first game, has very different backgrounds, work ethics, and priorities. The Nations follows the day-to-day action in a settlement, each day lasting a matter of minutes. For gamers ready to trade in the briefcase for a beanie cap without sacrificing the art of strategy, this title is a sure bet.
The single player storylines focus on all three races, as each tries to decipher the prediction of a Pimmon seer named Korn, who tells of a prophet arriving on Lukkat. This prediction, understandably, is causing unrest, and it's up to you to solve the mystery and restore order. You guide the races, by material wealth or military might, to victory. Once the mystery is solved, you can find additional competition by setting your own goals against computer opponents in skirmish mode or by finding human rivals over LAN or Internet connections.
From the introduction to the ending, and cut scenes to animations, The Nations squeezes every ounce of charm possible from its graphics. Each race has unique architectural designs, over 90 in all. The acute attention to detail also applies to the animated denizens of Lukkat. The potbellied Pimmon chow down at the tavern with gusto, while the Amazons go about their business with a haughty air. Even the insect-like Sajiki are cute, and the adolescent she-bug jumping rope is truly adorable.
These little graphical treats make it difficult to invoke the option that allows you to fast-forward the action to a maximum of four times the normal speed. Areas can be magnified with little distortion, giving you an up close and personal view into the comings and goings of the various inhabitants.
Underneath the cute exterior, there is a finely tuned gameplay engine. The market algorithm, creature AI code, and war system are all well done, if slightly simpler than similar games. Don't let the disguise fool you, as simpler doesn't necessarily mean easier. You'll need to rely on trading products to fund research and gain needed items. More than 20 items are available to trade, and the law of supply and demand applies here. There's always a buyer, but rotten prices may force traders to wait for a bull market.
Creatures behave on their own, a change from Amazons and Aliens. This movement reflects a more realistic challenge of having to satisfy a worker's need for a job and house, as well as satisfy his or her desire for love and a family. Finally, the war system is based on knighthood, with individual characters offering their services, complete with strengths and weaknesses. The fact that conflicts can be won without battles testifies to the depth of the game.
The Nations differs from Amazons and Aliens in a variety of subtle, but noticeable ways. There are now specific tribes within the races with which to interact. The researcher and knights are unique characters. Criminals, too, have begun to commit more serious offenses, requiring more attention. The most obvious change is the shift from direct to indirect control of individuals, requiring you to become more of a manager than dictator.
Accompanying the excellent animation is a quality original soundtrack and a bevy of sound effects. The music is jaunty yet not annoying, a rare combination. Blended in are the sounds of life: the pounding of hammers, the gulping of meals, and buzzing of a laboratory, to name a few. The audio is crisp and clean.
For some, The Nations may feel like just more of a tired formula. There are no new races, and the missions are similar to those found in Amazons and Aliens. Others might be put off by the game's inherent cute appearance, having been raised on more serious fare. The biggest issue with the game is its inability to decide if it's a RTS or an empire builder. The elements are so similar and well combined that fans from either camp expecting more control in certain areas or a more involved market system may be disappointed.
Unfortunately, it's because of the inescapable similarity to previously released RTS games that some aspects stand out in a negative light, spotlighted only because of what came before. Gameplay remains essentially the same, and reflects no significant innovations. The very qualities and uniqueness that made tribes in The Settlers sparkle with individuality are lacking in The Nations to some degree. Although appearances of the races are different, not enough diversity exists between them, whether in sounds, action or structures, to make them seem overly unique.
Despite its lack of innovations, though, The Nations carves out a nice niche. There are few games that can sustain interest after the initial "oh wow!" factor wears off, but this title does just that with solid, if less convoluted action, that requires RTS thinking with an empire building twist. Leave the three-piece suit by the door and enjoy the charm of this surprisingly addictive game -- dead serious city planners need not apply.
Graphics: Crisp, clean animations are clever and cute. There is an attention to detail in the building design that begs to be studied.
Sound: The game features a good soundtrack and solid sound effects backing up the animations, but the lack of diversity between the races is a bit disappointing.
Enjoyment: The game is surprisingly addictive and deceptively challenging. Not as complicated as some more serious games, but not any easier either.
Replay Value: The single player game runs through three races and the skirmish modes are defined by goals set by the gamer. Internet and LAN opponents make for more realistic trading.
People who downloaded Nations, The: Gold (a.k.a. Alien Nations 2) have also downloaded:
Alien Nations, No Man's Land, Nemesis of the Roman Empire, Northland, Tzar: The Burden of the Crown, Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege, Neighbors from Hell (a.k.a. Neighbours from Hell)
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