Rise of Nations Preview

At E3 2002, HeavenGames had the great opportunity to spend a lot of time playing and investigating the new Real Time Strategy game, Rise of Nations (RoN), which is being developed by Big Huge Games, published by Microsoft and is scheduled for release in the Spring of 2003.  Although the release date is still a long way off, the game was already showing a great deal of polish.  The multiplayer gameplay was advanced enough that mini-tournaments were held at the Rise of Nations booth on both Thursday and Friday.  Our own Angel Draco was selected to participate on Thursday and he won his first battle but lost in the finals.  Angel Thunder was selected to participate on Friday and he was able to win the tournament and in fact, went on to defeat Brian Reynolds, designer of RoN and certified gaming design legend, at his own game!  I'll provide a little more detail on the matches later in this article but before I do that, let's take a closer look at the gameplay and features of RoN.

At first glance, RoN looks amazingly similar to another game published over two years ago by Microsoft, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings (AoK).  In many senses, RoN is similar to AoK but in just as many ways, it is quite unique.  After watching and playing a number of games at E3, I found that the subtle differences in rules cause the actual gameplay of RoN to be quite different than AoK.  As I describe the features of RoN, I will be comparing them to features in AoK because I feel most people who are reading this article are familiar with AoK and it will also provide a good point of reference.

For starters, RoN features a wide variety of civilizations, 18 civs are currently planned but that number isn't final.  Each civ has their own advantages and disadvantages and they each have unique units.  One interesting civ bonus was for the Russians... their bonus was that any enemy troops that spend time inside the Russian national borders gradually take damage over time.  The civilizations of RoN, the unique units, unique technologies and special bonuses are designed in a fashion quite similar to AoK.

RoN also features a number of ages that a player advances through as their civilization grows. In RoN, there are 8 ages: Ancient Age, Classical Age, Medieval Age, Gunpowder Age, Enlightenment Age, Industrial Age, Modern Age and the Information Age. Therefore, the timeline of RoN is quite a bit longer than that of AoK.  The most advanced battles in RoN feature tanks, airplanes and nuclear weapons so the final age is similar to the present day.

One of the most obvious differences between RoN and AoK is that RoN enforces national borders.   This feature is evident in any screenshot of RoN.  The national border is an area that surrounds all of a player's cities and fortresses.  As the player claims control of more land or loses control to an enemy, the borders expand and contract appropriately. Within the game, the national border is defined by a line of the player's color on the main map as well as a shaded area of the player's color on the mini-map. Understanding and effective use of the national borders is essential for success in RoN.

The most basic restriction of national borders is that a player cannot build any structures outside his own border.  That single rule drastically affects the gameplay of RoN compared to that of AoK.  One of the main strategies in AoK was to advance in ages quickly while moving a villager close to the enemy's home and building military structures and units right in the enemy's backyard.  Another favorite was placing towers within the enemy city.  In terms of historical accuracy, these types of battles were unrealistic as attacking armies rarely built military training structures or defensive towers so close to an enemy's homeland.  In RoN, these types of strategies have been eliminated which creates more realistic battles.  Of course, this is not to say that you cannot perform a rush strategy in Rise of Nations... you certainly can.   In fact a couple games we watched lasted no longer than 25 minutes.  The difference is that in RoN, you must build your armies on your own soil and then invade and conquer enemy territory.

Well, if this concept of national borders is so important, the next logical question is how do you expand your national borders?  The main way to expand your borders is to build additional cities.  You must build new cities within your current national borders but once completed, the new city expands the borders in a circle around its location.   So new cities are usually built right on the edge of your own national borders, allowing you to control more of the map, have access to more resources, as well as many other benefits.  In addition to building cities, there are three additional ways to expand your borders.  One is building a fortress, which is roughly equivalent to a castle in AoK.  Fortresses become available in the later ages of the game and they expand your border in a circle similar to cities.  The Romans have a special border expanding technology at their fortress.  The second method for expanding borders is by researching certain technologies like city upgrades and civic research at the library.   These techs simply increase the size of each fortresses and city's circle of control.  The third way to expand borders to capture enemy cities.  Capturing an enemy city grants your nation control of that city's land area.

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