Rise of Nations Preview

From one of the designers of Civilization II and Alpha Centauri comes a new real-time strategy that attempts to integrate features commonly found in turn-based strategy games.

An early look at a Japanese empire.

Like most of us, developers play quite a few games in their spare time, but when developers play games, most have the luxury of being able to say to themselves, "This is fun, but we could make a better game." Such is the case with Rise of Nations, a game currently in development at Big Huge Games that attempts to capture the enormous scope of older turn-based strategy games and the fast-paced structure of real-time strategy games. It also tries to mix them in a manner that would ultimately make Rise of Nations a game that appeals to fans of both subgenres. Not an easy task, by any means, but the development team--headed by Civilization co-creator Brian Reynolds--hopes that it has stumbled upon a formula that will do just that. "We knew going into a real-time strategy game that players only have a certain amount of [attention] to give to things," Reynolds said. "It's not so much that we've taken real-time strategy and jammed the kitchen sink into it. We looked at real-time strategy and took what we thought were the really fun things."

Expanding your empire early on is key for survival.

"What we wanted to do was use the fundamentals of a real-time strategy game and layer in some turn-based options," Reynolds said. "We want people to play it in an hour and see their empire arc quickly." However, before you can construct something that even comes close to resembling an empire, you'll need to start off by building a small village. This village will serve as the focal point of your budding empire, and it will also set a physical boundary--or national border--in the area around it. These borders are incredibly important in the game because they prevent opponents from building military structures within your land, and they also determine which resources you'll have control of in the infantile stages of your empire's life.

Rise of Nations has an allotment of resources that is fairly standard in the real-time strategy genre, but there's one substantial difference between the resource management in Rise of Nations and resource management in other real-time strategy games. "None of the resources deplete [over the course of the game]," Reynolds said. "Every resource in the game is tied to controlling enough territory, so if you want to farm then you need to have enough flat land, but your farms are going to be productive forever." Along similar lines, if you want to secure more of a particular resource, you'll have to think differently. Instead of throwing more tree-chopping units at the trees, for example, you'll have to improve your empire's efficiency by constructing a lumber mill and continually upgrading it or simply find another source of wood. For resources such as gold, you'll have to build multiple towns so you can increase the number of trade routes within your empire. All this ties in with the development team's efforts to encourage conflict (though not necessarily military conflict) between opposing players. "Building more towns plays into our political building game," Reynolds said. "While you're building up that resource, you'll also leverage that to play the [political] part of the game."

The Quicker the Better

While it seems that Big Huge Games wants to give Rise of Nations an unparalleled amount of depth, the team wants to avoid adding so much to the game that it completely overwhelms you. So, along with the adjustments made to the resource management system, Rise of Nations has a number of other features to help alleviate the pressures of a traditional real-time strategy game. The first of which is something the development team calls a smart-peasant system. "Peasants will automatically look around and find something to do," Reynolds said. "Whether that's gathering some resource they think you need or perhaps constructing a new building or repairing a damaged one, they'll think of something decent to do and start doing it." You'll still have the option to manage every individual peasant unit, but later in the game, when the action starts to become a little more hectic, you'll have the ability to leave the peasants to their own devices.

Peasants will automatically find chores to do if you don't give them direct orders.

The same kinds of design decisions have been applied to other areas, such as the technology tree. Rise of Nations' technology tree has been implemented in such a fashion that it won't take ages to search through it and plan out your empire's technological advancements well in advance, but you'll still need to make a few key decisions somewhere down the line. "You have the choice to advance straight through the ages of history," Reynolds said. "You also have your chance to determine your level of specialty in [the areas of] military, commerce, and science--and those are going to have discernable affects on the game."

An opposing empire attempts to capture a village through military force.

As the borders of individual empires grow closer and closer together, you'll be given a number of diplomatic options that can either improve your situation through entirely peaceful means or plunge you into a constant state of war. There are a number of different ways to play the diplomatic game in Rise of Nations--for example, you could start a game where all the empires are at war and alliances can only be formed through interaction between individual nations. Allies get to see each other's territory, maneuver troops through each other's territory without a fear of retribution, and share each other's borders. In addition, allied nations will be able to trade with each other, which can be useful if you're ever in desperate need of a particular resource or if you happen to have a particularly valuable resource. However, the development team is aware of the propensity of some players to get what they want from an ally and then declare war shortly thereafter, and as such, adopting such a strategy in Rise of Nations has its consequences. "Once you make peace, it costs resources to go back to war," Reynolds said. "The more you make peace, the more expensive it is to declare war on one of your [allies]." If you find that some empires are a little hesitant, you can offer them extra gold as something of a signing bonus for joining your alliance.

Balancing the Ages

In any game that spans thousands of years of human history, the problem of unit balance inevitably rears its ugly head--pitting musketeers against tanks on the battlefield, for example--but Reynolds doesn't think this will be a problem in Rise of Nations. "It doesn't really happen that much during the game, and if it does happen, it's usually really brutal and the game is over really fast," Reynolds said. "It's certainly fun to get up a head of steam and get an age ahead of an [opponent], but you're not normally going to see tanks versus spearmen or that sort of thing--the game's not paced that way."

Rise of Nations has some truly spectacular battles.

There are eight ages in Rise of Nations, beginning with the ancient age and ending with the information age, and before you can move from one age to the next, you'll need to expand your empire. When you construct your village, it lets you build any number of economic and civic structures--such as granaries, temples, and other similar structures--within a certain radius, and as your population and city continue to grow, you'll eventually receive an upgrade. "In order to reach let's say the classical age, you'll need two researched [advances]," Reynolds said. "You can choose whether that's going to be a military technology or a civic technology, or two commerce advances--then you take yourself up an age and receive the benefits."

As you progress through the ages, you'll actually be able to specialize in any one of four areas in terms of research and advancement. Civic advancements will help extend your borders and build more cities. Researching commerce increases the total amount of resources you can accumulate within a given time. Scientific research improves communications, so units and buildings can perform more actions, and they also make research in other fields cheaper and faster later in the game. "It's kind of an investment on the front end," Reynolds said of the value of scientific research. "But you'll definitely get a reward on the back end." Finally, military research will upgrade the attack rating of your units and give you access to a wider variety of units, including better siege weapons and better defensive fortresses.

Conflicts can occur on both land and sea.

Taking over an opponent's city using military force will undoubtedly become necessary over the course of a game, but it won't simply be a matter of moving your troops into a certain area and automatically gaining control of enemy structures. "You might first bombard the city itself with some cannon or a siege unit," Reynolds said. "Then you can send in your foot troops. Once the city is softened by taking a significant amount of damage, it comes down to who has the most infantry units nearby to take control of that city." Once you gain complete control of a city, you'll start to receive all the benefits it provided, but you'll also want to shore up any defenses within the city in order prepare for any possible retaliation from its former ruler.

A Different View

Rise of Nations will feature a single-player mode made up of five historical campaigns that include individual storylines and a series of preset objectives that you must complete in order to be successful. There are also plans to include a basic skirmish mode that includes a random map generator. Of course, Rise of Nations will also include various multiplayer options, allowing you to select from one of the 18 civilizations and then compete in different variations on the typical multiplayer RTS game.

The zoom out mode will give you a better perspective on your empire.

Big Huge Games believes that these variations will encourage online play and even prevent people from abusing certain aspects of the game. One such variation is "no rush," which prevents the participants in a multiplayer game from attacking each other until they've both reached a certain technological level. For example, if you were to set the level to gunpowder, you would have to wait until both you and your opponent reached that level before you could attack. Variations such as this are ideal if you're an inexperienced player or you're just looking to add a new dimension to your multiplayer matches.

One feature that you'll be using in both the multiplayer and single-player game is the zoomed out option, which basically helps you plan your empire. When using this view, the camera will zoom out from the full 3D terrain so you can take a look at the general growth of your empire and determine where you should be expanding in order to secure additional resources. It will also give you a better look at national boundaries, so you'll be able to see if an opponent is starting to creep closer to your land.

Eventually, you'll be able to research nuclear weapons.

As far as individual units are concerned, there certainly won't be any shortage of them in Rise of Nations, as there are approximately 168 different unit types in the current build of the game. But you'll want to pay special attention to at least two of your units--the general and the scout. A general can enhance your units' attack abilities in a number of ways. It can hide troops for the purposes of launching an ambush, and it can rally troops if they start to disband in the middle of a battle. It can also make your units go into a forced march, making them move swiftly over the terrain. The scout unit will be one of the most valuable units in the game, as it will continually upgrade as you progress through the ages. In fact, scouts will eventually become Delta Force-like units that can sneak into opposing villages and plant charges or steal resources. Spy units will also play an important role later in the game, as they let you sneak into an enemy's library so you can track his or her technological advances.

At this point, it seems that Big Huge Games has a good idea of how to balance the gameplay in Rise of Nations in a way that will keep you from becoming completely overwhelmed by the amount of detail in the game. The developer is currently in the process of tweaking the game and incorporating certain features such as the unique properties for the game's 18 nations. The game has already been in playable form for quite some time, but Big Huge Games doesn't expect to complete its work until early 2003.

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