If you're a game developer seeking an original idea for a game, one of the easy ways out is to combine two established genres, blending compatible elements of gameplay until such time as you have a game that will force journalists and PR people alike to invent mind-bending new double- and triple-barrelled descriptions. Tactical Stealth Action, Strategic Role Playing Game, First Person Adventure - see what I mean?
Rise Of Nations is a combination of elements which you'd generally expect to find in completely different games. Like some bizarre creature from Greek legend, here you'll find the nation building and technology research aspects of Civilization mixed up with the real-time strategy sensibilities of Age of Empires, bringing together for the first time the two very opposite ends of the strategy gaming spectrum.
A lot of thought has gone into making this unusual combination of aspects work well in Rise Of Nations, and it shows. Your nation is made up of cities and their peripheral buildings, and military installations; each city (or fortress) influences the borders of your nation dynamically, pushing the boundary forward or backwards depending on the status of your cities and on those of your neighbouring nations. Build a new city, and the national borders in that region (reflected by lines across the map) will change to reflect the new balance of power in the area - an important consideration, because national borders define where you can build your buildings and what resources you have access to.
Within the boundaries of each city, there's a range of facilities you can build ranging from military barracks to grain stores, and from mining installations to temples. Some of these facilities influence the production of all sorts of resources (build a sawmill to gather wood faster; build a smelter to gather from mines faster; build a university and stock it with scholars to speed up research), while others have an influence on your national borders and others still affect your economy, such as the marketplace which can generate net worth by trading with other marketplaces in other cities.
All of this will seem fairly familiar to anyone who has played Civilization, and there's plenty more where that came from. Around the map there are resources scattered, ranging from sheep to diamonds, which you can exploit by sending a trader from the market to set up shop. Aside from increasing your net worth, these resources also provide benefits to your nation - such as reduced costs for certain types of manufacture, improved construction times or better research abilities. As you progress through the ages, more resources will become available for you - such as oil and uranium, essential for a modern war machine. Hang on - ages? We're getting ahead of ourselves.
Age of, um, Ages.
With a tip of the hat to Age of Empires, Rise Of Nations sees your civilisation going through a set of distinct ages, ranging from early feudal society up to the modern information age. Progressing up through ages upgrades your military units (it's a bit of a shock when those horsemen you had in the middle of the desert suddenly turn into tanks), changes the appearance of your buildings and opens up new lines of research and construction to you. As you might have gathered, it's a rather more dramatic progression than Age of Empires manages - the game claims to span about 6,000 years of human development, whereas Age of Empires and its ilk generally focused on a few centuries.
This can result in some interesting meetings on the battlefield, and it's not uncommon for your mechanised tank army to roll into an enemy nation backed by stealth bombers, only to encounter resistance entirely made up of blokes on horseback with muskets. Despite this, it can sometimes be quite difficult to take over even a technologically backwards nation - the game doesn't make the huge distinction you'd expect between tanks and horses, or between jet aircraft and zeppelins, and taking over an enemy city is still a tough task even for a large advanced army. You'll need to pound it into submission and then move soldiers in to capture it, defending it with the rest of your troops while they go about suppressing the local population and generally making them behave themselves, before it finally becomes a city you can call your own.
There are an abundance of different races to play as, each with their own unique units and different strengths and weaknesses. However, at the end of the day there's really only one superweapon, and as you might expect, it's the nuclear bomb. Interestingly though, the game places severe ramifications on using nukes; as well as having an effect on the political situation in the game (it's naturally possible to ally with some nations rather than being at war with everyone all the time), over-reliance on nukes can leave you staring at a Game Over screen on account of having caused Armageddon. Oops.
Good old Global Domination
One of the most interesting aspects offered by Rise Of Nations is the "Conquer the World" mode, which complements the standard RTS skirmish and multiplayer modes available to you. In Conquer the World, you play on a board game type layout, and choose which countries to invade - after which you're dumped into the standard RTS view to co-ordinate the war with that nation. Win, and you're back onto the main game board with a new country under your control and, eventually, with more armies to move around and so on. It's been done before, admittedly, in the Total War series (Shogun and Medieval), but never on this scale - and after all, who doesn't want to properly conquer the world, eh?
The game does still have some balancing issues to sort out, but the team has done a hugely impressive job so far given how difficult it must be to sort out balancing in a title with this sort of epic scale. There's also a question mark in our minds over whether the inclusion of RTS style battles is actually a step in the right direction; in many ways, Rise Of Nations feels like it could almost be a better game with less focus on combat and more focus on nation-building.
However, for now, Rise Of Nations is shaping up to be the most interesting strategy game we've seen in a very long time - which is really saying something, given the glut of quality RTS titles on the PC in the past year. Civ done real-time would be a dream come true for a lot of gamers, and if the finished game fixes our minor concerns over balancing and combat, Rise Of Nations will be a must-buy. We'll hopefully get our hands on final code of the game in the very near future, so look out for our full review in the coming weeks!