Review: Rise of Nations: Extended Edition

Rise of Nations: Extended Edition Overview

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If you are not familiar with Rise of Nations the new version that just launched on Steam is going to be a great place to get started. The community, as of this writing, is small, active and helpful. This is a multiplayer game at its core, but it does include a single player aspect to help you familiarize yourself with the systems in the game. What you need to know is that Rise of Nations is a RTS that puts strategy first and foremost. When the original launched in 2003, it faced some pretty tough competition. What it did, and the reason that it is worth a second look, is change the way real time strategy titles should be judged. It won multiple game of the year awards and held a strong following. That following may not have been anywhere close to that of the Warcrafts and Command and Conquers that were so popular in the early part of 2000, but it is a game still discussed by hard core strategy fans. There are a few reasons for this dedication to a single game and without covering those first, you will not see what makes RoN such a masterpiece.

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As stated, strategy is the most important part of the game. While other strategy titles focused on building up resources and a large army as quick as possible, Rise focused on giving players the ability to win without ever firing an arrow, rifle or nuke. Economy is still key, but in a much different way. Each nation brings a number of unique units and special abilities. For example, the Nubians (my personal favorite) focus on using the market to their advantage. While it normally takes a few minutes to research the required technology (more on that in a moment) to build a market, Nubians start the game with it and they are able to buy resources cheaper and sell higher. This may seem like a minor advantage, but when you are aiming for a very specific goal, you need to have the ability to buy the resources you need and at times you need to sell off your excess to build up the wealth required. The market fluctuates, so Nubians are able to have a heavy impact on prices. A strategy I employ in most games is to focus on research and unlock oil as soon as possible. Once I have it, I purchase as much as I can possibly afford. This makes the buy price on oil swell to unreasonable prices and essentially locks players out of purchasing it as soon as they unlock the ability.

What is all this research about, you ask? Essentially RoN focuses on building up a nation, as opposed to a number of bases. Each city is a fully working city that is designed by you in real time. A normal game will have anywhere from 3-6 cities over the course of the game per nation. Each city can be a hub to a number of buildings including; markets, temples, universities and a single wonder. Each building brings with it a set of benefits. Wonders are the largest buildings in the game and provide huge nationwide bonuses. Some will include the amount of resources you gather by a percentage, while others increase your population limit and speed in which you build troops. Temples allow you to research taxation to increase your wealth generation and also let you research religion which pushes your borders farther out. Your nation is a collection of cities that all have an area of influence. This influence combines to create your nation’s borders. While an enemy is within your borders they will need supplies (provided by a few different units and wonders) to continue their siege through your nation. Without supply, units can take attrition damage. Essentially, they slowly take damage while within your borders even if you have no army of your own. Some wonders and nations increase the amount of attrition damage that enemies take, or negate attrition damage when they are on the offensive.

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The variety of national powers allows players to pick a “team” that fits their play style. Nubians are great for those that are going to focus more on economy and “booming”, or building up an economy first, and then attacking. Mongolians, on the other hand, give more benefits to those that may want to “rush”, or attack as soon as they can in the game. Throughout the course of the game, research is key. Commerce, Military, Science, and Civic research is required to unlock new ages. As you progress new buildings are unlocked and your units become more powerful. At the start of the game you can build slingers that simply throw rocks at your opponent. As you move up through the ages, they eventually become light infantry units, or even specialized units based on your national choice, such as marines.

The design of Rise of Nations: Extended Edition keeps things balanced regardless of the age you are in though. While it may seem silly that a group of archers are able to take down a tank, the numbers need to be there. An archer against a tank is not going to cut it, but if you are an age or two behind and under siege by a few tanks, you can fight them off with a larger army even if the weapons are inferior. This allows those that focus more on an early game the ability to hang around as they play catch up if they fail at their early rush or focus more on griefing a booming nation — essentially trying to throw them off and slow their ability to grow their economy.

Ultimately, Rise of Nations succeeds because of the careful balancing act that Big Huge Games took on when they designed the game back in 2003. No matter what type of player you are, there is a nation for you and plenty of strategies you can try out. Some nations benefit more on water maps and others do better with maps covered with forests. Winning in RoN requires players to adapt to a number of stimuli. If you are a nation that is focused on building a navy, but someone else has a better command of the waters, you will have to choose between continuing your battle in the waters or adopting a new strategy.

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Special units add an additional level of strategy to the game. Spies can buy other players units and convert them to your team permanently and commandos can kill units in one shot (on a cool down) from a safe distance. I have been on the giving and receiving end of an entire team of commandos and spies overtaking my entire army without one loss. What I thought was a nation behind on military technology, was actually a nation focused on specialized units ready to handle my army once they arrived at their borders. Victory conditions include territory victories (you control 70% of the map), wonder victories (you control a certain number of wonders for a few minutes), or military victories (you take your opponents capitol city or you wipe out their nation).

Single Player

The single player portion of Rise of Nations: Extended Edition has seen no change from the original release. Multiple scenarios are available. You can walk in the footsteps of Alexander the Great and recreate his historic battles, or change them and see how you would fare. The Cold War pits the Russians and Americans against each other in a recreation that feels fantastic with the focus on spies and underhanded tactics. Most scenarios take place on a Risk style world map. You move units around the map to attack territories and gain valuable benefits and strategic choke points. A scenario editor is included as well allowing players to create maps, custom scripts and scenarios as they see fit. Single player is fine, but will likely not take up much of your time. The real joy of the game comes from multiplayer, where you face off against players from around the globe and try to overcome their devious tactics.

Multiplayer

Multiplayer in Rise of Nations is key to its success. You can play with up to 8 players, human, AI, or a mixture of both, in a number of modes. Diplomacy is a popular choice as players can try to make alliances throughout the game. Stronger nations can demand tributes of resources, while weaker nations can buy protection. Teams can change on the fly and there is always the fear of your ally backstabbing you. Teams of 2, 3 or 4 are also popular as the mode sets teams in stone and forces cooperation to ensure the success of the team. Players may decide that one nation will focus on only building a huge economy and shipping resources to the rest, while the others keep them safe. In one game, I focused everything I had on keeping the waters clear while my allies built no naval fleet. Instead they focused on ground units that would be able to ship across the water once we were ready to siege. During their travel time across the water units are vulnerable to just a few shots from a decent ship. Once sunk, they are lost for good. By controlling the waters, I made it very dangerous for the opposing nations to attack us, while we had free travel as we needed into their territories. The strategies are nearly endless and with so many cogs moving in this strategy machine, you will find it hard to fall into a rut of playing the same way every game.

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The Good

The re-release of Rise of Nations by SkyBox is about what you would expect. Slightly upgraded graphics, Steam ELO multiplayer, achievements, trading cards and Twitch integration. For the most part, everything is… there. The issue is the game was released before it was ready. Multiplayer still has a number of issues, though they have lessened. This is in the “good” section, because it shows SkyBox is working to get things fixed. The biggest graphical changes to the game include unlocked animations, which really add to the beauty of the game, and native full screen AA and higher resolution options within the main menus. With that said, the only thing that is flawless is that the game was re-released.

The Bad

If you have played previous SkyBox titles (Age of Mythology: Extended Edition) you are likely aware of the buggy product they release. Rise of Nations was, for the most part, bug free for the last decade. Upon release of RoN:EE bugs have started to pop up in every part of the game. One of my favorite features of the game, the extremely detailed stats at the end of a multiplayer match, are rarely seen as I crash out once all of one team is decimated. Half the time, opponents resigned before it was even “over” and I have to message my teammates to find out if I crashed or if we won. In addition, you can see from the screenshot below, that there are some issues with Twitch integrated streaming. The chat functionality does not work as of this writing, and I have yet to fix the web camera issue, even with the help of a developer.

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An entire list of bugs is on the Steam community site with a few new posts each day. It seems that things are starting to level out, but there are still plenty of issues. Lag is unbearable in larger games. In games of 4 players, it isn’t as bad, but still pops up from time to time. For some players, the game will barely run at all. Honestly, the bugs could keep this relaunch from really becoming a success if the developers are not able to fix them in a timely manner. Does this ruin the game? No. But it is damn frustrating.

The Ugly

Rise of Nations and its expansion Thrones and Patriots are a decade old. For me, the game looks good enough as it is. The added polish has definitely made the game look “better”. Compared to even indie games out there, though, the game is showing its age. Again, most players will not care, as the textures are high enough that everything looks good from a fully zoomed out view. You’ll lose fast if you don’t stay zoomed out the entire game. But upon closer inspection, the game is far from technically demanding. The polish that was added did very little to change the look of the game, and with the number of bugs making it hard to play, the 20 dollar price tag may be hard to justify for those that already have the game installed on their PC.

Conclusion

Obviously, I love Rise of Nations and could not be happier to see it get a re-release, bugs and all. I am pleased that the multiplayer is running better now, but the fact that so many bugs were in the game when it went live tarnishes the titles reputation. So, do I suggest you buy the game? Yes, in a big bad way. I’m putting my faith in SkyBox to get things fixed. I don’t want to see the game stay as it is for the long haul, but if they can squash just a handful of bugs and free up some of the lag in multiplayer, I will be more than happy with the game for another decade. It is a unique gem that was launched against heavy competition. Every game I find some new strategy and I am still learning about different options for commanding my armies after all this time. If I did not have to work for a living, I would likely spend most of every day on the game. Every single time I play the game, it feels new and fresh. It stands up against the biggest names in the RTS genre. Actually, it stands far above the biggest names in the genre. The next great RTS will have to learn a great deal from what Big Huge Games did a decade ago if they wish to truly push the genre forward. Until that day, RoN will stay the king of strategy games.

(The game itself is a 9.8/10 – this version (as of the time of this writing) is a 7.5/10)

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