Rise & Fall: Civilizations At War is the final game from Stainless Steel Studios, and was moved mid-stream to a Midway internal studio.  It’s also an RTS with a twist, as you’re given the ability to directly control the leader of your civilization in Hero Mode, turning the game from an RTS into a 3rd-person action game.


The question is, will the change be enough to distinguish it from the other great RTS’s of the past year or two, namely Battle For Middle Earth 2 and Dawn of War?  Or will it be just another also-ran?


For the uninformed, this game is being reviewed on a low to mid-range machine with the following specs:  Athlon XP 2400+ Processor, 1 gig of ram and a Radeon 9800 video card with 128 MB of ram.  The game was set to run at 1024×768 on medium settings with AA and AF turned off.

While R&F:CAW mixes two genres together in this title, the graphics are likewise split into two stories.  The first one is relatively good, as the detail on the buildings and people are very nice, especially from afar.  Zoomed in, it’s not so pretty, although it’s still relatively decent. 


Outside of that, though, the graphics look dated and rather drab and dull.  There’s no pop, nothing that really grabs the eye.  In fact, without zooming in, it’s hard to select one particular unit to attack at times, and while zoomed in, it’s hard to control the massive action.  It’s hard to get a good feel for things. 


Also, the camera is really annoying in the way that it swoops in, which really hurts the action as well.  On my machine, which admittedly is closer to the minimum specs than anything, the game barely ran at 20 FPS in normal mode, while Hero Mode dropped it down closer to 10.  This really isn’t playable on lower-end machines.  Even after a defrag, it really didn’t get much better.

One of the few bright spots in R&F:CAW is the music.  Everything has an orchestral feel to it, almost like you’re watching on of those historical epics on television.  The music is grand and sweeping, and really does a good job of making you feel like you’re actually part of things.  Rednote Audio really did a fine job on the score.


Voice acting is pretty decent, with the voices showing emotion and not repeating too much, other than the individual units, of course.  There’s no horrible over-acting, and it’s nice to see voice acting treated professionally in a game, even without using major voice talent.

Like nearly everything else in R&F:CAW, the controls are a mixed bag.  Most of the controls are pretty much as you’d expect in any RTS.  Left clicking or drag-clicking will select one or a number of units, while right-clicking will send them where you want to.  Once they’re there, you can also select their facing by right drag-clicking upon the troops in question to turn them.  You can use ctrl-number to set up group hotkeys which can be selected later, and all of the various troops and buildings can be selected with keyboard shortcuts as well.


In Hero Mode, things change a bit.  Your arrow keys or WASD control movement, the left and right mouse buttons are your two attacks while the middle mouse button or spacebar blocks with the shield.  Every hero has a bow which can be equipped with the 2 button on the keyboard, and while using that weapon, the left mouse button fires arrows while the right button zooms in up to two times, depending on your hero. 


There are numerous problems with the controls.  The first is that, unlike most RTS games, when you select a block of units, you can also select your slaves in the process, which can be highly frustrating, as you realize that you’ve taken your gold-mining slaves away from the mines and sent them off to be impaled on arrows. 


Next, the scale is so grand that it’s really hard to select just one unit.  Granted, the game is designed around formations, and selecting a formation is done by picking any one unit in it.  Still, when you’re trying to target one particular enemy unit, such as a standard bearer, it can be quite difficult without zooming in.  The camera doesn’t help much here.  Instead of starting overhead and zooming straight down, it starts out overhead at about a 3/4 angle and then zooms down before swooping in horizontal to the ground.  This can be very frustrating if you’re wanting to look at the ground, and not the horizon. 


The other major issue that I ran into is that when switching between normal mode and Hero mode, my mouse vanished.  This was quite frustrating in the tutorial, when it’d pause the game on going into Hero Mode.  Without a mouse, I was unable to continue without alt-tabbing out of the game and then back in, and waiting nearly a minute for the mouse to return.  Now, reports are that this was caused by the 1.11 patch, and Midway released the 1.12 patch after I finished playing the game for the review, so it was not tested.

R&F:CAW offers both single and multiplayer play.  Single player mode contains both a skirmish mode against the computer, the ability to play a number of scenarios, a tutorial mode teaching you the basics of the game, and two different Campaign modes, which can be played in any order.


The campaign modes feature Alexander the Great on one hand and Cleopatra on the other.  The Alexander campaign picks up from the fall of the Macedonian capital, Pallas, leading Alexander into an invasion of Asia Minor and a war against the Persians.  Cleopatra’s campaign concentrates on fighting off a Roman invasion with Marc Antony on your side.  Each campaign is sizeable, with numerous missions broken into acts and chapters, giving the game a solid 20+ hour gameplay, not counting multiplayer.


Multiplayer mode gives you the ability to either play over the Internet, powered by Gamespy, or play on a LAN with up to eight players vying against each other.  You have a solid number of options on setting up a game, including the ability to give everyone enough resources to immediately start building and creating their armies.  Also, there’s an Optimatch mode where you can be matched against someone ranked near you.  Each player begins with 1000 points in ranking, and it will automatically match you with someone within 200 points of your score. 


While most multiplayer games are to the extermination of all but one player, there’s also Outpost Mode, where the winner is determined by territory controlled, as opposed to wiping out all the other players.  It’s an interesting addition to the multiplayer mode.


Unfortunately, the game definitely feels incomplete.  First off, the loading times are atrocious, even if it had been a console game, with loading times stretching nearly to two minutes at times.  Saving wasn’t much better, as the autosave would freeze the game for ten to fifteen seconds while the save was in progress. 


The game also chugs.  Again, my machine is rather low-end, but hitting only 20 FPS at 1024×768 and medium quality settings which drop to 10 while in Hero Mode make for a game that’s unplayable most of the time.  Reports around the net speak of mid to higher end machines only getting a little bit better framerates.  The game really just chugs along, and it’s more frustrating to play than any fun. 


The difficulty of some of the levels is insane, with some levels having goals in Hero Mode that are nearly impossible, such as trying to kill 100 enemies in a period of time, while both you and the enemies are on ships going in opposite directions.


Speaking of ships, one of the brightest spots of this game is the naval combat.  Unlike many games, instead of the ships being small icons on the screen, they’re actually to scale.  This means that ships can be used militarily as they would actually be used.  You can throw a grapple from your ship to another, send your men to board the other ship and even take it over.  You can use your ship as a moving barracks, transporting men to combat, docking the boat, and letting the men stream out.  Also, the bigger the ship, the more men you can pile on.  It really gives the ships some versatility, and if this was primarily a naval game, it would probably have fared much better.

While I liked the concept for this game, the implementation really killed it for me.  From the first notice of Starforce in the game through the loss of mouse control, the 1-2 minute loading times, the chugging of the game as it tried to run on my system…there really wasn’t much to recommend it.


The game does offer solid multiplayer, with four civilizations to play with, and there could be some value in that.  Unfortunately, it’s really not anything that other RTS’s have done before, with the exception of Hero Mode.  At $50, however, this game really isn’t worth the time, and with Starforce added, it’s another strike against a game that really wasn’t that good to begin with.


NOTE:  As stated above, this game does include Starforce.  It installs hardware drivers on your system and requires a reboot in order to play.  Also, after installing the 1.11 patch, it reinstalled Starforce a second time, and required a second reboot.  On the reboot, it wouldn’t recognize the game disc until I ejected it and re-inserted it.  This seems pretty par for the course for Starforce, and no other major issues have been noticed at this time.  This game gets 10% off the top, which is reflected in the Value score, lowering the game from a 67% to 57%.

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