Developer: Ensemble Studios
Release Date: 10/30/2002
Ensemble Studios is back, extending their “Ages” universe with Age of Mythology. There is no doubt that Ensemble knows their stuff, but Age of Mythology is their biggest project yet and features a full 3D graphics engine unlike AoM’s predecessors. But more impressive than the graphical overhaul is the fact that they’ve managed to polish the game play to a pristine shine, so much so that it is almost-immediately engrossing even to non-RTS gamers. Fans of Ensemble’s previous work will surely feel right at home with Age of Mythology, but be warned gentle travelers, for AoM marks a distinct change from the previous Ages games in the fact that it is based purely on mythical (duh) fiction, as opposed to realistic war reenactments. Minotaurs, trolls, and frost giants take the place of ho-hum soldiers, spearmen and archers. While ludicrously diehard fans of the series may be initially put-off by AoM’s unusual universe, it won’t take but a few minutes to realize that this is the product of years of refinement and as such is one of the more engrossing RTS titles currently on the market.
Age of Mythology will inevitably be compared to WarCraft III at some point, and for the most part it is a justified comparison. Like WCIII you’ll be able to play from the perspective of three unique factions: the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Norse. While a scant three factions may seem puny in contrast to past Age of Empire games you have to consider that each faction is completely unique, with their own set of visual models and game play dynamics. Over time your faction will ally itself with different gods taken from ancient mythology, each god that you ally yourself with will give you special abilities – like raining thunderbolts down on a group of hapless enemies, or simply raining water down on your crops and such to quickly produce food – on top of which each deity will grant you a one-time-only miracle that, if used properly, can sometimes turn the tide of war. In all, there are nine major gods, and 27 minor gods, all of which offer completely distinctive contributions to your cause.
In terms of AoM’s single player campaign you can expect 32 missions, each with their own unique objectives and some of which are incredibly inventive. The story revolves around Arkantos, the feared and revered leader of Atlantis, as he initially sieges war on the city of Troy and eventually finds himself in a save-the-world-from-obliteration plot where gods choose sides and men choose gods. Over the course of the campaign the story will unfold one slice at a time, all the while keeping you anxiously awaiting the next revelation.
Age of Mythology certainly has its head in the right place, effortlessly introducing new units and dynamics gradually as you progress. But the foundational mechanics of real-time strategy games is completely intact. You’ll still need to gather and conserve resources, keeping a large amount of wood, gold, and food to preserve your units is essential. But no longer do you need to worry about stockpiling stone like in the Age of Empires games, that resource is replaced by “favor.” Favor refers to the favor of the gods that you’ve aligned yourself with, the more favor you have the more mythological units you can summon.
Accumulating favor is a fairly simple task that is made interesting by the fact that each faction has their own method for obtaining it. The Greek villagers must be assigned to praying at temples in order to win favor of the god’s. The Egyptian faction earns favor by constructing progressively larger monuments. And the Norse win favor by waging war.
Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of AoM is in its utilization of different game play dynamics from faction to faction. All three cultures work to the same ends but by different means. Accumulating resources and keeping a steady flow of infantry construction is the name of the game here, but the way they go about it differs in method. For example, the Egyptians are able to construct buildings without using wood as the other two factions do, but the actual construction process is considerably longer in contrast. Before you are given free reign over a new faction you are given the opportunity to view a quick (and I do mean quick) tutorial that outlines the differences of the faction.
Strewn throughout each landscape are relics that offer unique advantages, and for this reason alone, it is a good idea to devote a few units to scouting the area. Only hero characters are able to actually retrieve these relics however. Hero units are also particularly useful for taking out myth units. But you’ll need a good balance of cavalry, foot soldiers, myth units, archers, and vehicle based troops in order to successfully take on a fleshed out opposing force. Because, while myth units may be nearly unstoppable against conventional forces they are vulnerable to hero units. And, while hero units can efficiently deal with myth units, a horde of conventional forces can easily deep-six hero units. So it is safe to assume that the “kill everything” dynamic of most RTS games is thrown out the window and instead Ensemble has chosen to focus more on strategy and less on brute force tactics.
But don’t go thinking that Ensemble has ditched that visceral and immense scope of combat that has helped to make the series so popular. Oh no, you’ll still be able to command legions of troops to clash against equally massive enemy armies and watch as bodies fall and few arise victorious. I guess it is the diversity in strategy that really sets this game apart from the crowd. If you prefer you can implement Sun Tzu tactics, surrounding small enemy encampments when you out number them 10 to 1, or going for straightforward frontal attacks followed by surprise attacks when you outnumber the resistance 5 to 1, etc. And while Age of Myth certainly caters to an assortment of preferential strategy there is no doubt that more thought out strategies will result in more victories in the art of war.
While the single-player campaign is great fun, offerings lots of diversity from mission to mission and plenty of overall lasting appeal, there is also the random map mode which is essentially the same as the one found in Age of Empires II, albeit with a considerably larger assortment of maps. Not to mention the conquest and death match modes which make for significant increases in the game’s replay value. Up to 11 computer controlled opponents can be included in these modes of play and you are also able to customize each one in terms of regulatory rules and difficulty settings, definitely a nice touch. And lets not forget online play where you can seek out an opponent of varying degrees of skills at literally any time of the day or night. Quite simply AoM has its bases covered with a fully-realized single player campaign and loads of multiplayer gaming bliss.
From a visual standpoint Age of Mythology succeeds in creating a believable world of myth that is brimming with lush scenery and overflowing with character. Every unit is adequately distinct aesthetically making carefully selected point-and-click affairs incredibly simple, though the hero units do tend to be somewhat lacking in terms of overall detail. The numerous battles that you’ll inevitably find yourself in are enacted in such a way that you really feel as if the units are aggressively tearing each other apart as opposed to watching a badly choreographed combat encounter. And each of the three factions are completely different visually, you won’t see any recycled character textures or designs, which is a good thing since only three controllable factions is a drop in the bucket compared to previous Ensemble RTS’s.
The audio presentation is decked out with an enchanting soundtrack that changes from faction to faction, lots of believable battle sound effects, and wholly respectable voice acting. Unfortunately AoM is something of a one-trick-pony in regards to audible unit reactions, fans of WarCraft III will scoff at this game’s scant two unit quips, but surprisingly the quick vocal confirmations from units never seem to graduate to the point of being annoying. There are lots of ambient sound effects that help to immerse you into its fictitious world and audible cues for off-screen events that help you to keep on top of what’s going on.
Clearly Ensemble has devoted a lot of talent to Age of Mythology, what was already an excellent RTS series is only exponentially improved with AoM. It goes without saying that if you are a strategy fan that this game should be in your library of titles, but what is really surprising is that AoM is also extremely accessible even to newcomers of the genre. Start saving those pesos hombres, because Age of Mythology is a do-not-miss-under-any-circumstances experience that will keep you glued to your monitor for ages.
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