As you might be able to work out from its full title (you clever bunch, you), Rise Of Legends is the new Rise Of Nations game. To call it a sequel, however, wouldn't be entirely accurate, because developer Big Huge Games is sending Legends in a slightly different direction, keeping the core gameplay much the same but ditching the real-world historical setting in favour of a fantasy realm called Aio. In the past, we've seen Ensemble Studios take the ever popular Age Of Empires series in a similar direction, following up the historical Age Of Empires II with the fantastical Age Of Mythology. So it's not like it's an unprecedented step.
As I write this, however, details of Big Huge Games' change of focus have only been available to the public for a matter of days, and already a vocal minority of Rise Of Nations devotees has whipped itself into bitching overdrive on fansite message boards. "All hope for the new RON is gone," wails one unhappy chappy, while others toss around words like 'disgrace' and 'horrible' with typical Internet fanboy abandon. And to think, we sometimes wonder why gaming is considered a geeky pastime.
But the whining brainiacs aren't as lucky as us: we actually got to see the game up close and personal at its pre-E3 unveiling event, and what we've seen is... well, it's pretty damn exciting. Big Huge Games president Brian Reynolds (who honed his skills working alongside Sid Meier on the likes of Civilization II and Alpha Centauri), explains that Aio, rather than being your standard Tolkien-inspired swords 'n' sorcery world, is instead a place where semi-advanced technology exists alongside magic. There's not a goblin or pointy hat in sight.
THE DA VINCI CODERS
The single-player campaign sees you pulling on the fetching brown jacket of Giacomo, a fresh-faced inventor who winds up in charge of a city-state after his brother is mysteriously assassinated. This city is part of a faction called the Vinci, one of the two technology-focused nations that will appear in the game. With weapons and war machines inspired by the famous design sketches of (yep, you guessed it) Leonardo da Vinci, the Vinci is essentially a steampunk nation. Its cities are packed with the classic signs of industry: rotating cogs, glistening pipes, walkways and chimneys belching out clouds of smoke. A closer look reveals the tiny shapes of Vinci workers going about their daily grind. It's alluring stuff.
Another thing about Rise Of Legends' cities is that they aren't just a collection of buildings placed in close proximity to one another; they are single, monolithic entities. When constructing them, you'll be able to assign specialist districts (military, air force, science etc.) that are automatically added seamlessly to the existing structures. Sim City it ain't, but it should add another dimension to the game's visuals.
And goddamn it if this game doesn't look jaw-droppingly lovely. Our review of the original Rise Of Nations applauded Big Huge Games for the fact it had put gameplay before graphical willy waving. Well, now that the gameplay side of things has been sorted, the willies are coming out in force - and by golly, there's a lot of waving to be done. Reynolds tells us of his desire to create what he describes as "blistering white-hot graphics," the sort of earth-shattering, cataclysmic shit that goes down when powerful magic goes toe-to-toe with advanced technology.
Cities are just one aspect of it; the units are even more impressive. Giacomo, for instance, strides about atop a giant two-legged walker, stomping enemies into the dust. He's backed up by the likes of airships, clockwork tanks and helicopters with corkscrew rotor blades. Another nation Reynolds showed off is the Alim, a magic-based civilisation that takes its cue from Arabian Nights. So instead of tanks, robots and aircraft, an Alim general can call upon genies, sandstorms and giant scorpions. Two other nations will appear in the finished game (one magical, one technological), but Big Huge Games is remaining tight-lipped with regards to names or details.