Jonathan Fingas On August 27, 2006 at 2:07 pm

Hybrid games tend to fall into one of two categories: either they blaze a new path for gaming concepts, or else they become painful exercises in compromise where trying to do everything makes them a master of none. That places Midway’s recent game Rise & Fall in a precarious position. Whether through sincere affection for both action and real-time strategy or a cynical attempt to attract as many sales as possible, the developers have tried to split their game very evenly between the two genres. The potential benefits are tremendous – but so are the pitfalls.

At its heart, Rise & Fall is a pseudo-historical real-time strategy game with a heavy dose of action: think of it as Age of Empires III, but as though it was designed by a comic book author. Legendary figures like Alexander the Great or Nebuchadnezzar are turned into larger-than-life heroes who can single-handedly turn a fight and even have skill levels that grant them new abilities as your army conquers more objectives. In most cases, you’re asked to use the hero as a sort of puzzle-solving tool. Taking manual control of your hero switches to a third-person action mode where you can defeat enemies that your regular forces can’t reach or clear obstacles that stand in the way. Occasionally, however, the game will thrust you into a mission where you control only the hero; it’s then that it becomes more of a pure action game that charges you with destroying waves of enemies and specific villains. The blend keeps the campaign modes fresh and even injects some danger into the multiplayer game; people can control heroes in the action mode online as well, which means that you can’t rely too much on massive armies that might simply be destroyed by a player with quick reflexes.

Midway’s efforts at real-time strategy work fairly well. Rise & Fall has a distinctly epic feel to its play and recognizes that a lot of ancient warfare involved sieges. Most battles involve dozens or even hundreds of units, and they reward players who build their armies the way a good leader might. You’ll find greater success if you put spearmen out in front to catch cavalry charges and rely on your side’s historical strong points, such as chariots or elephants. Likewise, the only way to launch a successful attack on an enemy camp is to target weaknesses in the defensive structure. Campaign missions often revolve around this and give you the option of either a direct assault with siege weapons or a careful flanking maneuver. Naval warfare is also a unique and perhaps underused gameplay mechanic; you need archers to bombard coastal defenses or fight off enemy ships, but you also need melee units to defend against boardings or ensure a safe landing on the shore. Choosing the right mix of units on a given ship can mean the difference between capturing extra ships for your army or losing a few of your own.

The illusion of grandiose battles fades, however, when the AI comes into play. At times it can be incredibly unresponsive and show very poor navigation. There were countless instances in which I ordered a large army to a distant area only to find that several individual units had stranded themselves for no apparent reason alongside cliffs or trees. A cavalry unit could stand idly by while some foot soldiers were being torn to pieces just a short distance away. There are certainly moments when you feel less like a general and more like a shepherd watching for stragglers in the flock.

More importantly, it’s the over-dependence on the action element in campaigns and single-player skirmishes that hurts the overall longevity of the game. Switching to direct control of your hero may be a nice change of pace, but it can also be a crutch. Heroes can cleave their way through dozens of opponents at a time before they’re killed or forced to retreat, so you quickly realize that you can sometimes make up for sloppy strategy by taking command of your hero and wiping out whichever units were giving you grief earlier. While you aren’t given unlimited use of this feature and often have to earn it, your hero can never die permanently in strategy mode and thus feels like a quick fix instead of the precious resource you expect. Why play a campaign again when you know that some missions might only depend on controlling your hero at the right moment?

In pure action missions, the design decisions can actively frustrate you where before they would be nuisances or even helpful. The bland AI, which is tolerable in a strategy game, is substandard for a full action game. All it really knows how to do is charge directly towards you and attack when it’s in range – a problem when the computer is often confused by hills or distracted by something else it wants to destroy. Some missions are little more than repetitive target practice, since you rarely have to dodge or flank anyone. And though the use of "stamina jars" to prevent you from abusing your hero makes sense in strategy mode, the developers inexplicably kept them in place for action-only play. This results in a lot of busywork in missions as you race from one end of the map to another not because you need to complete a goal, but just because an arbitrary status bar is about to run out. Here then is a classic example of compromise hurting a hybrid game’s quality: you’re always reminded during these action missions that Rise & Fall is a strategy game first and an action game a distant second.

Thankfully, multiplayer play avoids a lot of these obstacles and could be a good reason to buy the game in spite of its flaws. There wasn’t much success in taking advantage of the automatch function during testing, but online play removes gripes about AI or overusing the hero. You can’t launch an early blitz because most players are smart enough to build defensive walls; at the same time, you can’t hide in your base late in the game, as siege weapons will quickly ruin what you have. There’s also a plethora of game options that will let you speed up most matches or balance them out. The only glaring problem with online play is that this customization can also make for ludicrous scenarios. In one match the maximum population count was set so high that the normally smooth frame rate became unplayable when a large battle was in view.

While multiplayer is a strong point of the title, how you react to the visuals in the game depends again on whether you’re playing in an action or strategy sequence. The latter is a good-looking game that gains a slight edge over Age of Empires III, especially in the naval battles where beautiful water effects and the presence of so many people onboard each ship makes each fight terrific to watch. Action, however, kills the allure almost immediately. None of the detail increases when you’re behind your hero; if it weren’t for the sheer amount of landscape and units visible at once, you would think you were playing an action game from several years ago. Characters are blocky and lighting effects are non-existent. Cutscenes are particularly awkward due to Midway’s decision to use the game engine for storytelling. It’s difficult to sympathize with a set of badly lit mannequins.

It’s also in the cutscenes where the sound quality suffers. Most of the effects are very good (if unoriginal) and help immerse you in the fight with sounds of clashing swords and thundering catapults. A central battle can be the aural payoff for all your hard work. Things only fall apart when players are forced to endure the voice acting between mission segments. Quite simply, the acting is overdone. Virtually all the characters have exaggerated British accents and were given horribly shallow dialogue to speak; imagine an amateur production of Julius Caesar without the benefit of Shakespeare’s writing. You’ll be eager to skip cutscenes from your first replay onwards as there’s just no reason to care about Alexander, Cleopatra, or most anyone else in the storyline.

Trying to reach a conclusion about Rise & Fall can be frustrating in itself. There are a number of brilliant aspects to this game, such as the naval and siege fighting as well as the multiplayer experience. It’s also easy to appreciate the basic premise and effort behind mixing two distinct gameplay types to add variety. BattleZone did this with exceptional results and it does, in fact, add variety to this game as well. The dilemma is that Midway’s attempt to inject action into a real-time strategy game is often forced, incomplete, or both. Action is almost always an interruption that rips you away from a better (though still imperfect) strategy component. Very little in the game changes when players take direct control despite a clear need for those changes. It’s still quite possible to recommend Rise & Fall, but only for online play and the occasional skirmish against the computer for practice. The campaigns at the core of the single-player game are quintessential examples of combining two disparate game modes for their own sake, which is never the right way to create a true hybrid.

A final note: this game uses Starforce copy protection, which some people say causes problems with disc writers and virtual drive programs. An included utility will help remove it once you’re ready to uninstall the game.


Good multiplayer, but single-player is hobbled by bad AI and poorly-integrated action.


Excellent visuals at a distance quickly lose their appeal when viewed up close.


Atrocious voice acting in cutscenes mars good sound effects during battle.


The action is tacked on; buy the game for its online real-time strategy alone.

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