Legends becomes myth
PUBLISHER: Microsoft DEVELOPER: Big Huge Games GENRE: Real-time strategy AVAILABILITY: Retail box ESRB RATING: Teen
REQUIRED: 1.4GHz CPU, 256MB RAM, 4.5GB hard drive space RECOMMENDED: 2GHz CPU, 1GB RAM, 128MB videocard, Internet connection MULTIPLAYER: 2-8 players
RTS GAMES DON’T OFTEN INCITE
revolutions—they make small advances and occasional retreats, and they usually wind up safely treading in territory others conquered long, long ago. This is a genre whose last great upheaval came when StarCraft decided its three factions would offer somewhat different gameplay mechanics.
And that was what, eight years ago? That’s why I don’t much cotton to Game-
Spot’s review of Rise of Legends, which says that “this wacky mishmash of real history,
Dungeons & Dragons, and Chariots of the Gods is damn hard to warm up to. Each of the civilizations is so offbeat that there are no reference points, no similarities to RTS conventions
that you can latch onto and use to dip a toe into the weirdness.” But that’s the beauty of it, really. Familiarity breeds contempt—and in a genre glutted with Terran clone troopers and
musket-wielding French revolutionaries, even the choking steam clouds produced by ROL’s
most “boring” faction feel like gusts of fresh air.
EDISONADE AND MOCTEZUMA
And we say “boring” with the utmost reverence: The Italian-fl avored, Jules Verne-ian Vinci
family’s clockwork men, wobbly fl ying contraptions, and ponderous juggernauts provide the
game’s most obvious link to RTS convention. They’re by no means conventional…just easier
to relate to than the pseudo-Arabian, pseudomystical Alin (desert dwellers who deal in sand,
fi re, and—by bizarrely logical extension—glass) or the Mexi-cosmic Cuotl with their death
spheres, Cities of Vengeance, and Aztec Power and structures straddle the line between cartoonish and exquisitely detailed, and it’s simple to tell at a glance (and from the icons at the
bottom of the screen) which units are which; if you possess the visual and mental bandwidth
to watch them work, they’re all entertaining in their own right.
So does a wealth of creative riches make ROL the greatest RTS since StarCraft? Not quite. While the game’s art-direction coup certainly merits celebration, the gameplay itself remains fi rmly entrenched in the genre’s time-tested tactics: expand your base, collect resources (though you get mercilessly little of that here—just Timonium crystals and wealth or energy, depending upon your faction choice), upgrade units to build bigger and better armies until you can roll over your enemy.
And while the three sides each have different nuances when it comes to healing, attrition, and resource gathering—you can build the Alin’s unit-producing Sand Circles even outside your own territory, for example, while the Cuotl’s Fanes can lift themselves off the ground and transport units across chasms—they all build upon the same RTS foundation. The trade-off for far-fl ung gameplay differences: The sides all seem perfectly harmonized; while you’ll need to adjust your tactics and buildorder decisions (see sidebar), no faction feels over- or underpowered.
THE TOWER OF INTERFACE
ROL’s other great achievement is its ultrarefined and superstreamlined interface, which honestly tries to work with you rather than against you. In almost every potentially messy instance, the game seems to intuit your intent—no need to worry about accidentally loading confused miners or passing trade ships into your army transport’s cargo bay for frontline deployment. And when you don’t have time for interfacial details, you can trust ROL to take care of them for you, allowing you the free mindshare necessary to learn the game’s tangled hotkey web, which lets you do everything from the usual Control-key grouping to fi nding the city where it’s cheapest to purchase military districts.
And, as GamesRadar warns, “the guy with the steeltrap memory and piano fi ngers will smoke your mouse pokes every time.” The campaign, fun as it is, makes a poor preparation regimen for fi eld duty. No matter how well you fare against the A.I. (which favors waves of easily conquered miniarmies), casual contact with autistic strangers online only leads to despair. If you do decide to brave the online world, ROL offers a robust and simple matchmaking service, with a Quick Battle option and a threepronged “level” structure that tries to match you with equally skilled opponents.
Early reviews complained of multiplayer connection issues— mostly midgame drops—but developer Big Huge Games has since issued several patches (v1.5 as of this writing) addressing some of the problems. We haven’t yet run into any postpatch issues (though whether that’s due to a patch that fi xed everything or sheer dumb luck is diffi cult to tell), but it would be a shame if these early technical problems already meant premature death for ROL’s online lifespan: A month after release, multiplayer isn’t particularly lively—you can end up waiting several minutes for Quick Battles, and we only found three or four custom games available whenever we looked at the list. Our advice: If you’re interested in more than just the campaign mode, make sure you have some like-minded friends.
Of course, just sticking with the campaign mode is another option. Like the original Rise of Nations campaign, ROL employs a board game–style strategic map that lets you pick and choose which battle to take on next, adding a smart, simple strategic layer that doesn’t divert attention from the RTS core. Enemy heroes wander the map, too, dividing and conquering on their own—but ROL smartly avoids the drag of making you reconquer lost territory, instead letting you purchase autodefending military districts to buttress your former conquests. Each territory, once claimed, offers specifi c tactical advantages (from more skill points to special powers you can summon during emergencies), and you earn various skill, army, and invention points from districts you build in already-conquered areas. IGN lauds the campaign’s “nice range of
mission types…some are just straight-up slugfests between you and whoever happens to
own the territory. Others require you to defend against a siege, or free people from a massive
prison, or chase down and kill a genie who’s got something you need. In nearly every mission, there’ll be hidden objectives that you can uncover and undertake, but the only rewards for doing so are the pride you feel knowing that you did something that you technically could have skipped.”
Unfortunately, the mission variety really only holds true for the superior first two legs (Vinci
and Alin) of the campaign; by the time you get behind the reins of the Cuotl, the story’s lost its steam. It’s like the designers ran out of objective ideas. “Eh, just conquer all the cities on the map, then. Whatever.” Halfway through the Cuotl arc, we found ourselves cranking the game speed (which could use a tick mark or two between medium fast and supercrazy fast) just to get plow through to the (very loosely resolved) end.
Late-campaign lack of inspiration aside, ROL provides an exquisite example of real-time-strategy design gone right, from its unique art direction to its evolutionary, astoundingly unannoying interface to its perfectly executed three-party balancing
act. Pay no mind to the naysayers who list ROL as a gimmick that soon wears out its
welcome—most RTS games wish they had a gimmick this good.
EVEN THE CHOKING STEAM CLOUDS PRODUCED BY RISE OF LEGENDS ’ MOST “BORING” FACTION FEEL LIKE GUSTS OF FRESH AIR.