Arthur C. Clarke once said: "Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic." Had he been in the land of Aio, the setting for Rise of Legends where magic and technology clash in an epic battle, then he may have thought differently.
Following in the wake of Rise of Nations, a game that saw many of the best strategic elements of Civilization injected into a real-time strategy game, is Rise of Legends. Warfare - of the kind that was waged by nations in the original - is stepped up a notch and is set in a truly magical and artistically brilliant world.
There are three different teams at your disposal: the futuristic Renaissance Vinci, the Persian-styled Alim and the requisite alien race, the Cuotl. Each team has its strengths and weaknesses that seem to be fairly well balanced, however the radical differences of the Cuotl and their resource dependency means that it takes a while to get a grasp of how to play them and harness their potentially greater power.
Apart from the strategic use of borders in Rise of Nations, Rise of Legends uses heroes to boost your army. Each hero has three different powers, each with three different upgrade levels. This adds a new element of micro-management to skirmishes, providing a stark contrast to the macro-management of the cities you must build to support your armies. The city model totally changes gameplay from the traditional Red Alert-styled "destroy a base or army" victory conditions. On top of that, the cities end up being absolutely enormous and breathtaking. They will surely leave you longing for a 30in monitor to capture them in their entirety. A screenshot is available here.
The multiplayer aspect of Rise of Legends has been enhanced by using a version of Xbox Live's True Skill rating system so that the big bad bullies online won't hurt you too much. Connection to servers and friends has been improved by giving a decent overhaul to the multiplayer interface, and integrating a fully featured community browser with buddy listings and more publicly viewable statistics than you can poke a stick at. And we all know that more statistics means longer game life. Rewards such as unlockable avatars are also available in the multiplayer section.
There are still a few bugs in the version I played, but it's a great step graphically and artistically. The gameplay is on a par with Civilization IV and Age of Empires III. The biggest concern I have is that it is incredibly demanding on you computer, so have a long hard look at the system requirements.
Visuals: The 3D models are finely detailed, and the environments are extremely immersive and stylised.
Audio: Nothing groundbreaking, but complements the game well.
Gameplay: It seems a little slower than Rise of Nations, but it is well balanced with plenty of strategic options.
Score: 4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Developer: Big Huge Games
Distributor: Microsoft Australia