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OnLine of Departure Support Wargames by Jim Werbaneth




Supplements and Player's Aids



Originally Published February 19, 2005

By Jim Werbaneth

With its Age of Empires and Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings games, Microsoft established itself as a leader in the field of real time strategy [RTS] games.  Then came Rise of Nations in 2003, a game that builds on these designs.  The next year too, the company followed the standard practice for RTS publishers in releasing an expansion, titled Thrones & Patriots.

At first glance, Rise of Nations looks very much like its predecessors, and especially those experienced with Age of Empires II will take to it very easily.  It has the three-dimension look and feel to the map, appearing as a flattened diamond.  The interface is nearly identical too, relying on the right mouse button to pull up ranges options and choose destinations for movement.

In function as well as form, there is a lot carried over too, only expanded.  Most importantly, Rise of Nations keeps the divisions of history into ages, and since now the game covers everything from the dawn of history to the near future, there are eight in all.

Likewise, the game comes with a lot more contesting peoples than eighteen of the Age of Empires games, even with their expansions, eighteen in all.  This leads to some strangely anachronistic situations; one could see the Chinese, Egyptians or the Greeks emerging from the neolithic era, but the British, French or Aztecs are do not quite fit this pattern.  Modernization plays games on the other end of history, with Roman panzers, Egyptian dreadnoughts and air forces flown by the Inca and Iroquois.  Then again, RTS gamers should be used to this sort of suspension of historical belief.

For all of the similarities with the Age of Empires family, Rise of Nations is defined more by its differences.  To start with, settlements and resource collection are handled in entirely different ways than previously.  In the older games, there was no sense of national borders, so that a player could place a building anywhere he wanted.  In addition, there was no rule against erecting a building adjacent to an enemy, leading to one of my favorite tricks in Age of Empires II; placing castles and towers right next to enemy building, and using them as hardened bombardment platforms.

No longer.  Rise of Nations defines the borders of the combatants, and construction is limited to those realms.  Some, especially cities and defensive works, expand the areas under control, thereby giving the player more freedom to develop new assets.  Further, civilian economic and social construction has to take place in the proximity of cities.  In the Ages of Empires games, there were no such limitations, so that besides building close to the enemy, settlements tended to sprawl.  Those in Rise of Nations have to concentrate.

Finally, there is now a limit on the numbers of buildings that can be placed around a city.  No more than one market, temple, university, granary, lumber mill, metal smelter or oil refinery is allowed, nor can a player have more than five farms per city.  Mines, lumber camps, and later in the game oil wells are under no such limitation, and can in fact exist beyond the urban orbit.

Cities thus take on new levels of importance that the civic centers in the Age of Empires series lack.  Rise of Nations makes them a lot cheaper to build, which makes strategy easier, but what the developers giveth, the developers also taketh away.  The game limits population according to the level of economic knowledge, and extends this to limiting the number of cities permitted.

A country can actually exceed that number through conquest.  A city so reduced by combat and bombardment that, were it another building it would be destroyed, is not eliminated.  It can be seized by enemy infantry and assimilated so that it functions identically to those built by the player himself.  When this happens, the buildings nearby also pass to the conqueror’s control, and he extends his borders from it too.

Not just in the Age of Empires series but also in such RTS classics as Blizzard’s Warcraft II and Starcraft, resources are finite.  Moreover, they have to be carried to a settlement or industrial asset in order to be processed; whether it is wood, gold, oil or food, a point in the hand does not count until it is actually taken to where it can be used.

They also run out, which has several important consequences.  First, a player has to go out and find more resources.  Second, the distance they have to be transported increases, decreasing efficiency and giving the player a reason to build new processing plants closer to the remaining raw materials.

Finally, land cleared of resources becomes available for new construction.  For example, deforestation is a recurring theme of both Age of Empires II and Warcraft II.

None of this applies to Rise of Nations, as resources are inexhaustible.  Indeed, technological progress  makes the extraction of existing concentrations all the more efficient, with no danger of running out at any time.  However, a player cannot allocate an infinite number of citizens to harvesting a forest or mineral resource concentration, as the richness of the resource is expressed in the maximum number of workers who can extract it.

There is also no provision for transport.  When something comes out of the ground or falls in the woods, it is immediately available.

A player still has to find new resources even if his old ones last forever, if for other reason than because newer structures and units tend to cost more than old ones.  Additionally, prices are fluid, and except for special exceptions granted for certain cultures, rise each time a new one is created.  The first is always the cheapest, and the last the most expensive.

Wood and food are available throughout the game, but metal is not until the player progresses to a point at which he can use it, and oil is not even visible until the industrial age.

The military side of the game is, surprisingly, simpler than its predecessors.  Though the long time frame mandates that there is a much wider variety of unit types, from men with slings to stealth bombers, there is not that wide of a variety possible at any one time.  For the most part too, there are certain units common to most of the nations, though the game presents variations on them for national character and as a reflection of the history that provides the game with its point of departure.

Sometimes though the national characteristics do not ring true.  The greatest examples are the Maya and Aztecs, who when introduced to Age of Empires II had no ability to raise or use cavalry.  As peoples without the horse, this is entirely correct.  However, in Rise of Nations everyone has cavalry, including the Mesoamericans; it is just that some are better at it than others.

Maybe the most noticeable simplification concerns siege engines and artillery.  In Age of Empires II, there could be three kinds of siege engines produced at any one time in a workshop, with technological improvements possible with research, plus trebuchets that could be produced by a more advanced power at a castle.  In Rise of Nations, there is one siege unit or artillery unit that can be produced at any one time, and fortifications no longer turn out bombardment units.

Rise of Nations has a couple of new units that represent a major advance over the Age of Empires series.  Generals are generated at fortresses, and are necessary for a rudimentary command and control.  Supply wagons cut down on the attrition that otherwise takes place when armies leave their own national territory.

Wonders are even more important to Rise of Nations than to its predecessors.  In the earlier games, if a player can build a wonder and keep it intact, he wins.  All it takes is one, and that requires a commitment of manpower and resources commensurate with a pyramid or at least a cathedral.

In Rise of Nations, wonders are cheaper and easier, and can be built during most stages of the game.  Logically, no single wonder can win it outright for the builder, and a side can and should build several.

Nor are they generic, as is the case in the Age of Empires games.  Depending on the era, a player could build a pyramid, an ancient Chinese terra cotta army, the Colossus or Coliseum, the Statue of Liberty, or even start a space program.  All have a practical application beyond the old and accustomed awe, such as extending borders further or, in the case of the terra cotta army, contributing real armies of free infantry.

Once a side builds a wonder, no other people can replicate it.  There can be only one Temple of Tikal, only one Eiffel Tower.  If a player has a wonder under construction and another side finishes one just like it, then the second one falls with a great noise.

The tradition in real time strategy gaming is for publishers to follow up popular titles with expansions, some of which constitute critical updates that refine the system as well as offer new units, buildings, and often entire new sides.  The best example of this is The Conquerors, the expansion for Age of Empires II, which greatly improved the game’s approach to farming as well as gave players some extremely distinctive new nations, including the Huns, Aztecs and the most fearsome conquerors of them all, the Mongols.

Thrones & Patriots enhances Rise of Nations, although not nearly as dramatically.  There are four new peoples to it: The Americans, the Lakota Sioux, the Dutch, and India.  They come with their own special units and capabilities, most memorably elite Marine infantry for the United States and various grades of elephant units for the Indians.  Also, the Dutch are a nation of traders, and their merchant and caravan units have a unique capability to fight in their own defense.

Again, there are some grounds for head-scratching among the historically-concerned, as the Americans field hoplites two thousand years before the United States as a glint in England’s eye.

There are also a number of new wonders for players to build, a welcome bit of color.

The expansion has a major supplement to the basic system, with the introduction of government.  A player can, and should, build a Senate building, after which he has his choice of government types, starting with despotism or democracy.  From there it can evolve along lines that might involve monarchy, capitalism and socialism.

All have their own benefits.  For example, despotism aids military production, and capitalism works better for economic ventures.

There is a new unit too, one that helps give it its name: The patriot.  This is a ruler/president/supreme comrade, who enhances the functionality of units and buildings around him.

Rise of Nations is one of my favorite real time strategy games, along with Age of Empires II and its science fiction export, Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds, especially as expanded by Clone Campaigns.  At first, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed that Rise of Nations was not a straight upgrade and enhancement of its predecessors, something that I discovered the first time I tried to build two temples in the same city.

Furthermore, if Rise of Nations exceeds the graphical standards of these other games, it is not by very much.  Then again, familiarity leads to accessibility, and Age of Empires II and Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds still look very good today.

Rise of Nations is not as much of an improvement as it is a very good, enjoyable variation on an established theme.  It has much in common with its predecessors, all of it good, while presenting the player with variants on the original challenges.  To win, a gamer must construct multiple cities, often a half dozen or more, to get out of the economic doldrums, instead of relying on one or two core settlements.

The expanded time frame presents another set of decisions too.  In the other designs, the further a side advances, the more capable it becomes.  This remains true in Rise of Nations, although now the unique capabilities can peak at different times.  For example, the Romans are best relative to other peoples earlier in the game, when they have legions at their disposal instead of more generic infantry, and the Americans and Russians are more likely to be dominant at the end.  Thus a player should not always assume that the future will bring a greater chance of beating an opponent; sometimes the future is now.

Rise of Nations definitely offers a fresh perspective on classic real time strategy.  As with its illustrious predecessors, it is highly recommended.