by Marko Susimetsä
previewed on PC
Rising from the Ashes
Rise and Fall: Empires at War is perhaps the best known for the fact that Stainless Steel, its original developer shut down in the middle of the production and left the project hanging, until the publisher, Midway decided to pick up the pieces and finalize the project. And, from what I've seen thus far, Midway made the right decision. The real-time strategy genre would have been much poorer without Rise & Fall.
Commanding ancient armies
There are a lot of RTS games out there repeating the same old pattern of building structures, such as archery ranges, barracks, temples, farms etc. to produce and support armies that can be used to attack one's neighbours, who are doing just the same thing and trying to build that crushing army just in time to crush you before you crush them. This aspect of Rise & Fall is identical to games that have gone before it. If fact, it is so similar that you hardly need to learn anything new. The buildings and their functions are pretty self-explanatory.
Staying in topic before going to the exciting stuff, the RTS side of things lets you choose to lead one of the famous ancient civilizations Greece, Rome, Persia or Egypt. Each civilization comes with its own set of units, such as archers, spearmen, riders etc. The units are beautifully rendered and move smoothly when you give them commands, although you need to zoom in to recognise some of the special units, such as the ladder unit that is essential when trying to get over the defensive walls of your enemy's camp. It is these special units and the innovative strategies that they provide that make the game more enjoyable than some others in the genre. Another addition are the advisers that you can hire to make your empire run smoother. Artisans and entertainers can boost morale, while architects allow you to build buildings faster etc.
Commanding the heroes
First, I must say that this is what Rise & Fall is really about. The RTS qualities are great and work perfectly, but the Hero Command mode lets you actually step into the boots of the general of your armies and affect the battles first hand. No longer do you have to watch as your stupid army gets decimated just because they decided to run through the enemy and not fight them. Instead, you can press the Q key and get a first person view of the battlefield. Each of the four civilizations comes with two possible leaders, such as Cleopatra and Ramses for Egypt and Achilles and Alexander the Great for Greece. Naturally, I prefer to command Cleopatra (ehem...), who is the only female hero in the bunch.
When you enter the Hero Command mode, you will essentially be playing a different genre of game, a first person 'shooter'. Your hero has different kinds of weapons at his or her disposal, such as swords, hammers and bows, and can run around the battlefield, attacking the enemies with the armies, or alone when necessary. You can also issue commands to the army or nearby units to make them follow you or to charge the enemy. The amount of time you can be in the hero mode depends on the hero's or heroine's stamina. When it gets low enough, you will be forced back to the overhead view until the hero has had time to rest. Fortunately, you are sometimes able to find boosters in the battlefield that will rejuvenate you and allow you to stay in the first person mode for a bit longer.
In essence, the Hero Mode will, at best, allow you turn the tide of a battle that is going against you, or to reconnoitre the enemy base before the main assault. With the selection of weapons at your disposal, you can effectively take out some of the guards and burn down some of the defensive weapons (such as catapults and guard towers). This will make it a lot easier for the main body of your army to attack the enemy. The only gripe I have is the ease at which Cleopatra can take out enemies at an extreme range with the bow, if the player has a precise mouse to control the aim. She's certainly meant to be an expert archer, but, for the final release, I'd like to see some added difficulty, such as the wind steering the arrows noticeably off course at long ranges and enemies reacting to the fact that they are being shot at (and not just stand still, waiting for the next arrow).