Old-school gamers may recall the Nobunaga’s Ambition titles on the NES and SNES; they were perfect for the strategy lovers who enjoyed the ultimate in virtual micromanagement. Back in those days, it was difficult to find such a deep experience on consoles, so if you were a fan of the setting – 16th-century feudal Japan – something like Nobunaga’s Ambition was a true diamond in the rough. Thankfully, Koei is bringing yet another installment in the series to North America, even though it’s not a next-generation game. It’s for the PS2, but the game’s very existence means two things 1. the PS2 isn’t dead (it’s not even close, my friends), and 2. strategy titles have never been the epitome of graphical excellence, but then again, they don’t need to be. The game doesn’t require the visual amazement contained in God of War II; this be a thinking-man’s game, and you’ll be spending the vast majority of your time…well, strategizing. Patience is a virtue, here.
This newest entry is Nobunaga’s Ambition: Rise to Power, and it’s scheduled to arrive in U.S. stores early next month. Perhaps as a nod to those who played the earlier games, it takes place during the Sengoku period of Feudal Japan. If you’ve played any of Koei’s recent productions – Dynasty Warriors, Kessen, etc. – you’re probably very familiar with the name, Nobunaga Oda. A legend in the land of the Rising Sun, Oda assembled and led the single strongest army in the country, ultimately reuniting Japan under his rule. He utilized a combination of diplomacy and out-and-out warfare, although we’re willing to bet the majority of Rise to Power will center on the latter. Obviously, you will assume the role of Oda and attempt to both conquer and settle the Warring States of the era, all the while taking advantage of an extraordinarily robust strategy mechanic. Remember, you won’t be starting from a position of power; you’ll be forced to build and maintain that aforementioned “strongest army in the country.” Of course, that’s half the fun, and besides, don’t you want a challenge? Oda faced a giant challenge…so should you.
In addition to the building challenge, you’ll also be able to select one of over 300 (that’s right, 300) starting points on the very large map! This isn’t the kind of thing we saw back in 1988, that’s for damn sure. But that’s hardly the biggest change you’ll notice in Rise to Power, because Koei has moved ahead and abandoned the age-old static-screen gameplay style and implemented an active RTS format. Rather than seeing sequential set pieces as you progress economically and in combat, you will see everything unfold as you would in games like Command & Conquer and Age of Empires. To use another comparison, you will watch your newly acquired territories grow and prosper just as you would in Civilization. Furthermore, Koei has worked to tone down the level of required attention and micromanagement; some of those structures you build will function on their own. You know how the dwellings in Hereos of Might and Magic would automatically produce the creatures, and all you’d have to do is purchase them? Well, this is a similar idea.
Just like in most RTS titles, success will rely on your ability to assemble an army and execute appropriate orders. But at the same time, good results will come if you pay close enough attention to what’s happening off the battlefield. While the game will indeed do some of the work for you, you still need to establish alliances with your neighbors and even offer gifts to would-be opponents. If you negotiate enough deals, you may actually be able to bypass all-out war, which should be highly beneficial to the health and well-being of the citizens under your rule. This is the most interesting part of Rise to Power in our estimation, just because it seems very fresh and unique. We love the idea of balancing aggressive combat tactics with the diplomatic approach, but we have to wonder…will the rewards for the latter style be equal to the more traditional, “just wipe ‘em all out” approach? For example, we’re essentially asking the classic Machiavellian question: is it better to be loved or feared? The 15th-century prince concluded it was better to be feared, so perhaps Koei is adopting that same philosophy. Therefore, maybe we’ll only resort to negotiations if we’re in a weaker position.
Now, if you’re not the biggest fan of real-time strategy, you will have the option to pause the action and issue commands. Those who want the extra time to think things over in regards to your next move (do I send the cavalry and keep the archers back or should I try a full-frontal assault?) will appreciate this feature. Another very cool feature should appeal to all you gambling nuts out there: you may encounter some enemy generals who will challenge you to something called “all-in” fights, which are exactly what they sound like. The current ruler can gain new territory if he wins but stands to lose it all if he fails. How’s that for a major twist to the typical RTS formula? The rest of the game will – of course – revolve around a deep and hopefully satisfying strategy mechanic, even though we still question if Koei can pull it off. They clearly want to introduce several new ideas into the standard strategy format, but sometimes, these games really tend to drag… Even if it is “real-time,” things can slow to a crawl if the pacing isn’t done correctly.
Nobunaga’s Ambition: Rise to Power is scheduled to arrive on February 5, so that’s when we’ll have all our questions answered. Here’s hoping for the best! Koei could use a boost, you know.
1/14/2008 Ben Dutka