I've never been a major fan of the Age Of Empires series, but I've been convinced to play network games of AOE2 with my friends. I'm biased against games set in medieval times, as I generally don’t get into them nearly as well as modern or futuristic games. I like rockets, lasers, guns, and planes instead of horses, arrows, and trebuchets.
AOE2 is what I like to call a “painfully 2D” RTS. Many other games also fall into this category, including StarCraft and Red Alert. In a painfully 2D RTS, the world is flat. Terrain height may appear to change, but it doesn’t affect unit behavior. Combat involves each side’s units lining up to face each other, and then firing back and forth until all units on one side are dead. Most (or all) shots hit their targets right in the center of their sprite. Rate of fire and damage per shot are constant. All units of the same type behave identically, regardless of health and other conditions.
Painfully 2D games aren’t fun for me. Variety and realism in combat are laughably absent, as games and battles tend to play out in generally the same way. I want mountains and hills to be tactical advantages, providing increased sight and weapon range. I want units to fire while moving, and move around during combat. I want shots to be fired along different trajectories, depending on surroundings, and they should miss at an appropriate rate. Different planes should fly at different altitudes, and change altitude based on their current action. I want some units to behave differently than others of the same type, such as one soldier that has 25% better accuracy than the one on the other side of the group because there isn’t a cloud of smoke blocking his view. Maybe even have random variations in the units: the firing rate, accuracy, strength, etc. could vary randomly within a 10-20% range for each unit of the same type, and you could bias the variations in either direction by certain variables such as morale.
Unfortunately, no RTS currently suits all of my desires. The varied combat, realistic shots, and planes were done quite nicely in Total Annihilation in 1997, yet games are still released that lack such basic elements.
In fact, one was released on May 30. It’s called Rise Of Nations.
I was very excited about this game. From the previews, it looked like the first RTS to have heavy Civilization-like elements such as politics, diplomacy, cities, national borders, populations, and other attributes outside of simple battles. It appeared to take the focus away from battle and provide a very well-rounded game that you could win without simply killing your opponents if you desired.
It didn’t. Rise Of Nations turned out to be what I’d expect from an Age Of Empires 4. It looks and plays like AOE2 with many additions. Big Huge Games (the developer) seemingly dropped AOE2 in a 3D engine (but still kept it looking amazingly similar to its 2D predecessor), complicated and greatly expanded the upgrade/research trees, added features, and released it as a new game.
There’s a lot of new stuff, and it’s plenty to keep the RTS gamer busy for a long time. Many great features have been added, such as automatic modes for peasants (“civilians”) to find something to do on their own if you don’t tell them anything for a certain period of time after they’re created. Resource-gathering micromanagement has been greatly reduced, as all resources are now infinite: farms never die, mountains (for stone) and forests always stay the same size, and the remaining resources (food, gold, oil, knowledge) all come in at constant rates depending on the number of gathering buildings you have built and the upgrades you have purchased. One might argue that infinite resources degrade the quality of the game by promoting stalemates and discouraging late-game expansion, but I found the new resource system to be a welcome relief from the micromanagement-crazy system in AOE2.
While the map is now 3D and contains “mountains” (which are quite small and look more like stalagmites), you can’t build or move anything on top of them. The height of the usable terrain varies somewhat, but not enough to make any difference. In fact, while this is technically a 3D game, it definitely qualifies as a Painfully 2D RTS. The combat system is boring and outdated, bearing the same “line up, stand there, and shoot until dead” system as AOE2 and every other painfully 2D RTS. I only really enjoy Rise Of Nations when I’m not in combat, because the combat lacks any fun.
The non-combat elements of the game are done quite well, but every game boils down to combat. Diplomacy, politics, national borders, and other variables are all present but generally unimportant. The player who can click the fastest and build the most units will still win.
Rise Of Nations is an excellent sequel to the Age Of Empires series. It tried to be so much more, and unfortunately I expected it to succeed. It didn’t – the gameplay is the same as the AOE games. I am confident that the game will sell many copies and be quite popular because it fits the previous formula so well, but it has greatly disappointed me. I expected a new, unique, and innovative RTS. Rise Of Nations is just new.