Anyone who says there's no room to innovate in real-time strategy games clearly hasn't played Rise of Nations. Despite first appearances, it's not just another game in the Age of Empires style, and the influence of grand turn-based games like Civilization doesn't weigh it down. Even though the game stretches from ancient times to the information age, the design is streamlined enough to keep matches playable in under an hour. The epic scale is a key to its success. Competing sides actually feel like growing nations, claiming territory by founding cities, gaining new technologies by investing in science as well as military research, and establishing national borders that have a real impact when war breaks out.
Real-time strategy games invariably revolve around combat, and Rise of Nations delivers huge battles. The units and tactics can change radically from medieval times to the early gunpowder period to the modern age of aircraft carriers and nuclear missiles, and the wide variety of strategic options is further broadened by the distinct abilities and special units of the 18 different nations. Because creating or capturing cities to gain territory is a viable way to win, games don't need to drag out with the complete annihilation of opponents, but there are some pretty dramatic endgame scenarios, including nuclear Armageddon, far-future super-technologies, and battles that can muster hundreds of land, sea, and air units.
With hundreds of units per side, Rise of Nations' ambitious design might have been overwhelming for players were it not for polished design elements, like infrastructure improvements that ramp up production toward the modern age and a very helpful unit AI that has workers find nearby jobs rather than stand around idle. And with six difficulty settings, the opponent AI is as easy or as tough as you might want. As for online play, the design lends itself to fast one-on-one matches or big team games, and while the matchmaking service isn't as amazingly polished as Blizzard's or Ensemble's, Big Huge Games has made major improvements since the game's release, with rankings to reward those who master this challenging game. Rise of Nations marks an important melding of genre conventions, and those who have preferred turn-based games over the years finally have an RTS they can hunker down with, while RTS fans can appreciate how the epic scale never slows down the action.