The RTS genre has been treading water recently. While the most recent games in the genre have undoubtedly raised the bar in terms of visuals, few games are doing much more than what the classics did ten years ago. Rise & Fall: Civilisations at War is Midway's attempt at spicing things up, with the traditional RTS gameplay being paired with some third-person over-the-shoulder combat. It's a combination that would seem to make sense, but with two gameplay styles needing to be nailed, there was far more room for error.
Rise & Fall includes two main campaigns that feature the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians and the Egyptians. These four empires battle it out with the aid of Hero characters. A hero character isn't a new idea, but here there is a difference. The likes of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra can actually be controlled by the player, not just as another unit in an RTS, but like you would control a character in an action game. Each character is hugely more powerful than the standard soldiers, and each has the benefit of special attacks.
Switching from RTS gameplay to the more action-oriented third-person combat is handled very well, with a single button press changing gameplay styles immediately. If the actual combat had been handled as competently, Rise & Fall could have been rather good. Played using the traditional WASD control system, hero sections are incredibly poor, with combat being nothing more than repetitive hacking and slashing, with basic troop control thrown in. Certain levels force you into using the hero mode and at times whether or not you succeed is purely down to luck and how fast you can hammer the mouse buttons.
RTS sections are far more entertaining than the action segments, and they make up the majority of the game, but in relation to what else is available in the genre, it's nothing that hasn't been done before. The usual resource gathering, base building and troop training usually takes place before each mission, and you'll often have periods where you don't do much other than farm for resources. The usual resources of gold and wood are required to build and buy things, and the town buildings let you train civilians to carry out the manual labour.
Glory is the other resource in the game, and it's generally earned for success during battle, but can also be gained by building statues in and around your base. Glory is pretty much used to level up your hero character and to buy new advisors, so if you've got enough primary resources spare, building statues is definitely worthwhile. As you level up, new advisors become available, and when acquired help boost morale, double the value of gold mined, increase soldier training rates and help you out in various other ways. It's a perfectly adequate system, but once again, something that isn't revolutionary in any way.
Promotional material for the game boasted of a naval battle system, and while it's got some neat ideas, naval combat is almost as infuriating as the hero mode. Your boats generally have two main options when attacking enemy vessels: ram or board. Ramming, as you might have guessed, is you simply barging through the enemy boat. However, this is harder than it sounds - the game uses a rather fiddly system that requires you to be perfectly lined up before you initiate the ram with a 'Ram' button. Boarding other boats requires you to grapple onto them, but this is just as fiddly, with a successful grapple not guaranteeing that the two boats will be pulled together for shipmates to engage in battle.
To make matters worse, it's often near impossible to dock on dry land. If you've got numerous boats in your fleet it complicates things further, with the path finding AI seemingly unable to navigate around other boats in anything but huge stretches of open water. When your entire army is onboard a fleet of ships and you spend twenty minutes watching as your boats dance around each other in an attempt to find dry land, it's a truly maddening experience. On occasions when you're then forced to tackle the following section in hero mode, it's as if the game wants you to hate it.
Two campaigns can't be sniffed at, but neither is all that thrilling, which makes the inclusion of skirmish and multiplayer modes something of a life saver. While the basic problems that blight the campaign still remain a barrier to a really enjoyable experience, skirmishes don't force you to enter hero mode and naval battles are optional, leaving the rudimentary, but playable RTS gameplay. The online community isn't exactly a hive of activity at this moment in time, but should you feel like searching for other players you'll have more fun than any of the single-player missions deliver.
As I've already mentioned, the major advances in the RTS genre in recent years have mainly been graphical, so it's a surprise that Rise & Fall's visuals are a little underwhelming. Even with visual settings maxed out you're left with a game that seems at least a year out of date. Unit models are blocky, the frame rate is sluggish even on the best systems, and there are numerous glitches that make the whole thing look a little unpolished. It's by no means ugly, and the naval battles can look very nice, but it's just not up to par with the current leaders in the genre. Audio is nothing spectacular either, but the soundtrack does its best to get across the feeling of the empire you're in control of.
One day someone is going to combine the RTS with another genre and pull it off really well; Rise & Fall isn't that game. The basic RTS elements are sound, but the hero mode verges on awful, boat control is a nightmare, and the campaigns are dull. Online play and skirmishes save its blushes, but when there are so many other games out there that offer a better all-round RTS experience, there's really no reason to bother with Midway's effort. Some praise must be given for trying something a little different, but Rise & Fall is another idea that falls a long way short of its potential.