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Last Updated: Friday, 5 September, 2003, 14:30 GMT 15:30 UK
Rise of Nations tops the class
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

As soon as you start playing Rise of Nations you realise that it owes its existence to another real-time strategy game that also has three words in its title.

Screenshot from Rise of Nations, Big Huge Games
Some elements of Rise of Nations are very familiar
But it only takes a few minutes to realise that this is not just an Age of Empires clone.

It does share the basics with Age of Empires in that you must gather resources to fuel expansion, can only field stronger combat units by carrying out research and progressing through technological and social eras.

But Rise of Nations expands intelligently on these options to make an utterly different experience.

Cityscape

Instead of everything concentrating on one settlement, success in Rise of Nations depends on creating lots of cities.

Each newly founded city expands your borders and allows you to exploit resources close to that new conurbation.

Rise of Nations takes strategy games to new levels

You also generate much needed cash by setting up trade routes between your cities.

Foreign troops suffer damage when they fight on your territory and the health of your soldiers is slowly depleted when you invade another nation.

This subtle change means the tactic of quickly building up lots of weak troops and rushing enemies to get an advantage early in the game tends not to work.

It forces you to think about any battle you fight and means any sustained campaign of conquest deep in enemy territory must be very carefully planned.

Conquering hero

You can capture enemy cities but they take time to convert to your cause and can be hard to subdue.

Victory is achieved by wiping out everyone else, controlling 70% or more of the map, by building or capturing a given amount of wonders or holding on to an enemy capital.

The scope of Rise of Nations is also much broader than its predecessors.

Screenshot from Rise of Nations, Big Huge Games
As your nation develops, different resources become important
Instead of being limited to a single epoch you can progress from ancient times through to the present day and beyond in a manner similar to Civilization.

Each era means fresh troop types and some swift mouse work can mean you reach the gunpowder era early and pose a real problem for any enemies.

But fighting wars takes time so any edge you acquire before conquering a neighbour will evaporate as other nations will catch up while your attention is focussed on the front line. It is evidence of the game's fine balance.

Strategic view

But Rise of Nations is not just played out by building cities and conquering enemies.

The game has a campaign mode that is very similar to the old board game Risk that divides the world into territories that you invade by moving around individual armies.

Screenshot from Rise of Nations, Big Huge Games
National borders can become flashpoints
Different territories hold key resources or supply stations that let you field a new army. You can also amass "cards" that you can play to deprive enemies of key resources, troops or other advantages.

Moving an army on to a new region on the world map puts you back onto the familiar 3D terrain.

To win control of the region you may have to fight some barbarians, find and destroy an enemy capital within a time limit or found some new cities and kick out the incumbent.

One of the flaws of the game is the speed with which events happen. It can become a bit of a click-fest as you struggle to juggle all the claims on your time.

But minor niggles aside Rise of Nations is a very welcome update to the real-time strategy genre and it is a surprise how a few small changes can make a game utterly different and absorbing.




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