Rise of Nations Hands-On Preview

We get up-close and personal with Big Huge Games' upcoming strategy game.

Real-time strategy games are extremely popular for the PC, so it stands to reason that new real-time strategy games have to face a lot of tough competition. But this popularity has also meant that many real-time strategy games end up being very similar--a lot of them just require you to quickly harvest resources, quickly build up a base, quickly build up an army of military units, and trounce your opponents before they can do the same to you. Rise of Nations will attempt to break from this formula by introducing elements of classic turn-based strategy games like Civilization. It makes sense, since developer Big Huge Games is a studio composed of former Firaxis developers who have worked on games like Civilization II and Alpha Centauri. In any case, Rise of Nations will attempt to combine elements of grand strategy (typically associated with a game like Civilization) with the fast-paced gameplay of a traditional real-time strategy game--and from what we've seen recently, it may just succeed.

From humble beginnings to world conquest...in about an hour.

Recently, we were fortunate enough to get a chance to visit with Big Huge Games to see how Rise of Nations has changed since we last saw it. You may recall that Rise of Nations will let you choose to play as an entire world nation (each of which has its own individual strengths and weaknesses), like in the Civilization series, explore and conquer a map by expanding your nation's borders, research different technologies, and then attempt to take over the world by conquering rival nations or assuming control of most of the world's landmass. The game certainly looks better than it used to--Rise of Nations uses a combination of 2D graphics (for its backgrounds and interface screens) and 3D graphics (for its various units)--and it currently features lots of new and highly detailed animations for its various units, as well as lots of new special effects. More importantly, Big Huge Games has put a lot of effort into making sure each of the playable nations is different and also into making sure that the most advanced technologies in the game are unique and interesting--an important consideration in a game that will let you research the most powerful technologies available in 30 to 60 minutes.

Even though Rise of Nations will let you take control of an entire country, many of its missions can be completed in less than an hour, and the same can be said about many of the game's multiplayer modes. However, Rise of Nations won't simply be about quickly rushing your opponents to death, since the game will offer plenty of different strategies and battle tactics to help you win. For instance, while each country in Rise of Nations will have unique military units (like in Civilization III or Age of Empires II), the game will also let you build wonders of the world--unique structures that will provide different sorts of bonuses to the nation that builds them first. We got firsthand looks at the Terracotta Army and the Kremlin; the former churns out free infantry units every 30 seconds, while the latter pumps out free spy units that can increase your line of sight and reveal what sorts of research and resources your opponents are focusing on. Rise of Nations will have 14 wonders of the world, each of which will complement various nations' abilities and strategies.

Use your library to research one of four technology tracks.

Many of the strategies you'll unearth in Rise of Nations will depend upon your nation's powers, your research, and whichever wonders you decide to build. Rise of Nations will have four "tech tracks"--four general areas of research: military, civics, economics, and science, each of which allows for various upgrades, vehicles, and military units. Big Huge Games has solicited input from multiple teams of testers and focus groups in order to seek out gameplay imbalances between different strategies and different nations and iron them out, and from what we've seen, it should indeed be possible to win a game by focusing on a nonmilitary form of research. For instance, if you play as the Roman civilization, you'll get powerful defensive bonuses that can help you fend off early attacks while you develop your economy for an economic victory. The Chinese civilization has powerful culture bonuses that make its starting cities begin as advanced "large cities" that can't be rushed with early attacks and that also expand your nation's borders further than a small city--which can help you expand your empire rapidly, and even go on a bid to conquer the world by controlling the most territory.

What Your Country Can Do for You

These hoplites seem tough now, but things will change once gunpowder becomes available.

Of course, if you do plan to pursue a career in the exciting field of warmongering, Rise of Nations will have plenty of different strategies to help accommodate you. For instance, the Mongol nation has a "horde" power that lets you generate powerful cavalry units for free after you build a horse stable. The actual battles in Rise of Nations will require different tactics depending on how advanced your civilization (and your opponents' civilizations) are. In the early game, swift-moving cavalry units can be devastating when used against regular infantry, but in the later game, when you'll have access to ballistae, cannons, and tanks, heavy artillery will play a much greater role--you'll be busy defending your own big guns or going after your enemy's.

The way your nation's powers and research work will be slightly different in Rise of Nations' in-depth single-player campaign, which is known as "Conquer The World" because in it, you do, in fact, conquer the world. Big Huge Games estimates that the turn-based campaign should take 12 to 18 hours for most players to complete, but since you can play through it as one of 18 different countries, many players will find reason to play through it more than once. Each of the 18 countries will have different starting conditions and then will take over the globe, mission by mission. For instance, if you decide to play as the Nubians, who begin in Africa, you'll begin in a relatively isolated part of the world and should be able to annex adjacent territories easily, but you won't be able to attack or have diplomatic relations with other nations for quite some time. On the other hand, if you play as Germany, you'll be able to benefit from that nation's powerful industrial bonuses by trading with your neighbors, but you'll have very little room to expand immediately, what with France and Spain being nearby.

In the campaign, you'll conquer the world piece by piece.

Over the course of the campaign, the entire world's general level of technology will advance, so you won't be able to greatly outpace the other nations in terms of technology. Fortunately, this means that they won't be able to outpace you, either, and you'll be able to spend more time getting used to each of your current sets of military units and technologies--Rise of Nations will automatically upgrade your existing units when you research new unit types that appear for each age, so you'll hardly ever see ridiculously anachronistic matchups like swordsmen fighting a tank. However, you will have to keep track of your diplomatic standing with your neighbors; maintain good relations, and your neighbors may even support you in future military campaigns by automatically sending reinforcements, as long as they control an adjacent territory. Interestingly, each mission map will be generated according to the surrounding territory; a map that takes place in the Amazon jungle will have a tropical layout with a large, resource-rich watering hole near the center, while a battle between France and England will actually take place on a map divided across the middle by the English Channel.

Rise of Nations seems more and more intriguing each time we see the game in action. Could this unusual game bridge the gap between turn-based strategy and real-time strategy? We'll find out when it's released this April. In the meantime, be sure to watch 556040our exclusive developer interview with producers Paul Stephanouk and Tim Train .

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