Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting classics of PC gaming days gone by. This week, we revisit the mighty RTS, Rise of Nations.
It all begins so peacefully. A vast field of inky darkness, with just one point of light in the middle. Within it, a library stands tall and proud, but with many shelves left empty. Next to it, a few fields are tended by villagers, and a woodcutters' camp stands in a clearing nearby. A scout sits and strokes his pet dog. In the middle of it all stands the town centre, its homes packed with children, waiting to come of age and leave a legacy unmatched by any other civilisation on Earth.
Rise of Nations attempts something quite audacious: fitting the entire span of human history into your lunch hour. It's real-time, as in 'real-time strategy', but it accelerates that supposedly 'real' time to ludicrous levels, packing the scope of a game of Civilization into an hour without compromising on the detail. You might send a group of hoplites into battle with bronze spears and have them arrive armed with muskets. Imagine the aforementioned Civilization blended with Age of Empires, the Total War series and Red Alert and you're getting close, but Rise of Nations has a few tricks of its own.
The way resource gathering works, for example. Instead of each of your villagers gathering up as much food or wood as their little arms can carry and hauling it back to a supply depot, they contribute to an overall economy. Your resources tick up steadily, adding a certain amount every 30 seconds. Each active woodcutter adds to that rate, but here's the kicker: there's a hard upper limit. Chuck as many woodcutters as you like on that forest, you won't get any more wood if you're above your maximum production efficiency, known as the 'commerce cap'.
That cap is raised in the hallowed halls of your library. By spending resources to research commerce technology you not only boost your commerce cap but also unlock various economic upgrades. That's not the only thing you can research, either: military technology raises your population limit and unlocks unit upgrades, civics technology lets you build more cities and pushes out your national borders, and science technology makes all the other technologies cheaper and reduces the time they take to research.
Every time you climb a rung on all four of the technology tracks, you unlock the ability to advance to the next 'age' – going from antiquity to classical, to medieval, to gunpowder, to the enlightenment, to industrial, to modern, and ending up in the information age. Ages often unlock different resources. Oil doesn't appear on the map until you reach the industrial age, for example. Additionally, you'll need to advance through the ages to access the next cluster of wonders.
Ah yes, wonders. As in Civilization, wonders can be built once per game and give unique benefits to the civilisation that possesses them. The Colossus raises your commerce cap, which gives its builder a sizeable economic advantage in the early game. The Terracotta Army creates a basic foot unit every 30 seconds. The Eiffel Tower doubles oil output, and you can even build a Supercollider to enable you to research technologies instantaneously. But you've got to be careful where you build them – you can only have one per city, and if that city gets captured, you lose its effects.
That's another similarity with Civilization: cities can't be destroyed. Instead, once they run out of hitpoints, they're 'reduced' and can be captured with infantry. After a short period of cultural assimilation, that city then belongs to the capturer, extending their borders and allowing them to use any non- military buildings that belong to it.
This promotes intricate siege tactics. Catapults are crucial to taking cities, but they're very vulnerable to cavalry, so you'll want to guard them with infantry. Those infantry are weak vs archers, which are in turn weak vs cavalry, so you end up with fascinating battles of push and counter-push with different unit types – closer to the Total War series than the usual strategy game approach of 'select all units and click on the enemy base'. Manoeuvring your units so that your scissors can snip through their paper and avoid their rock is nerve-wracking, especially when you're trying to keep your units next to your supply wagons so they don't take attrition damage from being in enemy territory. Meanwhile, generals ride through the ranks giving speed boosts, creating decoys and allowing troops to dig in so they take reduced damage.
That's just in the beginning stages of the game. Later on, gunpowder changes everything, then airbases change everything again, and by the end of the game you've got nuclear weapons to contend with too – which pose an incredibly interesting dilemma. Every time you fire one, you add to the armageddon counter. If that counter reaches a certain point, everyone loses. It's great having a 'nuclear deterrent' on hand, but this neat mechanic makes you think twice about using it until you absolutely need it the most.
It's the combination of these simple yet elegant mechanics that makes Rise of Nations one of the most entertaining strategy games around. It blends elements of the various giants of the genre together, standing on their shoulders to become more than the sum of its parts. Big Huge Games, the developers behind Rise of Nations and its fantasy-oriented sequel Rise of Legends, were acquired in 2008 by THQ, who then sold it to 38 Studios, which went bankrupt in 2012. Such is life.
The intellectual property that belonged to 38 Studios is now owned by the taxpayers of Rhode Island, where the studio was homed, making the chances of a sequel slim. But hey, we got System Shock 2 back from the dead. Perhaps one day Rise of Nations could be rescued too.