If you cottoned to the history-lite real-time strategy game Rise of Nations, chances are you'll dig the steampunky history-schmistory Rise of Legends too. Not exactly a sequel (it's science fantasy and uses a new 3D engine), it "borrows" elements from several hits to create an extension, but not a reinvention. Take Civilization's borders and attrition rates, mix in the Conquer the World campaign (think Total War only not as deep), then add city districts, a trim two-resource economy and tactically distinctive heroes. Wrap it all up in a tidy albeit deceptively complex interface with more minutia than a Victorian bathroom, and you've got a love letter to strategy gamers.
That's not to say Rise of Legends can't be enjoyed on multiple levels. If you're a casual RTS player, you'll comfortably enjoy all three solo campaigns on moderate difficulty settings using nothing save the mouse and a basic grasp of the game's three laudably distinct civilizations: the Italian Renaissance inspired Vinci (mechanical unit research and fast/cheap unit builders); the magical Middle Eastern Alin (hit and run magicians with an inter-territory build spell); and the alien/Mayan Cuotl (who wield floating cities capable of transporting entire armies around the map). And those abilities barely scratch the surface.
Strut your ego online, however, and you'd best have octopus arms. Literally swarming with hotkeys, Rise of Legends has enough multistroke macros to make flight simulators quiver with envy. That's a compliment if you're hardcore, but a warning if you don't play competitively. The guy with the steel trap memory and piano fingers will smoke your mouse pokes every time.
Another RTS with resources, tech upgrades and three factions wrangling map-to-map for winner-takes-all. Ho hum, you say? Not so fast: Rise of Legends brings back the old resource management "bleed-and-build" mechanic, but with a twist. Military structures remain standalone, but base-building looks more than a little like Earth 2160's clip-on hub upgrades. Add military districts to bolster your defenses, merchant districts to up your caravans and resource threshold and palace districts to expand your city. It may not be original or brilliant, but it's definitely cool.
Like Rise of Nations, the strategic map feels thrown-in aside the enormous tactical depth during skirmishes. The Total War series pull this off much better, and anyone hoping Rise of Legends would grow this mode up will be disappointed. Otherwise, Rise of Legends is exactly what anyone craving an eclectic director's cut of Rise of Nations could want, and just as playable, thanks in part to three well-balanced antagonists. If it's not terribly inventive, well, there's always Rise of Nations 2, right?