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Rise of Nations: Thrones and Patriots Review

By Jeff Buckland, 7/29/2004

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Many strategy game buffs consider last year's Rise of Nations to be the best RTS title seen in years. It deftly combines age-spanning gameplay along with elements of Civilization (and even a bit of the classic board game Risk) together, and then tops it off with a ton of options and excellent graphics. It came out of nowhere by rookie developer Big Huge Games - who, admittedly, have been making great RTS games for years at other companies - and now the obligatory expansion pack for their hit game is in our hands.

Like many RTS expansion packs, Thrones and Patriots offers new buildings, units, campaigns, and "races" to play as. But unlike other games, this one integrates almost seamlessly into the original, making the player wonder just why this stuff wasn't in the game the first time around.

The Rise of Nations game engine is back again with basically zero changes, but that's fine when it's one of the best looking strategy games ever made. The frame rates are still great and the visuals are top-notch. The game is played from a decidedly 2D perspective, but the animations of the characters look much more like they were done with some 3D acceleration.

The online component works just as well as ever, with only minimal lag and excellent stability for multiplayer games. You can mix in computer opponents in a bunch of ways, and it all adds up for an extremely solid experience. It's when you forget about the technology altogether that you know it's working best, and Rise of Nations and its expansion pack are a perfect example.

Rise of Nations is a complex game, even in the RTS genre, and players would simply be lost if the game's help and tooltip system was incompetent. Luckily for us, Big Huge Games made sure that every unit, building, and game event is well-documented right in the game. This continues with the expansion pack, as all of the new nations, units, and other tidbits include complete briefings on how they work.

The 2D-styled world interface has gotten a kick in the pants for this expansion, as the game includes four new campaigns that have you doing more than the repetitive RTS pieces we saw in the original game's Conquer the World mode. None of it is really revolutionary or jaw-dropping, but it's easy enough to figure out and get going with.

Rise of Nations sports some of the best visuals in the strategy genre, and the new graphics added with Thrones and Patriots fit right in. The new generals, elephant units, Native American designs, and seasonal settings all look clean and are animated with the same style as the original game. It's slipped in so perfectly that you might even mistake new content for old, or old for new.

The board-game-like 2D interface seen in the Conquer the World campaigns is a bit ugly, but it does get the job done. I'd have liked to see a bit more detail here, but I feel like I'm grasping at straws in looking for things not to like about this expansion pack.

The new content that Big Huge Games has added in this expansion pack subtly adjusts how the game is played, and it works very well. Even in multiplayer games, players who take full advantage of the government system and new generals can win where they otherwise might have lost. At the same time, the new elements aren't overpowering or frustrating to deal with from the other side.

Six new nations have been added to the original's eighteen: The Americans, Indians, Persians, Dutch, Lakota, and Iriquois. Most of these nations become important parts of the new Conquer the World campaigns, although the Americans are treated the best in the excellent Cold War campaign.

The game's press materials boast about twenty new units being added to the game, but quite a few them are very slightly different versions of classic units. They have a minor effect on gameplay and visuals, but it's just not enough to really stand out. There are a few new Wonders you can build, which add their own unique bonuses to your nation. None of them are earth-shattering, but they do add at least a small new element to the game's strategy.

The addition of a government is a large part of this expansion pack, where you can pick from either military- or commerce-oriented tracks. There are three governments, and each one includes upgrades that provide additional benefits with no extra penalties. This can allow you to, in a way, pick an area where you want to micromanage even less. This doesn't affect the game nearly as much as governments do in, say, the Civilization games, but it again makes some subtle changes that players can use to tweak their nation's production.

Multiplayer games are a blast in Rise of Nations, as they include a sublime balance of complexity with a shallow learning curve so as to not make the game unapproachable. In fact, this game can easily be played even on a lunch break - fool with the settings, and you can finish up a game in twenty minutes even after going through almost every age and upgrade you can get. We've seen some RTS expansion packs that try to change too much, killing the original game's balance or crippling some key features and gameplay mechanics, but you won't have to worry about that here.

The four campaigns will take you throughout some of the world's most famous military conquests: Alexander the Great, conquering the New World, Napoleon's reign, and the Cold War. Each of these campaigns locks you into a certain time period, so age-oriented upgrades are minimal. These missions are spiced up, though, by the "bonus cards" you can play, strategic elements you can choose in the world map, and more story-oriented goals that might pop up in the middle of a game. Should you wipe out the last of a civilization to shut them up forever, or leave them? Will they come back later to help you, or will they pop up a surprise attack at an inopportune moment in your campaign?

The only real gripe I can summon against Thrones & Patriots is that the many subtle additions to the game are just too low-key; aside from the four new campaigns, the actual RTS gameplay feels so similar to the original game that you'll wonder if you've got the expansion pack actually installed. It won't take more than a game or two to understand just how this expansion changes the original game, but that out-of-the-box experience just feels underwhelming. Stick with it, though, and it expands an already great game to even further levels of excellence.

Rise of Nations: Thrones and Patriots does include some new sound effects, most of which blend smoothly into the game. In the many miniature historical lessons that it offers, you'll also hear some appropriately sober voice acting that narrates out mission briefings and the like. It's the music, though, that I enjoyed the most.

Many game expansion packs really skimp on the music, sometimes even adding nothing new at all in this area. I found T&P's music to actually be better than the original game's - and that's a nice surprise. It's all a bunch of high-brow classical stuff, but it certainly fits with the rest of the game's mood.

Rise of Nations: Thrones & Patriots blends so perfectly with the original game that it's hard to tell that you're even playing it. It's not until you have played for hours that you even notice the many subtle changes to the game it makes - in this case, it's actually a good thing. I'm happy to say that this expansion pack elevates a challenging, engaging strategy game to a near-perfect level.

Overall: 92%



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