Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War Demo - First Thoughts
I arrived home today a proud owner of the Rise and Fall demo, which came with the latest edition of the UK's PC Gamer magazine. No, I haven't yet got over the excitement, but I have managed to play the demo a few times, and I'm sure you're all eager to know the details. Luckily enough, I'm eager to share them!
What can you do?
There are two different games you can play in the demo. First off is the demo scenario, which is an actual scenario with a story, cut-scenes, the lot. You play as Cleopatra commanding Egyptian forces against a Roman outpost. You can also choose a skirmish, which lets you play a small battle on a map called 'Corridor of Blood' - again you play as Cleopatra's Egypt.
The demo scenario is intended as an introduction to the game. It explains and displays most of Rise and Fall's defining features, and lets you experience them hands on. First and foremost, however, it is tremendous fun! You control the Egyptians and are facing the Romans, as explained by the small intro video. The very first thing you have to do is enter hero mode and charge a group of Roman soldiers! Yes, hero mode is just as fun as it looks in the screenshots. You move fluidly in and out of hero mode by pressing 'Q', and Cleopatra is easy to control (using W,A,S and D to move and the mouse to attack). You start off with lots of stamina, so can stay in hero mode for quite a while unless you sustain serious damage (in fact, much of the demo scenario is spent in hero mode). You can also give your units simple commands like 'charge', 'retreat', etc. whilst in hero mode, meaning that the rest of your army is not forgotten in that time.
I was quite impressed by the balance of hero mode. Yes, you overpower individual units and can take out many, but you can't just march into a whole army alone - your stamina decreases repidly if you become outnumbered and cornered. In the demo scenario you are given a large amount of stamina, and Cleopatra is already at level 5, so you should survive the opening battle easily unless you try to do it alone for some reason.
After this, you are asked to demonstrate your swimming ability by swimming to a Roman dock and stealing a boat. It is at this point you are introduced to 'holy wine', which your hero can obtain by smashing glowing jars. Holy wine refills Cleopatra's stamini if it is low, and she can store it for later if she does not need it right away. There are several holy wine jars around the demo level, which basically allow Cleopatra to remain in hero mode all the time.
Following the mini-map icons, you reach a Roman settlement with an empty Bireme by its shore. The Bireme is easy to steal, as it becomes yours as soon as Cleopatra steps onboard. Unlike other RTS games, Rise and Fall allows your units to move around freely onboard boats, as if it was part of the terrain. This makes them incredibly flexible, as you can (for example), load a boat with archers and attack an enemy from the relative safety of the sea. You must then go and retrieve your original army, as well as the citizens that become available to you at that point. You will see that you can fit a surprising amount of units on your boat.
Once you have your units, you ship them to a new piece of land to begin the 'RTS' part of the scenario. Basic citizen functions are explained to you, and you construct some basic buildings such as your Altar and Barracks. Here you are set your final goal; to capture the Roman port city of Damietta by destroying the Garrison General and his men.
The city of Damietta is well fortified, so it takes a considerable force to stand a chance. Ladder teams become particularly useful as they allow you easy entry to the city (and more importantly it looks very cool to send swarms of units up a ladder and onto the walls of the city). If you have enough soldiers, claiming the city shouldn't be too big a challenge, especially if you use hero mode. My initial tactic was to keep Cleopatra on the walls and pick off large groups of units using her triple-bow weapon. Whatever you do, it is awesome to use hero mode at this point; you really get a sense of the scale of the game, as the walls are realistically high, and there are enough Roman troops to get totally immersed in battle. Before you can win, you must kill the 'Garrison General', who is the Roman army's hero (he is just a renamed Germanicus Caesar). He is actually surprisingly weak, and I managed to kill him easily in hand-to-hand combat with Cleopatra and a few swordsmen.
Overall it's a decent introductory scenario. I've played it twice now, and although it was fun I think I'll stick to skirmishing now as it takes some time to get to the end battle, which is definitely the highlight. However, it is a good primer to the game's basic features, and does demonstrate Rise and Fall well by allowing you to jump right into hero mode.
Corridor of Blood
Corridor of Blood is the name of the single skirmish map available to play. You must also play as Egypt, against Egypt. In this map you really get a feel for what the gameplay in the full game will be like; you must start from scratch, work your way through the levels and build an army as you go.
In the early game, you start with a Town Centre and a handful of slaves, very similar to the typical setup of RTS games such as Age of Empires and Empire Earth. You start with a fairly large stockpile of resources, however, so the first level or so moves much more quickly than in these older games. The focus seems to be on creating buildings and trying to gain glory at first. Glory is obtained by building Glory Statues, and allows you to accumulate advisors but more importantly to upgrade your hero. Hero upgrades seem to be near to an equivalent of 'ages' in other RTS games. There isn't much resource management, which in my opinion is a good thing as it allows the game to progress quickly without too much micro-management at the beginning. Since there are only two basic resources to gather, there is less to worry about. Most of the slaves should gather wood at the start, as wood is predominantly used for buildings whereas gold is used to train units.
As you advance in levels, one thing about Rise and Fall's gameplay becomes fairly clear: the game is intended to be streamlined. Many 'epic' RTS games feature a wealth of different units and options, to the point that the player becomes overwhelmed. There are often too many things to consider, too many things to manage, which can make a game seem cluttered and distract from the strategy.
Rise and Fall's developers have obviously tried to do away with the clutter. Rather than expanding aimlessly, the game revolves around a few core tenets for the duration of the game, and in my opinion this is heaven sent. You rise through the levels, upgrade your armies and expand your territory. You'll notice that there isn't a massive range of units to choose from; instead you rely on a basic group of unit classes (infantry, archers, cavalry, etc.) which counter each other in a "rock paper scissors" fashion. More units become available as you advance, but it is these core soldiers that will constitute the majority of your forces. This means that battles become strategic without being overbearing.
Even on first impression, Rise and Fall's gameplay seems to be just right. The game's principles are very easy to pick up and allow much fun to be had immediately, but I get the impression that the game will be hard to master. There are enough new and interesting features to keep things captivating, which will hopefully mean that once the game is released, players will have a chance to be creative and come up with some awesome strategies.
Even before the gameplay, though, the game's appearance really strikes an impression. I have simply never seen an RTS game with the level of graphical detail that Rise and Fall has. You've all seen the screenshots; you know that the graphics are good. However, what I didn't realise until I played the game was the fantastic sense of scale the game gives off. Because you are constantly switching from 'god' view to hero mode, things seem epic and personal at the same time. With other RTS games, it becomes easy to detatch yourself from the battlefield - you create units, put them in formations and send them into battle, but things become a bit formulaic. With hero mode, you can command those units and experience the battle yourself, and it is an incredible feeling.
Obviously, in a game like Rise and Fall where the camera is changing perspective drastically and constantly, it would be very easy for a lack of detail to ruin the experience. Luckily, it really seems like SSSI went all out on the graphics, and as a result both aspects of the game are groundbreakingly realistic. In fact, just writing about it is making me want to play the demo again. You need to see this for yourself!
More importantly, it all works smoothly. You don't need to wait for the game to kickstart itself when going into hero mode; you simply press 'Q' and you are there in an instant. The graphics also don't take anything away from the simplicity of the controls. In some RTS games (anybody remember Star Wars Force Commander?), 3D graphics and special effects resulted in clunky camera controls and slow click reactions. Not so with Rise and Fall - apart from a few jerky moments when there were hundreds of units on screen (which is probably due to my less than brilliant computer), it all remained slick and smooth.
As you can see, I very much enjoyed the Rise and Fall demo. Despite my seemingly relentless praise, I did play the demo with quite a critical eye, looking out for pitfalls in a few of the more adventurous parts of the game. I didn't really find much wrong - the developers obviously got most things covered. There were a few very minor annoyances, but these didn't really take anything away from the gameplay. For example, selecting units whilst zoomed right out was tricky in a few situations, especially trees, which seem to need to be clicked right at the top, and boats, which were hard to select when they were filled with troops. For the most part, though, this wasn't an issue at all.
Considering how detailed the game's graphics are, Rise and Fall ran remarkably smoothly most of the time. However, as I entered larger battles with more and more units, I did notice the framerate drop. In one particular situation I was all ready to enter hero mode, but the game started lagging so I didn't, and I lost my chance. Dropping the graphic detail levels didn't completely solve this problem.
Overall, the demo is good enough to suggest that we are looking at a truly fine game. Any doubts about the game stemming from SSSI's demise should disappear after this demo is fully available, and hopefully the demo will raise the hype about the full version of Rise and Fall even further. Bring on June 12th!
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