It's becoming increasingly hard to tell what video games want us to do. It used to be simple: Shoot the flying saucers; eat the dots; fly the airplane. Now games have diversified their objectives. Ever since Microsoft bought many of the best game developers, things have become the video-game equivalent of "Where Do You Want to Go Today?" Something like: "What unknown landscape would you like to explore today, and who would you like to demolish -- and in what way -- while doing it?"
Microsoft's latest release, Rise of Nations (Rated T), is both a real-time strategy game (the kind where you build and control an army) and an epic empire-building game (where you gradually guide a nation to political, economic and technological dominance). The emphasis has just been shifted from infrastructure to superstructure in the former, and from micromanagement to macromanagement in the latter. Ostensibly, it's based on the real world, with 18 recognizable civilizations, each with distinct appearances, advantages and units. But this is a game, so sacrifices of accuracy are inevitable. (There's something both medieval and progressive about a woman in a Renaissance gown building a mine.)
Players will divide their time between fielding armies against the computer or other players online, and strategically developing their civilization. With so much going on, the game could quickly get overwhelming. But it's masterfully balanced. It's true that the real-time battles keep the game busier than an epic turn-based strategy game, where you're free to eat dinner while issuing your next sheaf of commands. There's no time for that here, but neither is it bloated with minutiae. Idle characters rather intelligently occupy themselves with the nearest task, and in a single-player game, orders can thankfully be issued during a pause. This not only allows for the pace of a turn-based game when you want it, but it also brings a new level of consideration to what is normally, in real-time strategy games, a blur of mouse clicks.
In the end, Rise of Nations has the "one more turn" feel that has led many gamers to bleary-eyed exhaustion while managing an empire late into the night. But don't expect to relax this time around. There are wars to be fought, lands to be seen, and time -- at least in Rise of Nations -- waits for no one. It's enough to keep you busy for ages.
Publication date: 06/19/03