Each culture has its own distinct aesthetic, and even the landscapes prove enthralling. For every area of red-hot desert or icy waste, there is a rolling, pastoral territory to be conquered, or a region of mountainous rain forest that can only be won through clever use of air support
Of course, none of this would matter if the underlying gameplay wasn’t so very tight. Rise of Nations was the first RTS to successfully fuse the twin pillars of PC strategy gaming – Command and Conquer and Civilization – and the fundamental elements remain at work here. Appropriately for a game that takes Da Vinci as a central influence, cultural development and military development go hand in hand; in all cultures research and city-building are the only way to open up new structures and, thus, new units, and maintaining and expanding borders is the only way to gain valuable resources. Make no mistake: economic success is key, whether that means mining the local Tiberium equivalent, sending caravans off to trade – or in the case of the Cuotl – harnessing energy.
The great thing is that while it all sounds very deep and complicated, the game keeps everything fantastically streamlined. You don’t need to tell miners or merchants where to go; simply build them and they’ll just get on with business. And there’s even good reason to take the route of peace: every map has some neutral cities and outposts, and while you can wade in and take these in by force, it’s sometimes more effective to use trade to draw them into an alliance.
Best of all, the game doesn’t expect you to read the manual or uncover these mechanics for yourselves. Instead, the campaign mode takes you through from the basic elements to the more complex options in a practically transparent fashion, to the extent that I’m wondering why I’ve spent so much time playing through tedious tutorial missions in the past. I can’t say the story is all that inspiring or the script and voice-work is anything more than functional, but the missions are challenging, and they’re bound together by a strategic map that, while not hugely sophisticated, at least puts you in control of the wider war. The game even helpfully suggests that you avoid particularly difficult battles until your forces are ready.
I’d heed the warning. One thing that soon becomes apparent is that Rise of Legends is not just another build, defend, develop and rush RTS. Such caveman tactics might work well in some missions, particularly in the early hours, but you’ll soon find a more flexible, intelligent approach becomes vital. In its own quiet way, the AI is ingenious, testing your defences, and encouraging overambitious assaults that rapidly turn into deathtraps. To succeed, you need to raise your game to match, staging feints, holding the front lines, and using aircraft to transport shock troops in for raids and dramatic city captures. In other words, it’s an RTS that actually asks you to think out of the box and – what’s more – one that seems aware of the tactical advantages of ground and visibility. And while I’m on the subject of AI, it’s telling that I’ve never once been annoyed by poor pathfinding or unresponsive units. Line and range of sight is an issue, but this is not a game where you’re constantly telling the troops where to go and who to batter.