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'Nations' offers 2 types of game play

Marc Saltzman
Gannett News Service

Taking over the world is the goal in
Taking over the world is the goal in "Rise of Nations."

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Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Marc Saltzman, a freelance technology journalist whose reviews also appear on the Gannett News Service.

An ongoing debate rages among strategy game enthusiasts about what kind of game play is better: "real-time" or "turn-based."

Like its name suggests, turn-based games, such as chess or the classic PC game "Civilization," allow players to take turns with opponents (human or computer-controlled) to make tactical decisions while the game is paused. On the other hand, real-time strategy games, such as the popular "Command & Conquer" or "Warcraft" series, force players to make on-the-spot decisions about many different events happening at the same time.

"Rise of Nations" from Microsoft Game Studios successfully combines the best elements from both gaming styles - so well in fact that it's easily the finest strategy game of the year to date.

Taking over the world is the goal of the game. Players achieve this by waging war, employing diplomacy, engaging in commerce or by taking over two-thirds of the game map.

Players take control over one of 18 civilizations, such as the Aztecs, Chinese, British, Mongols or Spanish, each with its own unique attributes. For example, the Greeks can gather knowledge quicker than competitors because libraries and universities are cheaper to construct, while the Turks' artillery and siege units enjoy a greater range and the siege unit upgrades are free.

While the game play begins roughly 6,000 years in the past, the objective is to advance a civilization through eight epochs to present times. Naturally, the world changes over time so players must employ different technologies, weapons and trade strategies as they move through the Medieval Age to the Gunpowder Age to the Information Age and beyond.

Yep, you can control longbowmen and jet aircraft in the same game.

At first, game play in "Rise of Nations" resembles real-time strategy games such as the best-selling "Age of Empires" series, where civilians must build farms to feed growing armies and merchants and collect natural resources by chopping lumber, for example, to fuel building construction. Then it's time to explore the map, create more buildings and units and research new technologies. Eventually, water and air travel can be used for war or trade.

Turn-based traditions

But Brian Reynolds, the creator of "Rise of Nations," has added a few turn-based strategy mainstays. That's not surprising because his background includes designing turn-based strategy games such as "Civilization 2" and "Alpha Centauri." The additions include options to:

• Pause the action to assign orders.

• Build "Wonders" that grant special powers to a nation.

• Emphasize libraries for research and advancement.

• Build multiple cities to expand a civilization's national boundaries.

• Look at a world map to decide what country to attack next, similar to the board game Risk.

Tutorial included

If all of the game-play options sound overwhelming, "Rise of Nations" includes a comprehensive tutorial so newbies can learn all the title's mechanics.

As a clever twist, the game also has an optional one-hour mode so it's possible to conquer the world on your lunch break. This is smart because not all gamers want to invest a couple of months to finish a game. "Rise of Nations" also has a multiplayer option for up to eight players to compete head-to-head over the Internet or on a local area network .

"Rise of Nations" is worth $50 for its deep-but-accessible game play and clever fusion of real-time and turn-based strategy game elements.

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