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Rise & Fall: Civilizations At War

We were all thinking it, but no-one wanted to say it. At least not to the guy who designed Age Of Empires and Empire Earth. Luckily he came right out and said it for us. "In terms of the real-time strategy genre, I think Stainless is a little bit guilty, as well as the rest of the industry, of not pushing the envelope enough or not pushing for new, innovative ideas to keep things fresh."

It's hardly a newsflash. The traditional RTS lost its vigour years ago, and has been surviving on goodwill and incremental advances ever since - but it's not the sort of thing you're supposed to admit when you're one of the top RTS designers in the business. We're talking of course to Rick Goodman, boss of Stainless Steel Studios, and the reason he can talk so candidly is that he thinks his new game may be about to break the curse.

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"When we envisioned Rise & Fall, we wanted to push ourselves to do something that was new and unique, yet would still make for a challenging and fun RTS game. What we came up with was a third-person mode that enables you to become a famous historical hero and play the battle from a perspective you haven't seen in a historical RTS."

ACTION MAN
Goodman brought along a few beta levels of Rise & Fall for us to play, and we have to say the new feature is a winner. The game is still an RTS at heart, identical at a glance to any number of similar efforts (other than being prettier of course). You've got large land battles with formation fighting and grand castle assaults, realistic naval combat with boarding and ramming, peasants to mine gold and chop trees, bases to build and defend. But you can also switch to a very action-oriented mode akin to a third-person hack 'n' slash.

"What we really wanted to do was reinvigorate the RTS gamer," says Goodman. "We didn't want to alienate any of the existing fans, but we did want to give them interludes where they could jump on to the battlefield and take part in the game like an action-shooter."

Apart from causing much merry mayhem, the hero mode is also a hugely potent tool. Whether you're playing as Julius Caesar or Ramses The Great (or one of the six other heroes), you can cut a swathe through virtually any enemy formation, felling scores of foes, taking down siege weapons and calling upon some pretty momentous special powers.

Needless to say, there's a price for all this. Not only do you leave the fate of your troops in the hands of the AI (which is competent but clearly not as smart as you), but you can quickly exhaust your hero's stamina, rendering him or her inoperative for a period.

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Heroes also need to be levelled up before they become true super-weapons, a process that's tied fundamentally to your progress within the game. Goodman explains: "The hero has five or six levels you can achieve, and each level of your hero unlocks new upgrades and abilities. So, rather than being age-based, your progress in the game is hero-based. Now, rather than having traditional technology nodes, we have advisors that become available for you to hire, in a way not dissimilar to a tech tree."

As we understand it, advisors are a way of putting a face to the various abilities you gain in the course of the game. So, when your hero goes up a level, you get a choice of new advisors, each of which comes with a special ability. Advisors stay with you from scenario to scenario, so you build up a whole bank of them through the campaign, including architects, historians, scribes and rat catchers - less vermin means happier citizens, don't you know.

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