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Rising Above the Rest

Game On


Published July 12, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

Maybe I should learn a foreign language. At the very least, mastering "Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends" feels like a full-on Berlitz course in game grammar and narrative vocabulary.

In an admirable effort to keep innovation alive within a staid and popular genre, "ROL" works to advance the classic real-time strategy-game model made popular by titles such as "Warcraft" and "Age of Empires" with an imaginative reinvention of the formula.

The original "Rise of Nations" game floated to the top of the stack by making nation-building fun and focusing on the details. To the casual bystander, "Rise of Nations" and "Age of Empires" were bookend games with little to distinguish them. But for fans of this frenetic and colorful war making, "RON" rose on myriad little touches. From the improved 3-D graphics to the way that players bossed around serfs on the screen, "RON" was the connoisseur's real-time strategy title.

"Rise of Legends" replaces the national forces of places such as Britain, Egypt and Korea with the warring states of Vinci, Alin and Cuotl, and the world of Aio. Each of these imaginary factions exists to contain individual groups squabbling for control and power. Vinci armies run on steam and clockwork, mechanical soldiers. The Alin use magic and nature as their weapons, while Cuotl thrives on mystery and spirit.

Starting a game of "Legends" means coming to terms with the complex internal politics of bickering states that makes Middle Eastern diplomacy seem simple by comparison. Add in the military puzzling over whether a Clockwork Man would do more damage against a Death Snake, or whether it would be better just to send in a Pirata Flier, and you have a dizzying socio-political potboiler. The player must simply commit several hours to the game before the plotlines and narrative flow start to pull the pieces into some sort of order.

In this way, playing "Rise of Legends" is a lot like learning French.

What starts out as something that seems fun to do quickly turns into a confusion of new skills and structures to master and, eventually, it starts to make some satisfying sense.

The reward for sticking with the game is a chance to play out well-worn approaches in a new place. Commanding an army of magic against hordes of mechanical atrocities provides a satisfying backstory to justify all the point-and-click carnage at your command. In single-player mode, following the baroque soap-opera story line of who killed whom, who deserves revenge and why this person just might be in love with that one helps make the levels of combat seem worthwhile.

Underneath, "Legends" might not be that different from the scads of other real-time strategy games. But in its effort to translate the form into something new, it speaks with an exotic and pleasing new accent.

Who's It For: Like chess with more color and better special effects, the real-time strategy-game genre attracts players who like a mix of thoughtful maneuvering with quick decision making. "Rise of Legends" spices the mix with a world where magic goes to war against technology.

If You Like This, Try That: The original "Rise of Nations" still delivers plenty of strategizing fun, while "Age of Mythology" lets players battle it out with the help of mythic gods, demi-gods and heroes.

Best Part: Genies fighting robots. What more could you ask?


Also New This Week

"Chromehounds"; X360; SEGA.

"Prey"; X360, PC; 2K Games.

"Def Jam Fight for NY: The Takeover"; PSP; Electronic Arts.

"Painkiller: Hell Wars"; Xbox; DreamCatcher Interactive.

"FlatOut 2"; Xbox; Vivendi Games and Empire Interactive.

"Freedom Wings"; DS; Natsume.

"Battle B-Daman"; GBA; Takara.

"Nancy Drew: Danger by Design"; PC; Her Interactive.

"Payout Poker and Casino"; PSP; Namco.

"Magic Match"; PC; United Developers.

-- Source: Gamermetrics.com

Top Selling PC Games This Week

1. "Cars Radiator Springs Adventures," THQ.

2. "Half-Life 2: Episode 1," Electronic Arts.

3. "World of Warcraft," Vivendi.

4. "The Sims 2," Electronic Arts.

5. "The Sims 2: Family Fun Stuff Expansion Pack," Electronic Arts.

6. "The Sims 2: Open for Business Expansion Pack," Electronic Arts.

7. "Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion," 2K Games (Take 2).

8. "Heroes of Might and Magic V," Ubisoft.

9. "Guild Wars Factions," NCsoft.

10. "MS Age of Empires III," Microsoft.

-- Source: NPD Group