Developer: Gameloft
Price: $4.99
Version Reviewed: 1.0.5

Graphics / Sound Rating: ★★★★☆
Game Controls Rating: ★½☆☆☆
Gameplay Rating: ★★½☆☆

iPhone Integration Rating: ★★½☆☆
User Interface Rating: ★½☆☆☆

Re-use / Replay Value Rating: ★½☆☆☆

Overall Rating: ★★½☆☆

Gameloft has put out some great games, from the Oregon Trail to Let’s Golf, and they’ve become one of the major players in the App Store. Unfortunately, not all of their titles are so well-done. Rise of Lost Empires has a cliched storyline, annoying controls, lag issues, and “heroes” who repeat the same irritating phrases twenty times in an average battle. This is one to avoid.

And yet, despite that, Rise of Lost Empires manages to look promising. Just don’t be fooled by the eye candy or the exciting-looking screenshots.

img_00442 When you begin your quest, you’ll play from the “good” perspective, first as a human knight and then later with other heroes, including an elven archer and a sorcerer. This is the Empire campaign, and your enemies are Orcs. After completing a few “chapters” (battles, in other words), the Raider campaign unlocks and you can fight from the Orc’s point of view.

Each chapter has a varying set of goals, and not all of them are revealed in the beginning. Some goals are optional, but most are mandatory; some must be completed before others. Most are pretty straightforward: Keep your hero alive, defend the gate, kill the Orcs, etc. Others are slightly more complex: Earning the trust of the Orc tribes, for example, requires you to complete the demands of the tribes’ leaders.

The game is really focused on heroes, though. Each “hero” is, as their name suggests, a powerhouse with quite some bite to back up their bark. They can cast spells, have extra health and strength, and lead your units into battle. Better yet, you can have multiple heroes in one chapter, and you control them all at once. Each hero’s portrait appears in the top-left corner of the screen—and, yes, the portraits do serve a purpose. Tapping on your hero’s portrait will select either him alone or him and his forces as well (it alternates with each tap). This is a good shortcut, but it’s not always sufficient, especially because it can get confusing whose forces are whose when you have multiple heroes in play at once.

img_00432 To some extent, your hero and his or her surrounding forces will attack on their own, but you really do have to control and micromanage; your archers, for example, aren’t smart enough to attack from a distance all of the time, and they won’t retreat on their own (or quickly enough when you order them, for that matter). And sometimes, when you’re attempting a two- or three- pronged attack, for example, this is where the pain really begins.

This is where the game’s controls really fall flat on their face. To select a unit, you tap it and then tap on empty space to direct it to move or on an enemy to order an attack. However, I often ended up selecting another unit by accident or ordering a unit to move instead of selecting a different unit. Also, there’s no easy way to move around the screen. Sure, you can tap your heroes’ portraits to snap to their location, but what if I just send a pack of foot soldiers on a side attack? The “pinch” gesture is used to select multiple units at once (talk about awkward, especially in the heat of battle), which rules it out as zooming control. Zooming is instead handled by a tiny scrollbar in the corner and quick movement requires the use of an equally tiny minimap. Yeah, you can use the swipe gesture to pan around the screen (it’s slower), but there’s a significant drawback: the view stubbornly returns to your hero. Oy. The game’s camera is pretty much chained to your hero, which makes it devilishly difficult to plan ahead or move quickly through the area, especially in single-hero chapters; it always snaps back to your slow-moving hero.

img_00452What makes combat most miserable, however, is simply lag. I didn’t make it past the third chapter before my characters started lagging, and it’s frustrating to try and select a unit only to realize that the game isn’t responding properly. Note that I’ve been playing this on an iPod Touch 2G, too—the fastest of the iPhone OS family, save for the iPhone 3GS. I’d hate to see this run on an original-gen device.

Now, I’ve detailed a lot of flaws so far, and trust me: they are significant. But Gameloft could have had a hit on their hands, and that’s what’s so maddening. True, the storyline isn’t anything special, but there are some good, classic bones here. Real-time combat is entertaining when it works, and there are some (though not too many) opportunities to actually use strategy. Buildings can be created whenever you “capture a flag” (no lie!) ranging from farms (gold bonus, provide food to create more troops) and barracks (train soldiers) to forges (upgrade your troops) and outposts (defensive structures). The building aspect is handled nicely, even if the interface suffers from the same lag and abruptness as the rest of the game. There’s a decent variety amongst units and heroes add spice to the mix with their unique spells.

But, honestly, Rise of Lost Empires is just a bloated mess. It was fun at first, sure, but then I began to feel like I was stuck in a quagmire of miserable controls and idiotic soldiers. (Yes, the AI is really that bad.) Hardcore fans of the RTS genre might find something to salvage here, but for me, the headache of managing each individual unit was too much to bear. I’d much rather be able to group, say, nine soldiers into one permanent graphic with a little “9″ hovering over its head, but instead Rise of Lost Empires forces you to take care of every little detail. It’s a shame, too, because it looked so pretty and promising, but in this case Gameloft has dropped the ball.

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