Even though the only draw of The Settlers: Rise of an Empire Gold Edition is the Eastern Realm expansion pack (previously released on its own in Europe), the inclusion of this new add-on is noted only in the fine print near the bottom of the front of the game box. Obscuring this fact actually makes a lot of sense, however, because the new campaign missions are so similar to those in the original game that it's not worth making a fuss over them. More combat and more involved objectives have been added to spice up mostly lackadaisical mission design, although the whole affair is still awfully formulaic.
http://image.com.com/gamespot/images/2008/293/reviews/954078_20081020_embed001.jpgAdditional emphasis on the military makes Eastern Realm a bit more explosive.
You can move from the original Rise of an Empire into the Eastern Realm campaign without breaking stride. The interface has been tweaked in a few minor ways: A new knight is now on the roster of selectable heroes, trading posts can now be built to schlep goods to allies, a new well can be built to take advantage of monsoons, and geologists have been given the ability to refill mines. A handful of embellishments have also been added to the list of town decor so you can now deck out settlements with triumphal arches and sundials. The story is an immediate follow-up to the events of the first game, and you'll send settlers of the medieval Darion Empire to its India-resembling eastern neighbors to investigate the disruption of a trade route. Bad guys with ties to the defeated Red Prince are stirring up trouble, so you're called on to establish new settlements in these foreign lands and quiet everything down.
Mission themes remain divided between sedate city building and real-time warfare, which follows in the footsteps of Age of Empires. More time is spent exploring the glories of serfdom than smiting enemies, though. As with the campaign in the original game, the scenarios in Eastern Realm deal primarily with building medieval towns over and over again. Missions start with the hero knight of your choice out in the wilderness, as well as a couple of start-up buildings, such as a castle and a storehouse. From these humble beginnings, you move on to establish an entire town by gathering resources, feeding peasants, and providing a few luxuries to make life in the sticks worthwhile. Structure is still deeply derivative of traditional real-time strategy gaming, not to mention entirely automated, so you don't have to worry about any micromanagement. If you just erect the right buildings, happy little serfs robotically go about milking cows, forging swords, turning deer carcasses into sausages, shearing sheep, staging plays, and getting hammered in the tavern. There are neither supply-and-demand economics nor a need to even direct goods from one place to another because products are shipped automatically to town warehouses by horse-drawn cart. Expanding your colony is also a snap because all you have to do to claim a new territory is send over a knight and build an outpost.
Everything is so easygoing, in fact, that both the original Rise of an Empire and the new Eastern Realm almost play themselves. You can pretty much set the autopilot in most missions and follow a town-building formula that will get you on the road to success in short order. This laid-back RTS vibe actually felt kind of refreshing a year ago in Rise of an Empire because it was a nice change to focus on simply building towns rather than constantly fending off hordes of macemen coming over the rise. Here, though, everything seems overly familiar and kind of dull. Maps are still laid out like puzzles, and mission objectives are always a little too perfectly interwoven with the landscape. Enemies, for instance, always seem to rear their ugly heads right after you've discovered a new iron mine that you need to crank out some swords. Military matters are more of a pressing concern than they used to be, but they aren't enough of a bother to really change the nature of the gameplay. Huge climactic battles that destroy enemy strongholds are often necessary now, and more involved multiple-choice objectives allow you to make big decisions, such as paying off baddies or raising an army to slaughter them. You can't choose to tackle missions like Attila the Hun, but at least, you can ditch the wimpy stuff at times and settle affairs on the battlefield.
http://image.com.com/gamespot/images/2008/293/reviews/954078_20081020_embed002.jpgNew jungle terrain and extra decorations for towns, such as the arch of triumph and victory column, spice up the look of Eastern Realm missions.
The look and feel of the Eastern Realm maps make their missions stand out from their predecessors. New music has a decidedly Asian feel, like the sort of tunes you would hear during an adventure movie while the hero is visiting an exotic bazaar. All of the new Far East terrain is a blend of the Middle East and India. Desert plains and the odd scrub brush coexist with lush grassland and jungle. Everything is very detailed to the point that the game gets a bit choppy when scrolling through the densest jungles, although this isn't a bad price to pay for a game this attractive. The tropical settings culminate in atmospheric storms that build up to regular monsoon seasons where the rains are so heavy that you can't fish. Both European-styled buildings and the settlers themselves appear to be exactly the same as in Rise of an Empire, however, so the overall appearance of the game isn't strikingly different this time around. It's a bit jarring, too, to have the eastern flavor of the maps here mixed in with European buildings and characters. At times, it looks like somebody plopped a medieval Bavarian village down beside the Bay of Bengal. These new maps are also available in three new custom solo games and in online play, both of which are otherwise carried over unchanged from Rise of an Empire.
If you felt like The Settlers: Rise of an Empire ended about a dozen hours too soon or really needed some jungle maps, then by all means pick up this Gold Edition for the Eastern Realm expansion. Otherwise, you can probably satisfy a Settlers craving more cheaply with a replay of the original.