Disciples II, Strategy First's excellent 2002 fantasy-themed turn-based strategy game, gains its third stand-alone expansion pack in less than six months in Rise of the Elves. The previous two add-ons, Guardians of the Light and Servants of the Dark, were just marginally good and seemed more like re-releases of the original game than fully featured expansions. Rise of the Elves is different, and it's better. Most notably, not only does it contain the full version of Disciples II--to entice newcomers to the series--but it marks the first time since the original Disciples game was released back in 1999 that the series has gained a new playable faction. The elves, while maybe not quite as cool-looking or appealing as the four mainstay Disciples factions, are pretty powerful and fit in reasonably well with the other sides. Their subtle strengths and weaknesses, in comparison to their rivals, ought to please fans of Disciples II, who'll get to play as the new elven faction through its own lengthy campaign, as well as in various new stand-alone scenarios. The core of Disciples II doesn't change here, but it's a tried-and-true formula that's effectively stood the test of time.
As in the original Disciples and its sequel, in Rise of the Elves you control a small band of warriors and mages as they explore detailed maps, searching for treasure and fighting for their kingdoms. The seemingly simplistic turn-based combat of Disciples II allows you to only perform a single type of action--say, a ranged attack or a healing spell--per each unit type. So, the makeup of your army, which may eventually have up to six individual units in it, is extremely important, as are your decisions about what structures to build at your faction's capital. Disciples II stands as a highly streamlined version of some of the more complicated fantasy-themed turn-based strategy games out there. It's a time-consuming and addictive game, as is true of all the best games of this type. However, the vast majority of your time will be spent doing interesting things, like exploring the map and engaging in simple but fun strategic battles, rather than tediously micromanaging too many towns and baby-sitting too many units as a scenario wears on.
Clearly, more effort went into the production of this expansion pack than went into the previous two. The new elven alliance faction mostly consists of entirely new units, and Rise of the Elves also features some new map graphics, new neutral units, new music for the factions' capital building screens, and some new battle music. Additionally, the elves have gotten their own new arsenal of spells, and Rise of the Elves also makes a number of balance tweaks and other such changes to the core game that will only be noticed by hardcore fans. By and large, this new content fits in fairly well with the rest. Some of the elven units are actually a bit ugly and are not up to the graphical quality of the generally imaginative and memorable unit designs of Disciples II, but others are certainly on par with a majority of the artwork in the game. The new music and the woodsy capital building of the elves also fit in naturally with what's already there in Disciples II.
Though Disciples II featured archetypal fantasy factions--humans, dwarves, demons, and undead--it spun these in a unique way. The same can be said of the elves, who are actually allied with centaurs and form a powerful conglomerate of fierce close-ranged fighters, very deadly archers, and powerful mages. The elves most resemble the Empire, Disciples II's human faction, in that they have relatively flimsy units but also have access to healers. Actually, elf units are the weakest of them all, but to make up for it, they can level up somewhat faster than the other factions. They're also highly mobile, and many of their units, especially their archers, have high initiative ratings, which means they tend to strike first and can theoretically overpower their foes before they can even respond.
The elves have a balanced variety of spells available to them, including ones that bolster their own forces, in addition to ones that hinder their foes. Their magical arsenal is broader rather than specifically better than that of any other faction. Irritatingly, the animations for many of their spells take a rather long time to play out, which may discourage you from depending too heavily on them. The elves' magic is powered primarily by a new, fifth mana resource. This does not necessarily seem well balanced, though, while the other four factions need to draw upon their rivals' primary mana sources to research and cast higher-level spells, no one but the elves have use for the new grove mana. Not that Disciples II, as a time-consuming turn-based game, is particularly well suited to competitive multiplayer battles, anyhow.
All in all, Disciples II fans should have fun learning the nuances of this new race. Apart from the obvious superficial distinctions, the differences between all Disciples II factions have always been quite subtle, and the elves are no exception. These differences are meaningful in practice and are interesting to learn. You'll get to pit this new faction against all the others, thus creating new game combinations and strategies.
The campaign, or "saga," in Rise of the Elves consists of eight lengthy scenarios that ought to give even experienced Disciples II players a hearty challenge. These scenarios are filled with simple, scripted sequences, which move the story along and also force you to advance cautiously through each map. The story of Rise of the Elves directly continues the storyline of Disciples II and is conveyed via spoken narration between the campaign missions as well as through text-based dialogue in the missions themselves. It's not terribly coherent, but that's fine, since the Disciples games have always had a surreal quality to them that's equally intact in Rise of the Elves.
Considering it's based on a two-year-old game, Rise of the Elves still looks surprisingly good. As with the earlier expansion packs, this one supports resolutions of up to 1280x1024, which makes the maps look even denser, though in some ways it's even harder to scrutinize for such important details as enemy units or wandering monsters. The audio also holds up rather well, and, as mentioned, the new music sounds very good. On the other hand, much like how some of the new elf units don't look that good, they don't sound that good either. However, many of the new sounds are well done, and the narrator for the campaign, who isn't the same ominous narrator of Disciples II but is ominous nonetheless, also does a good job. For good measure, Rise of the Elves packs in an updated version of the scenario editor/random map generator included with the previous expansions. It's not an ideal random scenario generator, but it does allow you to easily build the framework for a respectable custom map.
Rise of the Elves retails for more than the earlier expansion packs, but it offers a lot more. Though fans of Disciples II must be anxious for a true third installment in the series, for now, this is the closest thing they'll get. The new faction introduced in Rise of the Elves, while not quite as visually stunning or likable as the four main forces of the Disciples universe, is still appealing enough to carry this expansion pack, and this new faction makes it recommendable to both general fans of fantasy-themed turn-based strategy games and fans of Disciples.