Just as the Romans rose up and became the most advanced and powerful nation in the Western Hemisphere at the turn of the millenium, so too do the Romans replace the old civilizations to reign supreme in Ensemble's Age of Empires expansion pack, Rise of Rome.
With the planned sequel to Age of Empires pushed back to the middle of next year, the Rise of Rome expansion pack took on new meaning. Not only is it supposed to enhance the value of this year-old favorite, but it also serves as a bridge between Age of Empires and Age of Empires II. Age of Empires loosely followed the growth of the ancient civilizations, Rise of Rome is set during the reign of the Roman empire in the West, and Age of Empires II is to be set in the dark ages, after the infrastructure established by the Romans crumbled into warring pieces.
As both a dessert for Age of Empires fans and an appetizer for Age of Empires II, Rise of Rome is a series of hits and misses. I am a huge fan of the original game. I played numerous multiplayer games and even gave the single-player campaigns a good, honest try. I didn't really mind the unit limit or the questionable pathfinding. And I forgave the inadequacies of the single-player campaign because I loved multiplayer matches so much.
There were many that loved Age of Empires as much as I did, but there were others that just couldn't play this game because of a few problems. I couldn't really see these problems a year ago when I was first enamored of the game, but today, I finally see just what all the fuss was about: This game is far from perfect, and it has a few shortcomings that detract from the play experience.
The Rise of Rome expansion offers five new units, four new civilizations, four new technologies, four new campaigns, and a few user enhancements like unit queues. As expansion packs go, this one is crammed with goodies. Most of the five units were added in response to balance problems in Age. The slinger is a barracks unit that exists to counter the tool age bowman rush. The camel rider serves a similar purpose against the Bronze Age cavalry rush. The scythe chariot was created for those civilizations that lacked a heavy Iron Age cavalry unit. The armored elephant was introduced because the war elephant just wasn't being used enough. There wasn't an imbalance on the high seas, but the fire galley was nevertheless brought in to expand naval combat.
All the units are useful, but you won't soon forget the old units because these new ones are either highly specialized or expensive to research. The new additions found in Rise of Rome don't really change the game significantly, although they do spice up matches. The slingers and camel riders do mitigate certain rushes, but the game remains fundamentally the same, and some Rise of Rome games will end without the need to ever build an expansion unit.
My one issue with the new units isn't really a complaint, but an observation. The three "counter" units - slinger, camel rider, and fire galley - are highly specialized units that are great against a certain type of unit and pretty much impotent against most of the other units. The scythe chariot and armored elephants are great, although they are expensive upgrades to existing units, in the same fashion as cataphracts and centurions. The scythe chariot addresses some civilizations' lack of heavy cavalry in the Iron Age. All the new units have good animation and sound, although the lanky gait of the camel rider bothered me.
The four new civilizations are good additions to the game, with some nice special abilities to entice you to play them. The two interesting civilizations are the Macedonians (four times as resistant to conversion) and the Romans (master builders). The other two civilizations, Palmryans and Carthaginians, aren't quite as interesting. One questionable thing about the new civs is the increased cost of Palmryan villagers, without significant benefits to justify the cost.
The four new technologies aren't must-haves, but they have their uses. Two make the priest even more powerful, while one adds a nominal bonus to infantry armor against missile attacks, and the other allows you to build barracks units beyond the population limit. I must say that the way Ensemble implemented the priests' new martyrdom ability (which allows you to instantly convert a unit by sacrificing your priest) leaves much to be desired. Instead of adding a button to the interface to allow you to click to martyr your priest, you have to convert normally and then hit delete. The interface of the game is otherwise good, but this seems to me more like a last-minute work-around. Couldn't Ensemble have just spent the time to add a button to the priest interface?
Probably the best thing about the expansion pack is the suite of user enhancements, which includes adjustable unit limits, unit queues, and adjustable pathfinding. These improvements do make the game better.
As in the first, the single-player game is the biggest drawback. The campaigns are unusually short, which is fine. However, there are no cutscene rewards for campaign victories. Many individual scenarios had interesting premises, but there is no purpose for the overall campaigns, just a loose theme and some random missions. I had hoped that Ensemble would make the solo experience more rewarding, but it isn't. The scenarios within each campaign play more like a puzzle game. These new missions are hard, not because the artificial intelligence is more challenging, but because the scenario setup is more puzzle-like and tedious.
The other thing that really diffused my enjoyment of the expansion was the terrible pathfinding. I forgave it in Age of Empires, and even though it has been improved, it is still bad. Invariably, when you tell a group of units to go around a forest to get to another point, half of them will get stuck in the trees, too stupid to know to walk around the foliage.
Rise of Rome is not a must-buy. I like parts of the expansion pack, but there isn't enough compelling content to make me want to go out and add it to my multiplayer matches. All the additions are nice, but they aren't necessary for your continued enjoyment. If you are a big Age of Empires fan, you'll want to check out the new units and civilizations, as well as the user enhancements, but you won't be getting a significant upgrade to the single-player experience or the pathfinding, two problems that Ensemble knew were in the original but somehow didn't address in this expansion pack.