It’s not exactly a new idea: take charge of an ancient civilization and lead them into war. Upgrade your soldiers, develop super-weapons and destroy any differently-colored enemy you come across. Rise & Fall: Civilizations at War marches a well-worn path, but it tries to do a few things differently along the way.
First among those is the hero. Each civilization can summon a hero to fight on its behalf - one that you control. With a simple double-click, you “possess” the leader of your civilization, jump into the battle from their perspective and slaughter enemies by your own sword until your energy runs out, at which point you return to your overhead, godlike status behind the keyboard. Hero possession is best used to turn the tide of a crucial battle; it’s cool to pick off enemy soldiers in first person, especially when your long-distance shots eliminate guards on the horizon. But the possessed heroes are so powerful, there isn’t much tension to the first-person combat.
In fact, the entire game is about delayed tension. The maps are scattered with outposts of hostile neutrals, so you need to defeat them before you can engage with your real enemy. This has the benefit of limiting early attacks and making epic finales more likely, but it also makes it hard to get down to business. Rise & Fall probably has the best-looking ships in any RTS, but there are too few water maps and the fleets are too small for the naval combat to really pay off.
The core game of resource harvesting and soldier herding feels familiar, but it's very well executed. Soldiers will automatically group with like units, giving you stronger formations. The fact that all of this takes place in what could be the prettiest RTS on the market today helps to alleviate the stalled sense of expectation. (The less said about the disappointing story-based campaigns the better.)
Ultimately, Rise & Fall is about pretty units killing each other in a beautifully drawn environment and little more. It's a good strategy skirmish, but it falls short of eternal glory.