High expectations are a curse. While everybody envies developers who make games as great as Rise of Nations, nobody envies them when sequel time comes around. And you can really see why with Rise of Legends. Big Huge Games' follow-up to its instant classic from 2003 is a pretty good RTS, but it is also an awfully familiar one that doesn't bring anything new to the table aside from some snazzy new graphics, a few rule tweaks, and a quirky storyline with three oddball races. After a dozen hours or so of the campaign and noodling around online, the novelty vanishes...along with a fair number of the compelling reasons to keep playing the game.
Story is one of the big reasons why Rise of Legends feels a bit flat. Although the title of the game leads you to expect some kind of Ray Harryhausen-style extravaganza with Greek gods and gorgons, this is not the second coming of Age of Mythology. Instead of rehashing well-worn folklore, Big Huge Games decided to try something new and craft an original setting complete with three unique races and loads of zany units that rework just about every fantasy and science fiction convention out there.
Big Huge Games was obviously trying to manufacture one of those "you got peanut butter in my chocolate!" moments where an off-the-wall combination works out perfectly. The only problem here is that the fantasy and sci-fi doesn't so much blend together as it does clash, at least in the campaign, when a story interferes with taking the races and units on their own not inconsiderable merits. The three races, each fanciful recreations of cultures from disparate eras and far-flung corners of the globe, seem to have been pulled from different RTS games. You've got the steampunk-flavored, quasi Venetian Vinci, who utilize tech derived from the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci, like wobbly gyrocopters and clockwork robots. Then there are the Alin, a civilization of sinister Arabian wizards who battle with magic and fiery efreeti footsoldiers. And finally there are the Cuotl, Mayan-like aliens with E.T. technology such as energy shields and flying saucers.
This wacky mish-mash of real history, Dungeons & Dragons, and Chariots of the Gods is damn hard to warm up to. Each of the civilizations is so offbeat that there are no reference points, no similarities to RTS conventions that you can latch onto and use to dip a toe into the weirdness. The story in the campaign is decidedly convoluted, as well. You're just tossed into the 20-hour, three-part campaign with no preamble aside from a brief conversation about a mysterious artifact that seems to be making people sick. Moments later, you're leading conquistadors and clockwork robots into battle against mechanical spiders and glass monsters. Events pile one on top of the other. There's an evil doge wreaking havoc, some weird unknown force supporting rebels, a hot pirate babe, and, well, it's even harder to make sense of all this stuff on paper as it is when you're experiencing it in person. Oh, and the ending pretty much screams "expansion pack coming in Q1 2007."
Campaigns themselves blend the conquer the world mode of the original Rise of Nations with stereotypical RTS scenarios. As before, you move your forces on a map to accomplish objectives and conquer provinces. This affords some freedom of movement, in that you can generally choose between two or three regions to attack at any given moment in the game. Repetition is a bit of an issue, though. In most provinces, you arrive with your stock troops. Then you build a base complete with barracks, factories, and the like. Then you develop wealth through creating caravans (reactors in the case of the Cuotl) and collect the glowing blue rock resource called timonium. Finally, you crank out an army and sally forth to assault enemy armies and strongholds. Way too many maps force you to rebuild the same base and deal with nothing but "conquer all these cities" objectives.
There isn't anything here that you haven't seen before, especially if you've played Rise of Nations. Play is almost identical in character to the earlier game. The streamlined interface and unit selection and innovative border system where you can assimilate land by developing cities are carried over into the new game intact. Ages have been dropped, as has a lot of the tech research, to befit the nonhistorical fantasy setting, and heroes have been added, but this doesn't alter the feel of the game much.


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