Age of Mythology
Ensemble's latest effort is anything but aged, mythologically speaking.
History is a fine thing, and the source of much inspiration in the gaming world. But game designers do not like boundaries on their creativity, and unfortunately history is constrained by that most ubiquitous of kill-joys, reality. Fortunately for us, Ensemble Studios opted to do what is routine for all good storytellers - they stepped out of reality, and decided to make some shit up. Drawing on the well-established mythos of three distinct cultures, Ensemble have created a real-time strategy game that is not too radical a departure for RTS traditionalists, but is at the same time innovative enough to keep things fresh and compete with releases like Warcraft 3. There are three main civilizations to choose from - Greek, Egyptian, and Norse. Each of these may pick one major deity from the pantheon as a patron, and this determines certain abilities and units available to the player. Further specialization is achieved through the selection of a new lesser deity to support upon advancement through the tech levels. Control and interface layout is becoming well established in the RTS genres main game franchises, and so those of you who've played previous Ensemble games will immediately come to grips with the controls. It is an intuitive system, and even newcomers will have no problems picking up the basics, although it takes a little bit of perseverance to become familiar with its intricacies. Other features that are similar to previous games include the resource collection, and the basic mission structure - although there is more variety this time round - more later. Necessary resources include gold, wood, food and favour, which replaces stone. Favour is required to perform miracles and summon myth units and heroes, and is gained in different ways depending on your current civilization. The Greeks assign peasants to worship at the temple, the Egyptians build monuments to the gods, while the Norse must gain favour through battle. A variety of traditional-style units are available to each race, with the addition this time of mythological units and heroes. Mythological units are powerful creatures based on the civilizations respective mythos, and are summoned from the temple. The also differ from normal units in that they incur a favour cost upon summoning. Hero units are more powerful still, and represent something of a halfway house between the all-importance of heroes in Warcraft III, and the situation in previous games where unique units were mere token additions. Hero units in AoM are very powerful, though not battle-turning in their own right. The Greeks can summon a finite number of heroes famous from their mythology, such as Ajax, Jason and Heracles. The Egyptians have two hero varieties - the Pharaoh and the priest. Only one Pharaoh may be summoned at once, and if he dies he is replaced by a successor. Multiple priests may be summoned, and must be replaced at the temple upon death. The Norse can summon innumerable helsirs, spirits of warriors slain in battle and destined to fight forever in Valhalla. The hero units constitute one of the main differences between the civilizations. The Norse are limited only by their resources in how many heroes to summon, but the helsirs are correspondingly less powerful. The Egyptians' Pharoah is powerful, but only one is available at any time, while the priests are unlimited but are not really an offensive unit. The Greek heroes are all powerful, but each one is unique, and in total they can summon perhaps seven or eight heroes. If killed, the Greek heroes resurrect themselves where they were slain as long as friendly troops are in the area. This does mean, however, that an important hero is effectively stuck in limbo if he dies deep in enemy territory. There are many other differences between the races. Egyptians build slowly, but don't use wood. Greeks gain favour easily, but have the fewest available heroes. The Norse have unlimited helsirs, but must continually be on the offensive to generate favour with their gods. Their workers are also unable to build, being used only for resource gathering. Instead, the Norse basic infantry unit is used to construct buildings. There are also fairly significant differences between the different races tech trees. Other changes have been made to the franchise. Settlements can no longer be built just anywhere, but only at predefined points on the map. Since settlements are important for raising the population limit, it becomes very important to expand. Relics also make a return, only this time they confer a variety of different bonuses. The result is that multiplayer games are almost always begun with a frantic rush to build a hero followed by a hectic relic hunt. Battles in AoM are very similar in feel to previous Age of Empires games. Units arrange themselves in an appropriate formation automatically, and move around the map at the speed of the slowest unit in the group. Clashes between armies are memorable. Viable tactics are roughly of the same mould as previous games - essentially being that the well-balanced army will prevail over a larger single-unit force. As has become the custom in RTS games these days, each unit has a specific counter - spearmen beats cavalry beats archers. What is different here is that this paper/scissors/stone model is a bit more three-dimensional, more multi-layered. Mythological units will pretty much beat any normal unit, but they can be swarmed effectively, and hero units are devastating against them. The abilities of heroes and myth units add another layer of complexity, and finally there are the abilities granted directly to the player from the gods themselves. These range from overtly offensive spells such as meteorite and lightning storm, to spells which increase the rate of food production or heal all your troops. Best of all, all this can be managed to a level that suits the player - most abilities (other than those granted directly to the player) may be automated, and unit AI is entirely adequate for most tasks. AoM definitely requires less in the way of stressful micromanagement than other recent RTS games like Warcraft III. The single player campaign begins with the Greeks, and involves many well known locations and incidents, including Atlantis and the siege of Troy, before moving to Egypt and finally north to the Norse lands. Mission styles are fairly generic, involving the usual attack/defend and small-party missions, although there are some nice surprises. One excellent mission involves a tug-of-war between two cities over a cart-bound relic, with each city sending out waves of troops to capture and keep control of the cart as it trundles slowly back and forth in no mans land. The story is continuous throughout all three campaigns, and represents one area of marked improvement over previous ‘Age’ titles. For the most part, however, the missions are predictable, if still very enjoyable. Age of Mythology is definitely evolution over revolution, but does innovate a lot more than you might expect. The basic play dynamic retained from previous games is solid, and the game makes the ever-necessary transition to three-dimensions seamlessly. The inclusion of mythology and heroes, however, represents the bulk of new content, and offers a well-thought out and immensely enjoyable addition that changes the core game play enough to keep the game fresh. The graphics are excellent, the sound is memorable, and the story is enough to keep you playing until you find some real opponents to play against. Worth both your money and your time. A Herculean effort.