The themes of the expansion may seem rote, but it still boasts the series' knack for surprisingly entertaining gameplay.

User Rating: 8 | Age of Mythology: The Titans PC

The original Age of Mythology was a pleasant surprise to some skeptics (this reviewer included) who had thought that Ensemble Studios had run of ideas for Microsoft's "Age of…" RTS franchise. However, ever-skeptics weren't likely to believe that the expansion would be a pleasant surprise in the same way again, and to some extent, they would be right.

Evaporated is, of course, the appeal of Age of Mythology's very effective RTS spin on ancient mythology and legends. Again, with the introduction of a new faction that is based on a civilization that has next to no real-world empirical evidence of existence in archaeological/paleontological knowledge, one would have the impression that Ensemble Studios was again running out of ideas to have its games include some connection to the real world.

Yet, if a player could look past the thematic issues of the expansion, the player would find that just like the game mechanics in Age of Mythology, the new ones in Age of Mythology are quite well-implemented and –balanced.

The most impressive of these is the namesake mechanic of Titans. Every faction in the game, including the original ones, can build structures that are not unlike Wonders (in that they are huge and expensive); however, unlike Wonders, they do not force the triggering of a game-ending mechanic, though what they perform can be pretty much considered game-ending too, if a player can prevent other players from building this structure while building one himself/herself/itself. In fact, like Wonders, they can be seen by every player upon commencement of the building project.

Said structure (simply called the Titan Gateway), once completed, summons an imposingly massive Titan, which makes a dramatic entry, such as the Egyptian one floating down from the heavens on ethereal wings.

This massive unit is quite fast, as befitting a gargantuan creature with such a great stride. It can defeat armies rather handily, and can bring down fortifications and settlements just as quickly. It also has tremendous amounts of hitpoints and armor, and are not as susceptible to Heroic units as regular mythical units are (though such units still get damage bonuses against the Titan).

To balance it further than the costs and designs of its summoning Gateway have, the Titan does not have any ranged attacks, making it vulnerable to harassment by very fast ranged units (though such units that can outrun the Titan tends to be so weak at damaging it that they will need a long time to bring it down, assuming that the other player is not wise enough to deal with such nuisances by sending something other than the Titan after them).

The Titan is also incapable of being healed, and a player can ever only have one Titan throughout a game session. Thus, this presses onto the player the need to utilize the Titan as efficiently as possible. More often than not, the most effective way to bring down an enemy Titan is to use another Titan against it after it has been weakened. This gives a chance for a player that is late at obtaining a Titan of his/her own to win the game, which can be a rather entertaining turn of the proverbial tables.

As equally or even more entertaining, is the battle between opposing Titans. While Titans have a set of animations that are used whenever they thrash armies and cities around – and these are suitably impressive to watch – they have an entirely different set of animations that are used when they duel each other. The animations used for the animations of such duels are the zenith of the game's animations, such as the victorious Titan's bellows of victory after having vanquished an opponent.

There are complaints with the mechanic of Titans, however. For one, the Titans of all factions are practically identical in function; the differences between them are merely cosmetic. That such powerful mythical gargantuan creatures do not have any ranged attacks can also seem jarring, However, from the perspective of gameplay balance, such designs for the Titans would have been understandable.

Furthermore, Titans, despite their size and status that is far beyond that of mortal and mythical creatures, are also unable to cross bodies of water and cannot be transported across water in any way as well. This may seem like a good gameplay-balancing design decision, but it ultimately makes Titans useless in maps that are oriented around controls of islands.

Multiplayer matches that have Titans enabled tend to boil down to which player can retain his/her Titan the longest while destroying the other players' Titans or preventing them from summoning one; that they are very expensive in resources but still much more useful than a Wonder (which just sits pretty as the count-down timer ticks down to zero) also means that many players' late-game economic strategies often led towards gaining Titans.

Of course, players who prefer the usual kinds of gameplay and experience before the release of the Titans expansion can choose to disable this mechanic. Doubtless, this would take away the fun of having Titan rampaging around, though it has to be clarified here that the main disappointment is that Ensemble Studios did little to reconcile the methods of victory that involve Titans with those that do not.

The other major new feature is the introduction of the new faction, the Atleanteans. Unlike the original three factions, they have little grounding in real-world prehistory, other than being inhabitants of a Greek colony that had supposedly been established far from the Mediterranean (and even so there is little evidence for this). However, the lack of factual support for the thematic designs of this new faction does allow for Ensemble Studios' imagination to run wild, and the result is a faction that plays quite differently from the others.

While the Atlanteans still depend on the same resource mechanics as the original factions, e.g. they still need to mine gold, chop trees for wood and hunt and farm for food, their (ground-based) worker units (simply called "Citizens") do not need to return to any drop-off point to unload resources; instead, they just stay where they are and work on the resource patches/nodes. They also happen to work faster than the worker units of other factions, and are also somewhat tougher. While such designs were not absolutely new at the time, they were very refreshing, and they did take away one of the annoyances of resourcing operations, which is the creation of drop-off points.

To balance against their advantages, the Atlanteans' workers are slightly slower on the move, are more expensive and take up more population slots (more so than any other mortal Atlantean unit, in fact). This makes them slightly more vulnerable to raids than the other worker units (as far as preserving worker units are concerned).

It is therefore a disappointment that the Atlanteans' Fishing Ships are not designed in the same way, i.e. they are still not that much different from those of the other factions (which are very much still the same too). Trading between Markets and Town Centers are similarly familiar too for the Atlanteans.

It should be noted here that while Atlantean Citizens are more expensive than other worker units, that they do not need resource drop-off buildings and that they are tougher means that they may be able to single-handedly chase away other players' worker units that are attempting to harvest faraway resource nodes/patches without protection from military units, especially during early-game.

Therefore, the developers appear to have included some other designs to balance against this, namely limiting the Atlanteans' ability to scout early-game. Their scouting units, the Oracles, do not have other scouts' speed and their prodigious sight ranges. However, while standing still, their sight range can grow over time, the growth rate slowing down as the range grows larger. There appears to be no limit to this growth at all, however; an Oracle that stood still from the start of a match can have a tremendously large sight range at the end. While the Oracle is not very good at patrolling critical locations in the map, it is a very useful sentry from the start to the end; this advantage is still balanced by the fact that it is a weak unit whose painstakingly enlarged line of sight can be eliminated by simply having enemies discover it and kill it, or at least force it to move.

The Atlanteans' mortal military units do not have much basis in known Greek history, though they may been hinted at in chapters about the Greeks' military campaigns and development of weapons. Therefore, Ensemble Studios can afford to design them to be somewhat different from their counterparts in the other factions, though there are some units that would seem not much different from the staples found in the "Age of…" franchise, such as the Murmillo (general-purpose infantry), the Katapeltes (dedicated counter-cavalry unit), the Contarius (heavy cavalry), and the Bireme (general-purpose naval vessel).

For example, the Atlanteans do not have any long-ranged siege units. Instead, they rely on the Destroyers (who are infantry with heavy pole-arms) and Fire Siphons (which are flame-spewing siege-engines). While these do have to advance within the range of enemy defenses, they are well-armored against ranged attacks, though they are quite vulnerable to counter-attacks by defending units. Still, such designs make them very useful against players who depend too much on static defenses to protect assets.

Enemies who utilize shorelines to reduce the exposure of settlements to ground-based attacks will also find that the Atlanteans' Fire Ships are more capable at razing coastal settlements than other ships. (There may be a thematic issue with the name of "Fire Ships" though, as these are historically ships that are meant to be set on fire and sailed towards enemy fleets or harbors to set them alight.)

The Atlanteans' ground army is generally almost always outnumbered due to their more expensive (and tougher) ground units, so the Chieroballista, which can shower clusters of enemies with bolts) would be a welcome inclusion in the Atlantean army. However, that it is so slow on the move and that its anti-mob abilities are so obvious would not be lost on human players, who would be more than likely to rush it first to prevent the Atlantean player from utilizing its area-effect damage. Screening it can be a chore, since it also has a minimum range, within which it cannot fire. Thus, this reduces its utility in multiplayer matches. (It is still effective against AI players, however.)

The original game had run through the gamut of legendary creatures in the designs of mythical units, so the Atlanteans' mythical units may seem a bit expediently designed. The Promethean is a good example of such expediency, its only link to Greek mythology being one of the Greek Titans' attempt at creating a "mortal". Another example is the Behemoth, which has stronger ties in Hebrew myths than it does Greek or Atlantean legends.

However, gameplay-wise, their designs are well-implemented and like the original mythical units, are very interesting and amusing to use.

As an example, the aforementioned Prometheans seem to be little more than brutes, at least until they die, upon which they split into a couple of smaller versions of themselves that are faster. Another example is the Caladria, which is a flying healer, and its water-borne counter-part, the Servant (which makes for great support for mythical navies).

Some other mythical units are more mundane, however, and this can be a bit disappointing. An example is the Hekagigantes, which is a brute specializing in sieges (of which the other factions already have their own variants), and the Satyr, which is a ranged mythical unit not that much different from the original game's Manticores and Wadjets.

Like the existing factions, the Atlanteans have divine powers; in their case, Ensemble Studios has used the mythology of the Greek Titans by designating them to be the patron gods of the Atlanteans. However, unlike the powers that the original factions have, the Atlanteans' can be used more than once; some, such as the Shockwave power that knocks armies off their feet, can be used up to three times before being permanently expended. Of course, to balance their godly boons, the more powerful of the Atlantean divine miracles can only be cast once, though the practicality of these pale in comparison with those of the seemingly lesser powers.

Some of their starting powers (granted by the main Titans of the three Atlantean sub-factions) can be powerful, such as Kronos' Deconstruction power, which effectively permanently neutralizes an enemy building (and locking its contribution towards any building limits, such as the limit of three for Fortress structures), while eventually eliminating it. This makes this power useful throughout the entire game.

Some other Atlantean divine powers conjure special edifices that in turn summon mythical units that cannot be obtained any other way, though these tend to be out of control of the casting player, such as the berserk Tartarian Spawn that are created from the Tartarian Gate power; thus, this makes them more useful as area-denial weapons. The only exception is Hesperides, which gives the owning player the ability to recruit Dryads without expending Favor and gain protection against godly powers (though there can be only be five Dryads at a time, and the magical tree can be captured and fall into enemy hands).

Perhaps the most interesting design that the Atlanteans have is their ability to convert most ground-based mortal units into Heroes on the fly. By spending resources (including favor), they can be converted to more fabulous versions of themselves (complete with changes in their models and particle effects) and gain bonuses against mythical units; some deities in the Atlantean pantheon also have upgrades that improve the stats of these converted units, making them even more lucrative to the Atlantean player.

Unfortunately, this very interesting feature also has a worrying gameplay consequence; with the exception of water-borne mythical units, the Atlantean player can often choose to forgo mythical units for mortal units instead, which can after all perform some of the roles of the Atlantean mythical units (such as anti-cavalry and siege roles) just as well. This is in contrast with the Hero units of other factions, which cannot perform many roles other than taking down mythical units. Thus, this feature dilutes the attractiveness of Atlantean mythical units, especially to players who are more concerned with straight-forward practicality than the amusing powers that mythical units have.

At a glance, the Atlanteans' methods of building bases would not seem that much different from those of other factions; even if there are differences, these are subtle, or tend to be just exchanges in stats. This can seem a disappointment to some players who had been wishing that these are just as different as how their armies and godly powers are compared to the original's. However, they have a significant difference that can be highly strategic: they can build additional Town Centers one Age earlier than other factions; the reason for this convenience will be mentioned shortly.

It should be noted here that unlike so many other expansions to RTS games before this one, there are few noticeable changes in the original factions. That is not to say that there had not been improvements; long-standing issues, like that of mortal naval units being weak against mythical naval units late into a match has been addressed with the (very convenient) introduction of the Heroic Fleet upgrade.

Improvements specific to the original factions include the Greek Beast Slayer upgrade that gives the late-game mortal Greek units damage bonuses against mythical units (thus addressing the issue of the Greeks having few hard-counters against mythical units); a Norse upgrade (Axe of Muspell) makes the Norse (who are weak at ranged combat) more competitive against flying mythical creatures; and the Egyptian Hand of the Pharaoh grants Priests the ability to pick up Relics, something the Egyptians were once very poor at.

The original factions also have some tweaks to existing units and godly powers that came together with the Titans (such as nerfs for the infamous Animals of Set power, which once inundated enemies with berserk animals whose hard-counters are none other than weak worker units), but it would seem that they would receive nothing new that act as effective counters against the Atlanteans; they have no new units, godly powers, new gods for their pantheons, etc.

Thus, considering the Atlanteans' multiple uses of divine powers, rather powerful mortal armies that can turn all Heroic suddenly and their ability to erect new Town Centers one Age earlier, the Atlanteans can be considered to be somewhat overpowered – to the undiscerningof players, that is. There are gameplay-balancing designs other than more expensive units that are implemented on the Atlanteans.

The Atlanteans' method of gaining favor (which has not been mentioned until now) is particularly restrictive compared to those of the other factions; it is only generated through Town Centers. While this also means that Atlanteans can already gain favor from the get-go compared to the other factions, the rate of gain of favor is slow enough such that their advancement (through the expenditure of favor) would be comparable to those of the original factions. The balancing effect of this restrictive design becomes apparent later into a match, when the Atlanteans' need to press for additional Town Centers can hold back their potential enough to prevent them from gaining enough Favor to overpower the other factions.

The Atlanteans can be a rather different faction to play, so it is convenient that the new single-player campaign that the expansion has scenarios that introduce their nuances at a comfortable pace; the campaign is also surprisingly lengthy, if compared to any of the original game's, and also has some very entertaining scenarios that also happen to highlight the peculiar qualities of certain Atlantean units, such as one where the player has to fend off waves of pesky, self-repairing Automata.

The expansion also brings about improvements to other aspects of Age of Mythology, though these can mostly be seen as fixes, because they address issues and gaps in the features of the original package. For example, the mini-map can now be toggled to enlarged and reduced states with the TAB key by default, thus addressing the issue of it being too small for keeping tabs on certain locations in large maps.

One of the features of the original game that appealed to players who would rather play alone or could not find multiplayer opponents at the time is the customization of AI scripts for computer-controlled opponents; this feature allowed the player to mix and match packages of scripts to create an AI player with particular behaviors. Of course, this can seem a bit tedious as it may require some programming know-how (even with the game's Scenario Editor).

In the Titans expansion, the AI packages that Ensemble Studios had considered to be among the most popular have been officially packaged, named and included in the options for the AI make-up of computer-controlled opponents. Some other minor accommodations have also been made to facilitate the inclusion of custom-made AI scripts (and maps), such as different directories that are exclusively reserved for these.

The scenario editor in the original was good, but not much more different from those of so many other RTS titles and was ultimately held back by concerns about intellectual property on the part of Ensemble Studios (or more likely, Microsoft Games). With the Titans expansion, the scenario editor for Age of Mythology gains features that would make it on par with those of high-profile RTS games at the time; these features include better management of trigger scripts, new logic conditions for triggers (which should have been in the original) and new types of triggers (but nothing which an avid RTS map-maker would not have seen).

The original Age of Mythology's online multiplayer component, EnsembleStudiosOnline (or ESO for short), was functional, but was far from a top performer in technical aptitude and user-friendliness. While the Titans expansion did not do much for the former aspect, the latter had seen a lot of fixes that made it easier for players to check out each other's network configurations. Features like game condition filters, quick setups and list of Friends had eased the trouble of getting into matches.

(Side-note: It has to be mentioned here that ESO has long gone defunct, together with Ensemble Studios.)

In conclusion, the Titans expansion might not have done much to allay skepticism that Ensemble Studios was running out of ideas for the thematic designs of its games, though it certainly had assured worries that Ensemble Studios had not lost its knack for designing well-balanced gameplay and fixing issues by listening to feedback from players.