Initially developed by the veterans at Stainless Steel Studios (and completed by publisher Midway), Rise & Fall: Civilizations at War is a traditional real-time strategy game with empire-building overtones, set in the ancient world. Players choose to lead the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, or Persians to bronze-age victory. The primary resources in the game are wood and gold, but secondary assets, such as hero units and cultural "glory points," open additional avenues of conquest. A "Hero Command" mode lets players take charge of their troops from a first-person perspective in the heat of the fight. The game offers plenty of land-based warfare, but also features advanced naval combat. A wide selection of ships, designed to scale, can be boarded and sailed by other units.
Imagine a developer pitching a semi-historical real-time strategy game that allows the player to actually descend onto the battlefield and take command of a hero such as Julius Caesar or Achilles in a third-person action mode. Marshal your armies, slip into the sandals of a legend, and lead them to victory! While a great idea on paper, the result ended up as the disappointing Rise & Fall: Civilizations at War, a game that shows definitive proof that good ideas mean nothing without good execution, and bears all the marks that you'd expect from a game whose original developer (Stainless Steel Studios) shut down during production (the game's publisher, Midway, handed the title off to another team to finish before shipping).
Let's start with the good news. The game's central concept -- the Hero -- is a genuinely fun part of the game as well as a key element of the player's strategy. Each civilization has a choice between two different heroes, each with various powers and abilities. Cleopatra, for example, can "convert" enemy armies to her side, while Caesar can call in artillery strikes so long as he has a catapult on the battlefield. Some will be better ranged fighters, others are melee powerhouses. Each will also gain "glory" in combat which the player uses to level their hero up as well as hiring "advisers" which give global bonuses to the player's empire. This, by and large, takes the place of the usual RTS cycle of advancing epochs and research trees.
It isn't until the player takes direct control of his or her hero, however, that they truly come into their own. A hero under player control is a virtual engine of destruction. Each has the ability to cut through legions of enemy troops, give simple "follow" and "attack" orders to nearby troops, as well as use their special powers to turn the tide of battle. The utility of the hero is balanced, however, by the amount of stamina the hero possesses -- players can only play in third-person mode until their hero runs out of it. A key tactic (particularly in multiplayer) becomes hoarding stamina until it's strategically advantageous to expend it. It's also insanely fun to just be able to get down on the field and mix it up with your opponent. In fact, it's almost as much fun to be on the receiving end when an opponent's hero suddenly starts running around like a maniac in ways that make it obvious there's a human mind controlling it.
The game also puts a new spin on naval combat. Ships in Rise & Fall aren't just combat units, they're actually floating fortresses that can generate their own armies. They can also instantly kill enemy vessels by ramming them, assuming that players can navigate the sometimes difficult movement paths, line up their boats just right, and have a drummer on board. Ship-to-ship combat isn't a matter of ship strength, either. Instead, soldiers on board actually launch arrows at one another, and sailors can use grappling hooks to pull ships together for boarding actions where the winning army actually takes possession of the losing vessel. When everything goes just right with ship movement (sometimes grapplers seem to have a problem pulling ships together), this is a blast, and is a welcome twist to what's usually the most boring part of an RTS.
These elements are enjoyable enough that they almost redeem the rest of the game -- almost. Once players get past the visceral thrill of being able to buzzsaw through enemy armies or have seized a couple of vessels, they'll realize that such moments are pretty few and far between. First, the game's strategic model is way too biased toward defense. In part, that's to encourage players to make use of the game's fun siege units and cheap, nearly indestructible walls, and while this can contribute to some pretty epic sieges that are a lot of fun, it also leads to a horribly slow gameplay pace. There's an unbearable amount of researching, economic buildup, resource gathering, construction, and outpost capturing to do before you'll ever even see an enemy. Ironically, I tend to be a "turtle" type player who loves research, builds huge armies, and despises the early RTS rush, but having to spend ten minutes building an economy before you can crank out military units, or an hour before getting to cool gameplay bits like a city siege is just too damned long.
In many ways, Rise & Fall feels decidedly retro -- and not in a good way. Technologically, the game's graphics are way behind the curve with boxy architecture and crude character models reminiscent of the original Empire Earth. The game's "smart formation" system, which is supposed to semi-automate the sometimes difficult process of moving hundreds of units into and out of usable formations, doesn't work terribly well. That means that players will have to lasso and manually command their armies. They'll also spend most of their battle time fighting in the classic RTS "swirling mass o'crap" formation in which they throw hundreds of soldiers at each other and hope for the best.
The game also uses an old-fashioned peasant resource gathering model that's been standard issue in RTS games since the days of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. The thing is, most modern RTS games are moving away from peasant micromanagement in some way. Not here, though. The game doesn't even exclude peasants from a mouse lasso, which means that a player trying to move military units around a base may inadvertently grab the basis of their whole economy and throw them into battle during a siege. It's always fun to realize that the reason your gold production stopped is because you accidentally tossed your staff under the hooves of Persian cavalry.
The rest of the game is basically a total loss. The code feels unoptimized, the graphics chugged at moderate resolutions and detail levels (there's even chug in the game's cutscenes), and there's often a weird delay between picking an option on the game's menus and the game actually following your command. What's worse, the multiplayer is plagued by lag issues, and there are problems updating the server list. During my multiplayer games, the chat lobby was commonly filled with people repeating, "I just started a game! Can you see it on the board now?"
In-game, the hero controls are a bit swimmy, and the game's collision detection in third-person mode is kind of wonky. In multiplayer, this isn't much of an issue since it's a strategic tactic mostly used on massed troops where it's almost impossible to swing a sword without hitting something. It does make the single-player campaign a nightmare, however, because many missions are built around it. Two missions in the "Alexander" campaign in particular had me tearing my hair out, one involving a seaborne mission on rails where I had to shoot down 100 Persian soldiers within an allotted time, and one in a gladiatorial arena fighting against a minotaur (or possibly a guy in a bull-headed mask); at this point, you're essentially playing an action game with lousy controls.
The remainder of the single-player campaign is equally dismal. The game comes with two campaigns that supposedly follow the stories of Cleopatra and Alexander the Great. I only know that, however, because I kept hearing their names come up again and again in a series of poorly rendered, incomprehensible cutscenes filled with bad dialogue and characters that seemed to swagger like they were walking down Main Street in a Western-movie gunfight. The single-player missions themselves ranged from the merely decent to the aforementioned awfulness of purely third-person missions. Even the game's skirmish mode, which, in a better world, would allow players to replicate some of the limited fun of multiplayer, is useless thanks to a brainless and easily beatable AI.
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