After a decade, the traditional real-time strategy formula is perhaps getting a bit played out, so it's not surprising that developers are looking to mix things up. In Rise & Fall: Civilizations at War, that means inserting action into the strategy. Rise & Fall puts you in charge of one of four factions from history and lets you play it as a real-time strategy game or as a third-person action game. It's an interesting concept, though unfortunately its execution is found wanting in Rise & Fall. Simply put, this is a game that doesn't know what it wants to be. Its real-time strategy gameplay will certainly appeal to traditional fans of the genre, but it's almost frustratingly difficult action gameplay will likely turn those same fans off.
Rise & Fall revisits the ancient world of Greece and Rome. In addition to the standard skirmish mode, the game ships with two campaigns, with the Alexander campaign having you leading the Greeks against their ancient nemesis, the Persians, while the Cleopatra campaign has you fighting as the Egyptians against the Roman invaders. Famous characters from history and mythology appear throughout the campaigns as hero characters, such as Mark Antony and Achilles, though the focus is definitely on the two titular characters in the campaigns. You'll get to know them quite well, thanks to a feature called hero command in the game. Hero command basically lets you toggle between the real-time strategy perspective and controlling a hero directly from a third-person perspective, much like an action game. Doing so lets you hack-and-slash to your heart's content, as this provides an over-the-top way to let you get into the action.
During some missions, you can switch back and forth between hero command and the traditional real-time strategy viewpoint, though some missions require you to play entirely from one perspective only. These are likely to be the cause of most consternation for you, as the hero-only levels are, by far, some of the most frustrating in the game. In small doses, hero command is a nice feature that lets you vent some steam by hacking and slashing mindlessly. But when it's the basis of an entire level it can be maddening, thanks to the fact that many of the hero-only levels require a vast amount of patience, the reflexes of a teenager, and a good deal of luck.
For instance, in one level, you'll be tasked with killing 100 enemy soldiers within a set amount of time--the only problem is that you have to use a bow and arrow for most of the killing, and they're on one moving vessel while you're on another. Fail and you get to try, try again until you get it right. In another, Cleopatra has to battle her way through an island infested with archers who can hit her even if they're on the other side of a hill, and it's a constant effort to keep moving and dodging and firing. It's bound to turn off strategy fans; if they wanted to play an action game, they'd play an action game. Yet, at the same time, these sequences are a bit too arcade-like to be taken seriously for an action game.
As a real-time strategy game, Rise & Fall seems fairly cut-and-dried in terms of gameplay. The conventions of having peasants (or, in this case, slaves) gathering resources and constructing various buildings is a familiar one, as are the long downtimes during missions while you go through the drawn-out build phase. You must harvest wood, gold, and glory, which is an intangible resource that is accumulated by building certain structures and accomplishing great feats. Glory can in turn be used to level up your hero or military units, or to recruit advisors, which are special assistants that grant global bonuses, such as being able to harvest gold faster or being able to boost the troops' morale.
The real-time strategy combat still relies on building as many units as you can and rushing the enemy, for the most part. You can build catapults and such to whittle down enemy defenses, but it doesn't seem to matter if you just throw wave upon wave at them, since the artificial intelligence doesn't seem to do anything against you in terms of offense. It's content to sit back and let you come close enough to trigger it, so most of the missions just require you to cautiously explore the map, seize various outposts, and then build up to finish off the enemy. Naval combat does play a larger role in Rise & Fall than it does in other real-time strategy games, because vessels are actually represented as huge craft, rather than abstracted as tiny little ship models as they are in other games. In fact, you can use ships as mobile barracks. Just land them on a beach and they can constantly generate troops in order to make amphibious invasions work. Or you can engage in battle aboard a ship's deck, as you can board enemy vessels in the heat of combat and try and seize them as your own.
Aside from the campaign and skirmish modes, there's multiplayer with support for up to eight on a large variety of maps. The factions seem fairly well balanced in multiplayer, and the seesaw battles that can erupt can take a while to resolve. Thankfully, there are speed-up options to start with a large number of resources, or there's an outpost victory setting that lets you win the game even if you don't crush your opponents. They key is to seize a majority of the outposts on the map first. And, if a game does linger for too long, you can save it and carry it on at a later date.
Rise & Fall actually went through two development studios, and it shows. The game has numerous problems, including clipping problems (we've seen whole platoons vanish inside a mountain, or archers fire through solid rock), short draw distances, and frame rate issues, even at lower detail settings. The entire thing just doesn't seem like it's been optimized well, evidenced by the really long load times as well as jerks in the frame rate. And the overall visual look just seems bland--definitely colorful, but bland. Buildings and units seem boxy and chunky, suffering from a low number of polygons, while the textures themselves look grainy. This gives the entire game a somewhat dated look unless you have a high-end machine to max out all the graphics settings. The game sounds better, at least, thanks to some appropriately pompous Gladiator-style music.
In the end, Rise & Fall attempts a few innovative things with the real-time strategy genre, though it's hurt by the fact that it wants to be both a hardcore real-time strategy game and a fast-paced action game. Unfortunately, it's hard to have it both ways in this genre, as the action mode is bound to frustrate and disappoint strategy fans.