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  1. The Nations: Gold Edition
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Although initially a bit of a failure with the public and critics when the original version was first released, The Settlers franchise has now been immensely successful. Having spawned sequels and expansion packs with decent sales, the Blue Byte game has created its own genre, with the latest entry being the subject of this review. So seeing as everyone has at least heard of it, let's make things very, very simple: if you enjoyed playing The Settlers or any of its sequels, then you'll enjoy this. If you didn't, then you won't.

As its unique twist, The Nations takes the resource juggling and infinitely anal attention to detail of The Settlers and combines it with the need to keep your folks happy in the vein of The Sims. You take control of one of three tribes: The Pimmons, the Amazons or the Sajikis. The best way of describing the Pimmons would be to picture them as a kind of alien hobbit. They're fat, lazy, incredibly ugly... oh, and they're blue as well. The Sajikis are a kind of mischievous insect race and the Amazons are a sickeningly beautiful society of bronzed Venus's and Adonis's (or however you want to spell that). They're also the only matriarchal society, the significance of which I'll probably forget to talk about later.

Each race has its own campaign of ten missions each, but before you start the game proper, you're led in by a fairly easy-going tutorial that explains all the ins and outs of the game and confuses you with so many symbols that an Egyptologist would begin to feel dizzy. For those unfamiliar with The Settlers-style gameplay, this is quite normal and is nothing to worry about. But even if the symbols don't confuse you, then the gameplay certainly will.

Whatever race you choose and whatever missions you play, the basics still remain the same: build the civil and economic aspects of your city. The key to raising a strong, healthy population is scientific research, having plenty of work for everyone, a good relationship with your neighbours, putting a roof over everyone's head and enough soap to keep everyone clean, some pastries and a varied diet, medicine (in case somebody gets poorly), and controlling the wild animal population so folks aren't getting attacked, but keeping enough alive to appease hunters. You also need to make sure there's not too long a distance between people's houses and workplace, they get a decent night's sleep, give them resources to do their work with and, last but not least, a good pub lunch every day.

Sound like a lot to be getting on with? Well don't forget you've got to train all the teenagers, worship the gods, trade with other nations for anything you haven't got, hire scientists and knights, build roads, temples, wharfs, mines, ranches, witch doctor huts, towers, labs, wells, temples, distillers, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, strongholds, warehouses, ore mines, quarries, smithies, carpenters, schools, taverns, ramparts, markets, police stations, 2 and 4 bedroom houses, barracks, and a million, zillion other things, too.

But of course you don't get lumped with that lot straight away - in fact, things start out simple. You begin with a few houses, a school so you can train people and a tavern so they can eat lunch. The more research you do, the more buildings and careers are available to you, but also, the more luxuries your citizens demand and the harder it will be to keep them happy. For instance, sooner or later, they're going to want soap and pastries, and if they don't get them their mood will worsen, eventually causing them to leave your town or become a criminal.

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If you're after any bloodshed or battles then you'll have to look elsewhere because The Nations, just like The Settlers, concentrates firmly on the production side of strategy. Granted, there are a few skirmishes here and there but it's really only a token gesture. You'll not find any opportunities to flex your strategic muscles or overpower your enemy with tanks, big lasers or flamethrowers. Instead, the nearest you'll come to a hostile attack is offering 7 wooden planks for their 20 fruit instead of 8. You rebel you.

It has to be said that the developers have done a fantastic job with the graphics, and it just goes to show that you don't need thousands of dirty great explosions to make a pretty picture. The different races are well drawn and animated, and exude a surprising amount of character. One of my first worries when looking through the documentation was how the player would relate to two alien races and a cliché of perfection; fortunately, that problem never occurred, and it's through neat little touches like giving the characters names and a daily schedule that this is resolved.

For example, Pim the Carrier gets up at 8 a.m. every morning and goes to work. At 11.30, he'll clock off for his lunch break and then he'll get back to work. If you look at his info tab, it'll tell you exactly what he's doing, what his mood is and if he had a good night's sleep or not. You can even set up a camera to follow him around all day. It's all minor stuff, but attention to detail such as this can really help make a game.

Another interesting facet is the pronounced difference between males and females. It might be terribly non-PC but instead of de-gendering (which may or may not be a word [No, it isn't. -Ed]) all the characters, The Nations give men and women two different jobs. For example, you can pick a career for the male characters such as foreman or lumberjack, but female characters always do the domestic chores such as picking berries, shopping at the market or praying at the temple. To avoid a slaughtering by the PC brigade, Neo has reversed the roles if you decide to play as the Amazons.

There are, of course, a few little niggles, such as the absolutely enormous status bar that blocks half of the screen and the fact that zooming out to a respectable distance slows the game down to a crawl (even though this seems to improve when the desktop resolution is lowered).

On the whole, though, this is really rather an enjoyable game - so why no award? Well, like I said at the start, this is a Settlers clone and a lot of people out there will be put off straight away by the complete absence of any action. You really have to enjoy building bakeries just for the sake of building bakeries, and not as a part of some scheme to make your guys better in combat. Another reason concerns one of the major criticisms that was leveled at The Settlers; that is, it played the same all the way through and the same is certainly true with The Nations. So while the core gameplay is great fun, longevity does suffer from the inevitable repetitiveness and uneventful missions. Be wary.

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Found a new nation and nurture it through the ages to dominate the world in this real-time strategy game from the co-creator of the Civilization series. The Big Huge Games studio was founded by Brian Reynolds, lead designer of Sid Meier's Civilization II and Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, who applies his nearly peerless empire-building strategy expertise to this Age of Empires-style RTS. Though military conquest is certainly an effective method of global domination, the game is designed such that civic and diplomatic development are equally important, and offer alternate means to ultimate victory.

Rise of Nations strives to take only the most enjoyable elements of real-time strategy games and apply these in a new way. As in many turn-based strategy games (and also the 2001 sleeper RTS Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns), resources in Rise of Nations are constituent features of the land, as opposed to discrete mines and forests to be exploited and forgotten. Claim a resource by claiming the territory in which it lies. The player improves collection rates not by assigning more workers, but by advancing technologically and constructing better processing facilities in the nearby cities.

The inherent complexity of Rise of Nations is balanced by its artificial intelligence. For example, unlike the peons or peasants in many other real-time strategies, the worker units in this game are designed to seek out new jobs when they finish a project, looking for resources to collect, repairs to make, or buildings to erect or improve. The player does not need to constantly check worksites, or click an 'idle peasant' button to keep the workforce at work. Other strategic elements may be similarly managed by auto-government, though the player always has the option of delving in for hands-on control of any aspect of play.

The player's faction stakes its claim to history as it establishes its first city, which also sets borders that define the nation's territory. Good civic management encourages stability and growth and as additional cities are founded, the borders expand. When the borders of growing nations begin to squeeze up next to one another, diplomatic negotiation and military might become crucial as well. There is great profit to be made in trade, and a neighboring country may be a useful ally, but the wisest state acts in its own long-term best interests first. Strike the right balance of civic infrastructure, diplomatic influence, and military support. Eventually, the wise ruler will lead the nation to rise through eight eras of development, from sticks and stones to nuclear warheads, enduring, out-negotiating, and overpowering the competition.

Rise of Nations is an evolution of the Age of Empires model of real-time strategy design. It looks a lot like that classic game and in part plays a bit like it, but underneath the hood is an entirely new and deeper real-time strategy experience. It's also a heck of a lot of fun to play.

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Rise of Nations is an enormous game. There are 18 races from the Aztecs to the Turks. Most of the factions are the usual suspects like the Japanese, British, French and so on, but there are a few newcomers such as the Nubians and Bantu -- nearly the entire globe has a representative in the game.


As per most multi-race strategy games, each has strengths and weaknesses that help them standout from one another. For example, the Incas have the 'Power of Gold,' thus their mines produce wealth as well as minerals; they receive a monetary bonus when a unit is destroyed and have an increased wealth commerce limit. Each of the five resources (timber, metal, food, knowledge, wealth and oil) may only be gathered at a specific rate depending on how advanced a race is at that time, and by having an increased wealth commerce cap the Incas rake in money faster than any other race.

Aside from economic differences, each race has unique military units. The Romans, for instance, can recruit Legions, Caesar's Legions and Praetorian Guards, while the Russians bring Rusiny Lancers, Shock Infantry, Red Guard Infantry, Cossacks and T-80 tanks to the party.

As you may have surmised, Rise of Nations pushes the clock from the days of spears and swords to modern times where tanks and missiles rule the battlefield. During the course of a standard game, you race through eight eras from the Ancient Age to the Information Age. With a game so epic in scope, it should come as no surprise that there are oodles of upgrades to go through as the game progresses. It's astounding just how many things there are to research and it allows you to try different strategies as you focus on different paths of advancement.

While this adds an infinite amount of replay value as you tinker with the wide variety of units in the game, it can lead to a few comical instances when nations in different eras duke it out. It's not uncommon for one nation to have musket-firing infantry while another is attacking sea lanes with submarines. Even stranger, it's common to see the same nation using low-tech infantry and high-tech ships or vice versa. It's not a huge issue, but it looks weird all the same. Along these same lines, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that an outdated unit has no chance against modern-day war machines. The wind-powered, cannon-armed man 'o war can damage a modern battleship; musketeers can finish off a damaged tank, etc. There's no question that new technology beats old technology, but units that in real life would have no chance whatsoever can still cause damage in Rise of Nations. It's best to go in thinking that this is just a game and not a lesson in military doctrine and try to resist the notion that a lone Tiger Tank should wipe out 50 Hussars without breaking a sweat.

Rise of Nations isn't a 'huge' game solely because it spans so many eras; it's also loaded to the gills with options and game types. There are so many choices and custom options when setting up a game that even the most jaded real-time fan should find something that interests them. You can setup a myriad of team rules such as full diplomacy, no diplomacy, or play an 'Assassin' game. In this type of game, each player is assigned a target nation; it's a very interesting twist on the normal setup.

Other game rules include a no-rush option to prevent early attacks (you can customize this to a set time or a set Age before combat is allowed), or an all-out peace game where the first person to advance to the Information Age wins and no fighting is allowed whatsoever. With 17 map types, a scenario and script editor, and so many game variations, there is something here for everyone.

One of the shortcomings of the Age of Empires series was that the campaigns were more of an afterthought -- weak story-based scenarios that felt tacked on rather than fully fleshed out. This isn't the case in Rise of Nations. The single-player 'Conquer the World' campaign is an absolute blast. It is most comparable to a game of Risk, only that when an attack is made, instead of rolling dice to see who wins, you fight a real-time battle.

The global map portion of the campaign is turn-based; you buy special cards that provide specific bonuses for a battle, upgrade your territories, move armies across the landscape, and so forth. The battles are not preset like in a game such as Medieval: Total War, so you'll usually gather resources just like a normal game, but there are many scenario types in the campaign such as a barbarian rally, ambushes, standard attacks, defensive scenarios where you have to hold out for a specific amount of time, or scenarios where you must capture a city.

Ages move by more slowly in the campaign than in a standalone game. Each era lasts only a few turns and each battle is locked into specific Age limits -- you won't be swinging a sword as you attack France and flying a fighter jet as you leave.

Every race in the game, all 18 of them, take part in the campaign, and as the turns roll by nations fall to the wayside. This isn't meant to be a history lesson; in one game, France was out by the second turn and Germany withered and died soon after. Still, it's a great mini-game that adds an infinite amount of replay value for the solo gamer. It helps make Rise of Nations a complete game.

Visually, this is 2D gaming at its very best. On the surface it looks a lot like Age of Empires 2, but as you advance through the different Ages the detail in the units is astounding. Cannons have a nice kick-back to them; musketeers position their rifles and plumes of smoke emerge from the barrels; the crews meticulously disassemble trebuchets, and missiles spit fire as they emerge from a silo. It all looks fantastic.

The sound is even more impressive -- each unit has a distinct sound (and thankfully, there are no 'confirm' sounds from the peasants/citizens). When you reach the Age of Gunpowder, the sounds of battle echo throughout the game as cannons blaze away; as you progress further into the game the sound of machinegun and tank fire literally dominates the landscape. It provides very good atmosphere to say the least.

So the game is bloated with features, options and units. But what makes it tick? This is what truly separates Rise of Nations from the everyday real-time game. The folks at Big Huge Games streamlined the design and minimized what isn't fun about these kinds of games and focused primarily on the good stuff -- all the while adding new rules to give it a personality all its own.

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First off, the designers obviously understand that micromanaging peasants is a pain in the neck. The way the game handles resources is ideal; they never vanish from the map so you don't have woodcutters wandering the countryside looking for a tree to chop down. Everything is automated so farmers stay out and manage farms without worry; miners work mountainsides and fishermen work the waterways without the hassle and time-wasting task of finding new places to harvest resources.

There are so many subtle changes to the basic real-time strategy formula that it separates Rise of Nations from the pack. The game is built around national borders; your borders can expand throughout the course of a game, but you can't simply waltz into foreign territory and build a barracks next to the enemy capital and pester your opponent to death. In addition, attrition damage is modeled so that you must attack foreign lands with proper supply. A mad rush of tanks without a supply truck or two isn't the best of ideas. The game requires a bit more planning than that.

A key option is the ability to pause the game and issue orders or survey the map and put items in the build queue. It's a handy feature that attempts to make it easier to manage your empire, but in the end it's still a real-time game and is extremely click-happy; it forces you to use hotkeys -- especially if you take your empire online.

Multiplayer games are fast and furious in Rise of Nations. The default game speed (which is adjustable) is pretty darn fast, so you need to make sure that everyone is on the same page before you jump into a game. But the game is tailored toward multiplayer gaming in the same way that Age of Empires was -- so you can expect a wonderful multiplayer experience once you get the hang of the system and can find a group that agrees upon a game speed setting. Rise of Nations supports 2-8 players using the usual protocols.

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There are few annoyances despite the tight design model. The game states that attacking on the flanks and rear of the enemy causes more damage. This is sound military strategy, but in a game like this the pace gets a little bit too hectic to worry about flanking maneuvers and such. Healing units is also a pain. You can garrison units to heal them, but with the game being as streamlined as it is, the option to have a unit auto-retreat and garrison itself would have lessened the amount of mad clicking needed to heal units and get them out of combat.

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Hiccups aside, Rise of Nations has everything it takes to be a huge success: a historical setting, a big name publisher, an easy-and-effective multiplayer setup, and a highly tweaked version of a classic design model. Classic real-time gaming simply doesn't get much better than this.

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