Rise of Rome  

Game Name:  Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome Expansion
Developer:  Ensemble Studios
Publisher:  Microsoft
PC Release Year:  1998
Review Date:  June 4, 2016

There is something inherently intriguing about ancient Rome.  Not only were its governing bodies strong enough for it to survive as a major political entity for around 1,000 years in the West, but its steady territorial acquisition resulted in a nearly unified Europe; a feat that has rarely occurred throughout history.  Given this city’s importance in the classical world, it should come as no surprise that developers have been keen to use it as a setting for their video games, all the way back to when titles like Legionnaire were being released for Atari’s 8-bit systems in the early ‘80s.  While my own exploration of Roman-era gaming will probably not take me back that far, I still wanted to see something a little older than my recently completed playthrough of Rome: Total War.  Pair this with a desire to get Age of Empires uninstalled from my PC and its Rise of Rome expansion seemed like the perfect choice for this retrospective.  Truth be told, I was not a big fan of the main game when I played it two years ago for this site; it just felt a bit bland.  Fortunately, the new Roman-themed content does improve the underlying gameplay experience to the point where I was not as often struck with spells of boredom during my playthrough.  Unfortunately, it does not improve this experience enough to make it memorable and worthy of modern gamers’ time.

This point leads us towards the ever-present debate about the value proposition of game expansions and DLC more generally.  By the moniker alone, expansions should add something to a game’s base content.  While standout development teams use this as a unique opportunity to push gameplay in new and interesting directions to present an experience that almost feels new, the less scrupulous ones will use it as a way to simply address the mechanical shortcomings of their initial release while making some money in the process.  Rise of Rome definitely feels like it belongs in the latter camp.  Aside from the addition of new campaigns to pad the playtime and justify the price, the remaining changes are the result of small-minded thinking.  Each of the five new units are only included to balance out gameplay, with slingers meant to counter archers, camel riders meant to counter cavalry, fire galleys meant to counter land-attacking ships, armored elephants meant as an upgrade to make the ponderous elephant a viable unit, and scythe chariots meant as a way to continue the battle once stone and gold quarries are exhausted.  The four new civilizations (Carthaginians, Macedonians, Palmyrans, and Romans) may share a new Italian set of buildings, but otherwise follow the pattern set with Age of Empires where the only things that defines them are a set of passive bonuses and technology tree restrictions.  That leaves just two technology upgrades for priests and two for infantry units as the final additions to the game.

Players will quickly realize how underwhelming these elements are since the new factions take center stage during Rise of Rome’s four discrete campaigns, which feature much of the base game’s uninspired design.  Sure, there are a few unconventional and fun missions that buck the trend, like one that asks players to convert an army of onrushing elephants or another that requires defending three town centers from three different enemies, but the rest are run-of-the-mill ‘90s-era RTS levels that simply demand the enemy’s destruction.  Even those can be fun at times, but not when it requires sending scouts all over the map to find the one villager who managed to escape my onrushing army, since there is no technology to spy on enemy forces as there is in Age of Empires II.  Tactically, there is hardly any difference in how troop matchups play out either, since the AI scripting is not dynamic enough to make use of the new counter units to provide a real challenge.  Players will rely on the new Scythe Chariot a great deal, but that is only because it is overpowered for a unit that needs just wood and food to produce.  In a perverse twist, though, this undermines one of Age of Empires’ strengths, which is that the acquisition of scarce gold and stone quarries ultimately drove player strategy.  Mechanically, that leaves the interface improvements, like production queues and the ability to select all troops of the same type by double clicking, as the only real positive features on the gameplay front.

Fortunately, the campaign structure in Rise of Rome has changed for the better.  While the launch screen for a mission is setup the exact same as it was in Age of Empires, with a map of the Mediterranean accompanied by some text to provide historical context on the next scrum, it does not feel like reading footnotes out of a dusty old textbook.  This is driven by a thematic arrangement of game levels that generally fits within a smaller time window, allowing personal narratives to shine through where they did not in the original game.  As examples, the first campaign follows the Roman Republic’s consolidation of the Italian Peninsula and early expansion during the Punic Wars, while the second charts the career and achievements of Gaius Julius Caesar from humble pirate hunter to emperor of Rome, and the third tracks the decline of the empire as the Goths and Huns begin making incursions into Roman territory.  Even the oddball Enemies of Rome campaign, which plays out in a disjointed fashion very similar to what is experienced in Age of Empires, is redeemed because it allows players to fill the shoes of Rome’s greatest bogeymen like Spartacus and Hannibal.  If there had been a greater focus on hero units and in-game conversations between characters to keep the narrative moving, Rise of Rome may have been able to engage gamers in the same way as some later Age of Empires titles.

Perhaps there is no better way to encapsulate the disappointment that is Rise of Rome than by sharing a personal anecdote.  With just four missions remaining in my playthrough, the first generation Corsair solid state that housed my Windows XP partition decided to give up on life, destroying all of my Age of Empires save games and settings in the process.  As frustrating as any hardware failure can be, I counted myself fortunate not to have lost anything truly important and went about reinstalling what had been on the drive, with the intention that I could use cheat codes to return to the spot I had left off at.  However, I soon discovered that this was easier said than done.  As I repeatedly typed “reveal map”, “no fog”, and “home run” into the game’s command prompt, very few of the levels across the separate campaigns looked distinguishable from the others.  In the ultimate testament to this title’s forgettable design, I honestly had to guess where I left off at.  Did I actually beat Rise of Rome before posting this; complying with the ground rules I established for myself when I started this site?  In all honesty, I cannot say.  What I can say is that I gave it my best guess, and even if I replayed a mission at the expense of one I had missed, that would have to be good enough.  The experience is not worthy of the Age of Empires name, and I was not about to waste more of my precious free time by going above and beyond the 19 missions that constitute a playthrough.

Verdict:  Not Recommended