Every once and a while a game comes out that brings a tear to a gamer’s eyes. It may not be totally revolutionary but it perfects the modern concepts of the genre. For strategy fans around the world, your game has arrived.In Rise of Nations players can choose to be any one of eighteen nations. The types of nations are widely varied and depending on your preference you can choose to play as the Aztec, the Romans, the Nubian, or even the Koreans to name a few. Each race has its own unique abilities and units. For example Egypt has food production bonuses which give it a free granary in the beginning and all granary upgrades are in fact free. England has powerful ranged infantry like the king’s longbow men and the black watch and can create anti-aircraft units faster and cheaper than other nations. The differences between each side are significant and add immense replay ability to the game by making each nation a totally different experience.For players intimidated by the plethora of features, do not fret. Rise of Nations comes complete with a six mission tutorial that helps ease you into the game. These tutorials will teach you the basics such as moving units around and attacking enemies. Once comfortable with your skills you can move on to more advanced features like upgrading buildings, gathering multiple types of resources, and advanced combat tactics like fortification. Once players are comfortable enough to fight the AI on their own they can delve into the single player campaign, opt for an instant action match, or even load one of the game’s built-in scenarios.The single player campaign is conducted through the ‘Conquer the World’ mode where, you guessed it; you have to take over the planet. This campaign mode has players start off in the home country of whatever race they choose. In this turn-based mode players can choose to invade adjacent lands by moving their army accordingly. On the global map they can declare wars, barter peace deals, or even make alliances with other nations. Once alliances are formed your computer ally will join you in any battles that are adjacent to its territory. Players also have the option of buying land from other nations. This feature makes for a nice change of pace when players just want to take a breather for a turn or two.Declaring war, gaining peace, allying, and buying land all require the game’s monetary currency of tribute. Tribute can be acquired by conquering lands that bear a tribute insignia, keeping your armies stationary for one turn, or as plunder for conquering an enemy’s capital. In addition to tribute there are a number of different other items which can be captured in territories. Areas with supply centers give commanders an extra army on the global map. Rare resources in a land give players bonuses like extra types of primary resources and reductions in research costs. Cards are acquired which can be used in battle also. The powers of these cards are extremely diverse. With the cards you can borrow other nation’s unique powers, cancel the unique powers of the army you are invading, and even receive extra resources to start off with. The only significant factor that limits gameplay is determined by which age it is.Rise of Nations features eight different ages: ancient, classical, medieval, gunpowder, enlightenment, industrial, modern, and information. Existing buildings automatically change their appearance depending on which age it is. In fact the only units that need to be updated manually are those of the military. Upon reaching an age, certain buildings like granaries, lumber mills, and airfields can be constructed and used. That being said, some of the buildings require certain levels of military, civics, commerce, or science; all of which can be researched at the library. These four main research groups are upgraded through the game’s complex resource gathering system. Food, lumber, metal, oil, wealth, and knowledge are the game’s six main resources. The gathering itself is straightforward and simple. Simpler buildings like the woodcutters and the mines simply need to be built and citizens will start harvesting. If any of your citizens are lying around doing nothing they will automatically go to the nearest resource gathering facility that has available room for workers. Universities can be built and scholars can be trained to increase knowledge output. Wealth is acquired by caravans that travel between your cities. Oil is the most simplistic and while it doesn’t appear until the industrial age, needs only an oil well constructed to be harvested. In addition to research at the library, resources are also used to fund the myriad of upgrades available in the game. Upgrades can be found typically in any building and will increase resource output, reduce the cost of upgrades themselves, make buildings and units cheaper, even upgrade military units to more advanced fighters.The gameplay of Rise of Nations offers a little something for everyone. Both single player and multi player feature several game modes. There is the basic death match which boils down to a fight to the death between any number of players on the map. No Rush restricts players from attacking until the gunpowder age; this is good for players who like to gradually ease into combat. There are even game modes which restrict military activity all together. Players will find themselves ‘fighting’ over who advances to the information age the quickest. These alternative modes are a welcome change to the “kill, destroy, maim, obliterate” type of gameplay in most real time strategy games.If this game is anything it’s insanely hard. Players will want to stick with the easier difficulty settings until they are more comfortable with everything. The AI can be savagely quick and brutal. Even on the moderate difficulty setting I was having trouble keeping up with the computers pace of evolution. My ego was heavily bruised as I, a hardened strategy veteran, was soundly defeated by several ‘hard’ computer opponents. With that said however I would like to accuse the computer of not playing fair. Attacking my spear chucking legions with machine gunners is not a fair fight at all. I thought I had a chance when I researched the gunpowder age but it appears that muskets don’t do as well against panzer tanks as I thought they would. Even if you do manage to keep pace with the AI on the technology front expect a smart opponent on the battlefield. It will often flank and attack your units from the rear. My artillery units, which were kept well behind the front line, were often taken out by small squads of enemy units that managed to sneak around my fortifications. It is a satisfying experience though to defeat the computer when you’re against all odds.Visually, Rise of Nations is drop-dead gorgeous. The amount of detail given to the units and structures brings a tear to my eye. The animations for catapults and trebuchets are wonderful and great to watch. You can see armed horsemen bring up their arm and fire their pistol. The animation is complete with a small flash and puff of smoke. Machine gunners will laboriously pack and unpack their giant gun accordingly. Infantry can be blown across the map and burnt alive depending on which unit is responsible for its untimely demise. Even with its spectacular and rich graphics the Rise of Nations engine is solid. It held together and a shutter in the speed of the game was never really experienced. Even in large military battles the frame rate remained constant. This held true for multiplayer battles as well.Rise of Nations features an excellent score of various orchestral tracks. They do a great job of setting the mood and they give your small cities some personality. One of the first things I noticed was the uniqueness of each unit. When spearmen and cavalry charge into battle you can hear their weapons contacting one another. The roar of the cannon as it fires is enough to wake up anyone in the house with the bass turned up enough. Overall the sounds are just a completely satisfying part of the game.There are several types of multiplayer available. Players can battle over a LAN, direct connect to each other, connect via Gamespy Arcade, and Rise of Nations also powers its own in-game matchmaking service powered by Gamespy as well. It’s fairly easy to set up and create games. Players can also look for games according to different options like the map, type of game, amount of players, etc&h**ip; The in-game interface is nice and provides a user-friendly environment for users to quickly find their friends to set up matches. Players will find the same options available in multiplayer as in single player skirmish. No Rush, Technology Race, and Death Match, are just a few of the types included and they help to make multiplayer a diverse affair.All in all there isn’t a lot to complain about with Rise of Nations. The military battles themselves, even on easy modes, tended to be very rigorous and demanding. One might say they were almost too fast. Players that aren’t RTS regulars may have a hard time adjusting at first to this type of play. There is a fairly steep learning curve for new people to the genre.Rise of Nations does have some minor stability issues but nothing that causes too much trouble. The worst that happened to me was three occasions when the game froze my computer completely. Twice during a mission loading and once while trying to connect to the game’s multiplayer interface. These flaws aren’t enough though to scare away consumers. The recommended retail price of $54.99 is well worth it for this title.Rise of Nations offers a lot on the table in terms of gameplay. Whether you are a strategy buff or a casual gamer this title is a must have for your collection. The single player will give you near limitless replay ability and challenge your skills while the multiplayer offers an excellent chance to play on the world stage. Big Huge Games hit the RTS bull’s-eye on this one.