And to think I was starting to despair. After a barren 2005 for strategy games, things were beginning to look pretty bleak for a genre that had taken us to new realms of pleasure the previous year with the stunning Rome: Total War and brilliant The Battle For Middle-Earth. But finally, we have Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, another strategy game worthy of our highest accolade. And it's about time too.
Rise Of Nations: Rise Of Legends is a game that bucks the genre's recent trend of lazy follow-ons and sub-standard rehashes with such aplomb, that it not only eclipses the majority of its competitors, it beats them like it's their daddy.
CREATING A LEGEND
As you probably already know, Rise Of Legends is the sequel to Rise Of Nations. However, this isn't your standard rehash-of-the-original-with-better-graphics type of sequel. Oh no, no, no, far from it my warmongering friends. Instead of adopting this slap-dash approach, Legends has focused its attentions on refining and expanding the original's already exquisite gaming mechanics - and the result is triumphant.
Apart from the core gameplay, there's little similarity between this and the original game. Gone is the historical earthbased setting, replaced by the sci-fi world of Aio, a planet dominated by three nations, all of whom are as diverse in culture as they are in unit types.
The Vinci is a fractious nation of industrial states, whose technology bears a strong resemblance to the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Their units are made from cogs and pistons, and include towering clockwork men armed with lasers, stomping walkers, mechanical spiders and some truly gargantuan super-units that have more kick than a crate of expired orange juice.
Next up are the Alin, a mysterious race of desert dwellers whose magical approach to life is in stark contrast to the Vinci's technological culture. Proficient in three schools of magic - Glass, Fire and Sand - their troops are entrenched in mysticism with fire-spewing dragons, scuttling scorpions and fat genies proving the mainstay of their armies.
Finally, you have the Cuotl, who not only sound like the noise you make when you choke on your pint, but also possess the game's most powerful and technologically advanced units - thanks to the influence of an alien race that crashed on the planet and installed themselves as gods among this primitive jungle-dwelling nation.
Divided into three campaigns centred on each race, you play as Giacomo (pronounced Jacka-mow, like you're an Italian or something), a young Vinci inventor who finds himself the unlikely saviour of a world threatened by three powerful and sinister forces.
A GAME OF TWO HALVES
Just like Rome: Total War, Legends is divided into two sections, a turn-based campaign map and a real-time 3D battlefield. However, that's where the comparisons end, as Legends bears far more resemblance to traditional real-time strategy games than its epic rival.
For starters, Legends' campaign map is simplicity itself, proving much more streamlined than Rome's all-encompassing freeform war zone. The idea is to move Giacomo from one province to the next, conquering each as you progress on a realtime battlefield. The more regions you capture, the more powerful you become.
Some of these provinces are simply there to help bolster your strength for the more challenging storydriven missions that are key to completing each campaign (with each conquered territory, your power grows while the enemy's diminishes). In fact, it's imperative to plan your campaign carefully, as successes and failures have a knock-on effect towards each campaign's final confrontation.