To say that the new expansion pack to Rise of Nations has a lot to live up to would be a huge understatement. After all, Rise of Nations was the best real-time strategy game of last year, not to mention GameSpot's 2003 PC Game of the Year. Yet the designers at Big Huge Games apparently recognized that there was some room for improvement in their masterpiece, so they went back to the drawing board to shore up the game's scarce weaknesses. The result is that Thrones and Patriots is an expansion pack that offers more than just new content; it also makes a superb game even better.
Thrones and Patriots includes the obligatory amount of new content that you'd expect from an expansion pack; there are six new nations, including the oft-requested Americans, Indians, Persians, Iroquois, Lakota, and Dutch, as well as 20 new units and three new wonders of the world. There's also a new government system that lets you choose from six different government types, including republic, despotism, communism, and democracy, each of which bestows unique advantages and bonuses. This is an attempt to instill some of the government choices and effects from Civilization, and the system is nicely integrated so it doesn't feel "tacked on," and it doesn't interrupt the flow of the game.
The six new nations are each a pleasure to play, and their strengths and weaknesses complement those of the existing 18 nations. The Indians get cheaper building costs, allowing them to expand quickly; the Lakota specialize in cavalry; the Iroquois flourish in forests and are tough to root out; the Americans get better science and airpower bonuses; the Dutch flourish in terms of trade and commerce; and the Persians are masters of civilization. Each nation also features its own unique units, such as the powerful elephants of the Persians and Indians and the hardy US Marines.
However, at the heart of the expansion are four new "conquer the world" campaigns, based on Alexander the Great, Napoleon, the conquest of the New World, and the Cold War. The original game shipped with just the single conquer the world campaign, and while the campaign provided a turn-based, Risk-like strategic element to the game, it felt too large and unwieldy and it took too long to play. In contrast, these new campaigns are smaller and much more focused, and they're terrific.
In Alexander the Great's campaign, you have a limited amount of time in which you must wrest control of the ancient world, including Europe, the Middle East, and India. The Napoleon campaign tasks you with taking over Europe in only a certain number of turns, meaning you have to balance diplomacy and conquest in order to achieve your goal before time runs out. You can wheel and deal with nations, offering them bribes in terms of territories (the battles in the territories can be especially hairy) and colonies in order to ally with you. The New World campaign lets you play as the Americans, the Native American tribes, or the European powers in an attempt to dominate the Americas. If you're playing as the Americans, you can contend against the French and Iroquois at the same time; victory is a difficult objective when both sides hit you at once. The battlefields will also shift to represent the territory you're fighting for. For instance, in the Pacific Northwest, the map is literally a maze of narrow passages and clearings in a giant forest--which makes maneuvering difficult and offers plenty of choke points--while the Louisiana Bayou is a dense swamp crisscrossed with rivers.
Perhaps the best campaign is the Cold War, which lets you play as either the Soviets or the Americans. In addition to the diplomatic arm-twisting to sign up client states and the battles that re-create the flashpoints of the Cold War, you can also engage in a nuclear arms buildup and espionage missions, which challenge you to accomplish various mission objectives using nothing but spies. Meanwhile, certain events--such as blatant US intervention in Cuba--might trigger an escalation in the tension between superpowers, raising the DEFCON, or tension, level. If the DEFCON level reaches critical mass, nuclear war is automatically unleashed, and you can experience mutually assured destruction in action.
The other interesting thing about the campaigns is that the missions vary, and you'll have to engage in tasks other than just the standard base-building and tank-rushing, or swarming of the enemy. For example, if your territory is invaded, you may have to conduct guerrilla warfare with a limited number of units. Or you may start a level having to rush to an ally's defense. Missions are also dynamic in that they can unfold in different ways. For example, as Napoleon conquering Egypt, if you can conquer your first city in dramatic fashion other cities may switch allegiance to you without a fight. You'll also be given a choice as to whether you wish to aid the Egyptians in overthrowing their oppressors or whether you wish to simply become their new overlord. Your decision will have ramifications in that battle as well as in the campaign.
Thrones and Patriots retains the same highly customizable multiplayer component featured in the original game. You can play with up to eight players in a variety of modes and pad out empty slots with computer nations. Our only concern is that the game still incorporates a bit of lag, even when playing over a network. For example, there are slight pauses when you give build orders to a citizen or when you order military units to a certain spot on the map.
The expansion offers up some tweaks to the user interface and color palette--there are now autumn colors and foliage--but otherwise, it retains the same look and feel of the original game, which has held up well in the intervening months. In the end, Thrones and Patriots is a definite must-have for fans of Rise of Nations; the new nations offer up interesting variety and gameplay styles, while the new campaigns introduce the narrative drive and focus that the original campaign lacked. Thrones and Patriots is a highly enjoyable experience and an excellent expansion to an already outstanding game.