Rise of Nations is an RTS game from 2003. Perhaps I should say the RTS of 2003. It secured many awards that year, and its appeal remains undiminished today. It’s featured heavily in our Saturday night LAN games and is the only game capable of displacing Starcraft for any length of time. It would probably have seized the long-held crown from Starcraft if not for the interminable endgame.
Part of the problem – which is endemic to most Age-spanning “civilization” games – is that the technology levels are designed so that a solid technological lead is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain. At the same time the various technological tiers just don’t offer that much of an advantage on the battlefield. Yes, when tanks supplant knights they are more effective in general, but they are still screwed when they come up against a bunch of pikemen. Aside from the frustration of seeing your computerized steel juggernauts fall prey to guys with sharp sticks, there is the problem that you’re left without a way to quickly crush a supposedly weaker foe.
This is only the beginning of the problem. Late in the game everyone is rolling in resources, which means collection is de-emphasized and the battle comes down to a fight between a lot of same-ish units. If you’re invading, then you’ll likely be fighting on the enemy doorstep. Your units will have to travel some distance, while your enemy will be churning out units nearby. This can more than negate whatever technological lead you may have. You can counter this by building your own buildings along the front, but this replaces the slow grind of fighting with the slow grind of building infrastructure as you go.
You can try to attack their resources by blowing up farms, oil wells, mines, and such, but this won’t hurt them until their empire falls below some critical number of cities. Resources are never depleted, so controlling 75% of the world isn’t that much of an advantage. Sure, you’re making money faster, but your foe can’t run out. Even controlling 25% of the world is enough to keep up with the war effort and counter the withering effects of attrition, and once you get get them below the threshold that allows them to go broke, you still must wait for them to do so. (And the in-game population cap prevents you from overcoming them with sheer numbers.) In a game like Starcraft, the smaller power would quickly starve, and would then be brushed off the map with minimal fuss. In Rise of Nations, a 25% – 75% split of the world can still end up being a long stalemate.
The problem gets far worse if you allow your foe to reach the final tech level. The last four technologies are so powerful they amount to cheat codes. One allows the production of units to happen instantaneously. Another opens the spigot of resources all the way, giving any reasonably-sized empire more than they could hope to spend. Another blocks the use of nukes – thus stopping the only weapon which might break the long stalemate. Once two opposing forces have these, finding a winner can be impossible. If both parties have more than they can spend, are immune to nukes, and can replace fallen combatants instantly, it comes down to a fight between two immortals. The result isn’t nearly as exciting as that might make it sound. The spectacle grows old quickly, and you’re left with endlessly pounding away at the “make some guys” button in an effort to out-spam your foe.
Consider that at this point in the game you can build an army in ten seconds, and the army will take a couple of minutes to be destroyed under sustained attack. How is anyone supposed to move the game towards resolution like that?
Yes, there are other ways of winning besides resorting to the cudgel of raw military conquest: Controlling landmass and building wonders can optionally lead to victory, but this feels cheap to my group’s way of thinking. This way is to be shunned, the Cowards Way. One could just as easily walk away from the game at some point and declare themselves the victor, but it would not change the fact that their opponent remained vigorous and hale to the end.
These shortcomings mar what would otherwise be a flawless experience. To be fair, the rewards found elsewhere in the game are compelling enough that we play the game in spite of my complaints, and I have no doubt these shortcomings will be listed as advantages to players of a different mindset. Certainly people who are bored by base-building will feel relief when they can stop worrying about that sort of business and get on with the shooting and blowing up of people wearing the wrong color uniform.
We all have our perfect game in mind, and it is in our nature to compare each offering to that shining ideal. For me, the rewards of a Nations game run dry at about the two-thirds mark. I realize I just spent a thousand words (sorry) whining about the endgame, so it’s important to note that despite my gripes this is a fantastic game.
I just wish the ending was swifter.
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