The Age of Empires series was one of the most acclaimed strategy franchises to ever hit the market, and deservedly so. The smooth gameplay, intriguing historical setting, and vast depth lent itself to an excellent experience, but the furthest the series timeline stretched was the Colonial Era, which no doubt left some fans wanting a more modern setting. And yeah, there WAS Empire Earth, which you can read about over on A Force For Good, but that effort felt a bit clunky and overly ambitious. Finally, in 2001, strategy honks would finally get a worthy successor to AoE, Rise of Nations, and its expansion pack, Thrones and Patriots.
Rise of Nations stretches effectively the entirety of civilization, from antiquity to the present day, with twelve total eras along the way. This also allows for a much bigger inclusion of playable factions from around the world, from standards like the British and French to more obscure nations like the Nubians and the Lakota. Much like AoE, each nation has its own special perks and unique units, only now, factions have more than one unique unit, and oftentimes, they change from era to era, like the German Barbarians being replaced by Volksgrenadiers and MG42 machine gun units by the time World War II rolls around.
Now, if you’re a veteran of AoE or Empire Earth, you should be right at home here. Rise of Nations doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here, if anything, they’ve streamlined the interface and taken a lot of micromanagement out of the equation. For example, farms no longer need to be replanted every so often; once you build a farm, it will produce food as long as it’s standing and a citizen is assigned to it. Scout units no longer have to be ordered around, either, now you can just click Auto Explore and send him on his merry way. Resources like forests and mines don’t deplete over time, so you no longer have to keep tabs on a mine running out and being left with a handful of idle workers not contributing to your economic machine.
The biggest wrinkle you’ll discover in Rise of Nations, though, is the concept of cities. Your nation will have to expand to remain competitive, and you do so by building cities and expanding your national borders. You can only build structures and harvest resources that are within your borders (which negates the very annoying tactic of building military buildings right next to an enemy’s base), and each city is allowed to have its own set of buildings; instead of building one monastery or one university, you build them in each city to enhance each city’s borders or contribute to your pool of resource points. This also changes the strategy of conquest somewhat; you capture enemy cities by lowering its hit points and rushing it with your troops when it’d been reduced, and if you hold it for a certain length of time, it becomes part of your nation, so you might be well-advised to try to seize a town as intact as possible so you can quickly churn out villagers to man the now-empty resource buildings.
Much like Age of Empires, your objective is to advance through the various ages, which unlocks new building options and technologies. Research is broken down into four categories: Military, which allows unit upgrades and increases your population limit, Civic, which allows for upgrades for civil technologies and increases the number of cities you can build, Commerce, which allows for upgrades in resource harvesting efficiency and increases your commerce limit (which dictates how much of a resource you can acquire at a time), and Science, which touches on most every branch of the tech tree. Also, Wonders can be built in your nation, one per city, and unlike AoE, these aren’t pretty structures for show, Wonders here provide tangible benefits, like Versailles giving your units the ability to be healed by nearby Supply Wagons, and the Terra Cotta Army, which provides a stream of free light infantry units every so often. Aso new here is the inclusion of Rare Resources, which you can take control of by deploying a Merchant unit to them, and these tend to enhance your resource collection as well as other perks like faster research or cheaper unit production costs, however, neither Merchants nor Caravan units (that generate Wealth by going between friendly towns) are capable of defending themselves, aside from the Dutch versions, so you have to keep an eye on them to ensure they’re not under attack from enemy raiders.
If you have the expansion pack, you also unlock the Senate, from which you choose a form of government, either one more inclined to freedom, which provides economic benefits, or despotism, which gives military bonuses. Aside from that, it also creates a leader unit that can assist units in its radius, which is a nice little inclusion. Of course, whatever city you choose to build your Senate in becomes your capital, and losing your capital loses the game, so it is important to keep it very well-protected. Now, if you only have the original version of the game, you’re not missing out on too much, and while a nice little feature, it’s not entirely paradigm shifting.
The meat of the gameplay, though, much like Age of Empires, is combat, and veterans of that series will again feel right at home here. Even with the bevy of new units and different era, combat works largely on the same rock-paper-scissors principle as AoE; in the Enlightenment Age, Musketeers can be shredded by melee cavalry who are in turn vulnerable to Fusiliers who are weak against other Musketeers. That said, there are a few new layers to consider here that spice things up over its predecessors. First of which is the notion of supply. You must build Supply Wagons to launch invasions of enemy nations, otherwise, they will slowly suffer attrition damage over time while inside enemy borders, and siege weapons and artillery fire at only half speed if they’re not in a wagon’s radius. General units can be built, and allow abilities like Force March, which makes your units move at double speed for a limited time, and Entrench, which lowers the amount of damage units take from frontal assaults. Spies, much like Monks in AoE, are capable of bribing enemy troops to join your side, as well as plant informers that allow you to see what that unit sees and collect intel for you.
Seeing as this game stretches into the modern era, yes, units like tanks and aircraft will come into play (and in a nifty bit of realism, horse stables automatically transform into Auto Plants when the time comes for cavalry to be replaced by armor. True to form, air power can be a very useful weapon, and utilizing bombers to harass enemy resource gathering or to smash military installations to reduce the flow of enemy troops is very much a viable strategy. Explorer units from earlier epochs convert to Special Forces units capable of asymmetrical warfare tactics like sabotaging buildings and sniping enemies from afar. And yes, nuclear weapons are available in the late game and are appropriately devastating, however, their use is limited by an Armageddon meter; use too many nukes and the game ends with everybody losing.
For those folks looking for something a bit more involved, there is a pretty substantial campaign mode here, and those with the expansion pack have a number of additional historical campaigns. The basic Conquer the World campaign plays much like a game of Risk, you move your armies along a giant world map and where you move them dictates what kind of battle you’ll play; invading unsettled territory might require you to eliminate a certain number of enemies to claim the land, and invading another nation causes you to play a straight-up random map-style battle. Also, as you conquer territories and vanquish foes, you can obtain or purchase cards you can play before a battle that do things like boost production of resources or deny the enemy their use of their nation’s bonuses. The campaigns featured in the expansion have some quirks as well, the Napoleon campaign forces you to either emulate Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy and Egypt to build enough support to name yourself Emperor and decide your own path, and the Cold War features espionage missions that weaken your enemy’s position or strengthen your own, depending on if you play as the Americans or Soviets. Aside from those, there’s also a handful of neat little minigames like Click The General, similar to Whack-a-Mole, and a game that tests your knowledge of hotkeys, which I actually found to be pretty useful as a teaching tool to become more efficient at micromanagement.
Visually, RoN definitely shines very brightly. Animations here are a lot more fluid than AoE, and both units and structures are very well-detailed. In a nice touch, citizens who harvest lumber go from peasants chopping away with axes to workers with chainsaws wearing high-visibility safety vests, for example, and effects like flames and explosions look decidedly more convincing than before. While you’re still restricted to the 2D isometric view, you can zoom in and out depending on your needs. Also, infantry units are spawned as a group of three as opposed to one single soldier at a time, which adds nicely to the grand scale of pitched battles. Sounds are quite nice as well, but it tends to be…busy, for lack of a better word, as there will oftentimes be the sounds of battle, notification sounds, the background music, and various other effects all going off at once, and as you can imagine, things can get messy when there are twenty different sounds all fighting for speaker time.
I know that I’ve spent a lot of this review comparing Rise of Nations to Age of Empires, and it sounds like I may not be viewing RoN on its own merits, but if you’ve played the original before, the comparisons are impossible to not notice. That being said, Rise of Nations is a spectacular piece of real-time strategy gaming, and even all these years later, I think it strikes the perfect balance between depth and accessibility, and is one of the top games in the genre. I highly recommend it both for hardcore strategy enthusiasts and even those who might be interested in strategy, but don’t want to have to read through a 150-page manual to figure out the most basic of functions. I’d definitely invite you to seek this game out, and remember, there’s no more satisfying way to stop an enemy offensive than bribing their troops to join your side en masse.
Deep, expansive, a fantastic evolution of the Age of Empires engine that spans the entirety of human history, excellent campaign mode.
Still a good bit of micromanagement required, the Senate/Government additions don’t contribute a whole lot, can get crowded, sound-wise with so much happening at once.