One might have thought, after some success with pseudo-realistic nations in Rise of Nations, that Rise of Legends would use legendary civilizations. You know, Romans vs. Zulu, Gilgamesh vs. Beowulf. Good stuff.
Nope. Big Huge Games decided to set their new RTS in an original world. This frees them from some of the restrictions a more realistic setting might impose. For example, the three factions are: steampunks using tech straight from Leonardo da Vinci (the Vinci); magic-using glass people led by a giant scorpion-man (the Alin); and extraterrestrials posing as Mayan gods (the Cuotl). Now, I’m a product of the American education system, but I’m still pretty sure that stuff never really happened.
The factions and their environments are gorgeous. The Vinci look fantasy Renaissance-y, with factory-like buildings and units of brown with spinning gears and belching smoke. The Alin live in the desert and have soaring, multi-spired buildings and units of fire and glass and electric blue. The Cuotl have megalithic buildings and megalithic units that have red highlights to stand out against their green jungle home. Watching these guys battle is a visual treat.
Faction playing styles are as different as their looks. The Vinci are the most balanced of the bunch. They have a few of everything – a few air units, a few land units, a few big units, a few small units. Vinci cities are a treat to build. Their Research Lab building can be upgraded into a variety of special buildings. It’s always fun to get yourself a Doom Cannon and start blasting stuff. You’ll start out as the Vinci in the single-player campaign.
The Alin tend to build things from glass. Not surprisingly this leads to not-so-sturdy units. They are fast, however, and many of them can fly. They’re cheap and fast, good at early expansion and hit-and-run.
The Cuotl go for fewer units with more special powers. They have a tendency to become invisible. Some of their buildings fly.
If this sounds very rock-paper-scissory it’s only because this reviewer can’t express how differently the factions play. The way cities are built, the way resources are gathered, how new technology is discovered – it’s all very different from one faction to another. Throw in heroes (basically unique units with special abilities) and the factions take on added contrasts.
This is a game with multi-player legs. The factions are well balanced despite their different play styles. It should remain very popular in multi-player settings until StarCraft 2. There have been some problems with dropped sessions and frame rates, especially in larger games. BHG is aware of these issues and is working on them. They should not dissuade you from buying the game.
So, what’s not to like? Apparently they forgot to include the path-finding algorithm. Crossing a bridge is a matter of telling a group to cross, then watching to see which units wander off into the weeds. By itself this put a major dent in my enjoyment of the game. There are way too many hotkeys. It’s nice to have hotkeys, but this is too much. There are even context-sensitive hotkeys, which is either a great idea or hopelessly baroque. Finally, there is still too much of the RTS “killer-group” mentality. The best way to win is to get a big group of units and overwhelm the other guy. Being able to pause time and issue orders is helpful (especially in single-player) but battles are mostly colorful affairs of colliding units.
The AI is almost adequate. It plays a better defensive game than offensive (not uncommon for an AI.). This can make the early game a cakewalk, but the end game becomes more closely fought as a result.
Overall, this is a good game. Not great, but a solid RTS. It has sharply differentiated sides, is well balanced, looks great and has a decent single-player campaign.