Ensemble's venture into the realm of mythology adds a whole new depth to an already rock-solid franchise.

User Rating: 9.5 | Age of Mythology PC
The critical acclaim and commercial success garnered by their blockbuster Historic RTS, Age of Kings, steeply increased the level of expectations fans had from Ensemble Studios. The announcement of Age of Mythology, therefore, led to some obvious speculations: Would this shift from a historic setting be just as amazing as its predecessor? Would a move to a fully 3D engine turn off the legion of fans?

Well, the end result is a game which features dozens of innovations while still keeping the experience 'Agey' to core. Age of Mythology features three different civilizations: the Greeks, the Egyptians and the Norse, each praising their own Gods and having their own strengths and weaknesses which make them play quite differently from each other.

As I mentioned before, the basic gameplay is quite similar to the previous Age games and to RTS games in general. There are resources to collect, armies to train, buildings to build and enemies to crush. The resources that have to be managed this time around are Food, Gold, Wood and Favor. Favor, which replaces stone from Age of Kings, is gained by pleasing the gods and is used to train myth-units and gain well, 'godly' upgrades. Interestingly, the different civilizations have their own unique ways of gaining the favor of their deities. While the Egyptians build statues to please their gods, the Norse resort to combat and hunting in order to keep their gods happy. And the Greeks do it the old fashioned way by simply offering prayers at the temple! Needless to say, this makes for some interesting and unique gameplay choices while playing each race.

Slightly deviating from the mechanic of choosing a civilization at the start of the game, in Age of Mythology, after you've chosen your civilization, you need to chose which Major God you're going to align with as well! Each civilization has three Major Gods like, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades for the Greeks. Choosing a Major God grants your civilization some specific bonuses and a unique 'tree' of Minor Gods which you can chose when you 'Age up' in the game to gain even more bonuses, myth units and God Powers! The choice of the Major God you align with would dictate the way you handle your civilization in-game and, in essence, boils down to making a choice of a unique 'sub-culture' within the same civilization.

A returning feature from the previous games is the concept of 'aging-up'. AoM has a total of four 'Ages' which mark the milestones of a civilizations technological progress. A typical game begins in the Archaic age which only gives the player a handful of units and buildings to choose from. As you advance through the ages - Classical, Heroic and finally, Mythic - you gain access to more buildings, units and God Powers. And as I mentioned before, each time you 'Age-up' you get to make a choice between two Minor Gods in order to unlock some specific bonuses. So there are a whole lotta choices you can make in-game in order to adapt your play style to your own preference or the need of the hour.

Another distinguishing feature of the game are the God Powers which are the in-game manifestations of your chosen god's benevolence or wrathfulness. So while you can use Isis's 'Prosperity' to increase your gold collection rate, you can use Zeus's 'Bolt' to one-shot any enemy unit! As you advance in the game these powers become more decisive and deadly and when you hit the Mythic age, depending on your Minor God choice, you'd be able to cast earthquakes, unleash a shower of meteors or summon a devastating dragon into battle. Saying that all of it is 'Awesome' would be an understatement.

That said and done though, the game remains fairly balanced with a strategic distribution of God Powers and civilization bonuses. Furthermore, each God Power is limited to only one use so players have to weigh their options carefully before casting one.

The game boasts a complex unit balance where each unit has the potential of bringing something unique to the table. While some tried and tested counters, like infantry for cavalry and cavalry for archers, do exist there are a lot many permutation, combinations and exceptions to explore. The Gastraphetes, for instance, a unique archer-unit available to Hades (Greek) is not only effective against infantry, but is also great against buildings which makes it a siege-unit of sorts!

And since the game IS based in a mythological setting you can summon powerful myth-units like the Minotaur, Sphinx and even release a Kraken! These units can decimate the normal units with ease and have unique abilities (auto-cast after a certain cooldown) which allow for some nicely animated insta-kills. And who better to take on them pesky myth units than Heroes! These valiant fighters can easily take on those deadly myth units but only do modest damage against their more conventional foes.

Apart from the gods and powers, there are several mechanics and bonuses which are unique to the three civilizations. For instance, the Norse villagers cannot build buildings, instead their infantry do that job which makes them efficient raiders. They have only one hero unit, the Hersir who are slow but fairly cheap to train and are a valuable assets since they slowly generate favor on their own, and gain twice as much favor from fighting enemy units.

The Egyptian start with the Pharoah, a highly powerful ranged Hero unit unit which can empower buildings to make them work faster. Most of their buildings are free of cost but take quite a while to build whereas the other important structures, like monuments and farm, cost only gold.

The Greeks are the most 'standard' of the lot and, in terms of buildings and functionality, quite similar to the civilizations of the previous Age games. So someone who is familiar with the gameplay of the Age series would feel right at home with them. They have a total of four heroes, one for each age, unique to the Major God you've chosen to align with.

Put all these distinguishing bonuses and mechanics together and you get an immersive and robust platform with which you can formulate hundreds of unique strategies to counter your opponents.

Unlike the campaign modes in the previous Age games, Age of Mythology features only a single, central campaign which is far longer than the campaigns of the previous games. Overall, the campaign features a decent storyline and in-game cinematic cut-scenes which are rendered on the fly. The scenarios themselves offer a lot of varied challenges which, in addition to moving the storyline forward, allow you to get familiarized with the unique features of the game. Although the in-game cinematics do look good, it would've been even more fun if they'd been pre-rendered in some of the milestones in the campaign. The intro movie is a pretty good indication of what they could've done to make the important moments a lot more epic and memorable.

The random map mode is another returning feature which ensures infinite re-playability after you have completed the campaign. There are a lot of map types and modes to choose from and you can play against the in-game AI or online via Ensemble Studios Online (ESO). The ESO matchmaking feature is excellent and can be used to setup quick games with opponents at or near your skill. There are a lot of online ladders to keep track of and the competitive scene is as strong as it was in the time of Age of Kings with new strategies and counter-strategies to explore every time you play.

The game looks splendid visually and scales extremely well with dated systems. The animations are very well done and it is pretty neat to see Anubites leaping into combat, Cyclops hurling units like a rag doll and the destruction left in the wake of a Tornado.

I've been a fan of Stephen Rippy ever since the fist Age of Empires came out and he's done a spectacular job with the score yet again. The soundtrack blends perfectly with the gameplay and gets intense during major battles which really highlights the event.

All in all, this game offers a lot of variety and options to not only die hard RTS fans but newcomers to the genre as well. This is a must have for the fans of the Age of Empires franchise who would definitely appreciate the game making amazing innovations while staying true its foundation and core gameplay. This is, truly, one of the most spectacular RTSs ever made!