I have a confession to make. In real life, I'm a nice little pacifist liberal that would never run around annexing other nations. How do I get rid of the urge to take over cities, commit genocide, and thwack resource rich desert countries? Easy, I play computer games like Civilization and Age of Empires. Rise of Nations is the next logical step in this addiction. Developed by Big Huge Games and published by Microsoft, Rise of Nations is a real-time strategy game that roughly combines the nation building of Civilization with the overhead combat of games like Age of Empires.
Big Huge Games touted this game as revolutionary, and even though it doesn't quite live up to the maker's hype, it has a good deal to make it unique and more fun than its brethren. Conveniences were added so players aren't micromanaging their nations so much and can concentrate on nation advancement and enemy combat. Although you'll still have to expand and build improvements, once you build a resource gathering center, whatever resource you're obtaining won't get depleted. For example, to obtain wood build a woodcutter's camp near a forest, build lumbermills and then research technology to extract more wood per citizen. Citizens will make themselves useful automatically by seeking out resources to gather or buildings to repair depending on how you have them configured. Different civilizations will get different advantages (for example, the Romans get a free heavy infantry unit when they build a barracks) and they'll also get special units that take place of the "normal" ones.
Technology and age advancement occur at the library and is paid for with normal resources and knowledge. You can acquire knowledge by building universities and using wealth to populate them with scholars. Aside from age advancement, the four areas you can advance in are military, civics, commerce, and science. Military technology allows you unit upgrades, better fortifications, and increases your population limit. Civic upgrades increase the amount of cities you can have and extends your national borders. Commerce upgrades increase your commerce cap, which is a number that you can't exceed when gathering resources. Science development reduces the cost of getting the other upgrades and opens up certain buildings and resource efficiency upgrades. There are eight ages you can be in, and they span from the ancient age to the information age. Age advancement is mostly useful for allowing new buildings and is the other requirement for being able to upgrade your military units. Unit upgrades occur on the fly and effect the relevant unit immediately, there is no need to convert individual units.
It's vital to build multiple cities and the earlier you build the better off you are. Cities extend your national borders, which dictate where you can build new cities, resource buildings and fortresses and towers. Most buildings have a limit to how many can be built in one city, so in order to acquire things like wealth and knowledge you need to build more cities to accommodate your markets and universities. Cities also create trade routes for caravans, which the game will automatically path for you. Cities also give a small bonus to wood and food production, which is helpful when your farms and camps get sacked.
Unlike most RTS games the defending nation gets the advantage. Towers are relatively inexpensive, fortresses are available, and you can research attrition and militarization upgrades. With attrition, enemy units that enter your borders without a supply wagon will slowly loose hit points, although one can partially counteract this effect by researching supply technologies at the smelter. With appropriate upgrades, you can convert your citizens to military units and back to citizens again on the fly if you get raided. Units can also garrison in a variety of buildings and attack from there. Anyone can garrison inside a city center, tower, or fortress and military units can garrison in the building they were built in. Also, combat is a bit more intensive than what you'd expect. You have a variety of units at your disposal, and you can influence the outcomes of battles by micromanaging your soldiers correctly. For example, you could double click on one anti-tank missile to select all of them, and then set them off to obliterate your opponent's tanks.
The interface is pretty painless and offers helpful tooltip windows for buildings and units. As with every game, there are a few shortcut keys that will make your life significantly easier. Shift+> will select all your military units, '.' will get you a citizen that isn't busy with anything, ';' or ',' will select either a special forces unit or a spy, and you can cycle through buildings that need upgrades by hitting Tab. The game has a 2-D engine to render terrain and buildings and a 3-D engine to render units. Although not stunning, the graphics are good enough to not detract from the game.
Rise of Nations is an overall good game if you like this sort of thing. The new expansion pack, Thrones and Patriots, is scheduled to be released late April 2004.