Age of Mythology Showcase: Loki
Our final showcase examines the Norse god of mischief, Loki, and all of his minions.
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When we first previewed Age of Mythology before E3 2001, the game was very much in its infancy and still more than a year away from release. After that first preview, we launched our ongoing culture showcase, in which we set out to examine the three different major gods in each one of the three different cultures. Eight months later, we have reached the end of our nine-part feature with our showcase of the final major god of Age of Mythology. Three Greek gods and three Egyptian gods have been detailed, and the father-and-son duo of Odin and Thor have shown us two aspects of the Norse culture. Now, in our ninth showcase, we unveil details of the third Norse god, the trickster Loki. A month from now, you should be able to find Age of Mythology on store shelves near you, so you won't have to wait long after this showcase ends to finally get your hands on this highly anticipated game. Now, we reveal the last showcase.
Loki is perhaps the most enigmatic god among the Asgardian deities. He was once an ally of Odin and his brood but later became a nuisance, and he eventually became a full-blown enemy. Greg Street, Age of Mythology codesigner, says, "Loki, the god of fire and trickery, undergoes interesting character development in Norse mythology. He starts out as an ally of the Norse gods, and undertakes quests with Odin and Thor. As time goes on, his mischievous streak turns downright vicious, and he begins to spawn monstrous offspring with the giants. Eventually, Loki sides with the giants for the final battle of Ragnarok, and his monstrous children, including the fenris wolf and the Midgard serpent, end up killing his old friends, Odin and Thor."
Because of his legendary role in Norse mythology, Loki lends himself to easy characterization in Age of Mythology. As the father of many monstrous children, Loki has tremendous bonues for creating myth units in the game. According to Street, "Loki was associated with trickery and monsters in Norse mythology. In Age of Mythology, his major bonus is the ability for his hersirs to summon their own myth units, for free, in combat." Free in this case means that the myth units do not cost you any resources, whether it is gold or favor. You don't even have to manually order your hersirs to summon myth units. It just happens. But the monsters thus summoned do count against your population limit.
"The way it works," Street says, "is that Loki hersirs contribute to two buckets of favor. The normal favor is the same as that generated by Thor or Odin and can be used to train myth units or research myth improvements. The secret favor is also generated by the hersir, but is a different pool. A Norse myth unit (appropriate per age, but not necessarily tied to the minor god that the Loki player has chosen) is rolled at random, and when the secret favor equals the cost of that unit, boom, it appears in combat, ready to fight."
Loki also has a more-traditional myth unit bonus. "To benefit myth unit production even more, Loki's myth units cost 10 percent less favor than other Norse myth units," Street says. "This discount applies both to units trained and to those summoned randomly by the hersirs. Because hersirs can be difficult to gather in the masses necessary to generate favor at Egyptian rates, Loki also has a 10 percent speed boost to hersirs. This lets the Loki player reach myth units faster and generally makes the hersirs better at surviving encounters with human soldiers who try to counter them."
Loki and the Longhouse
Ensemble has made sure Loki players aren't completely forced to go with myth units, though. Especially in the earlier game, before lots of favor has been generated, the Loki player needs less-mythical support in the form of standard Norse units and a burgeoning economy. To that end, Loki's other bonuses benefit his longhouse units and his resource gathering. All of Loki's longhouse units train 10 percent faster than the other Norse longhouse units. Astute readers might note that this bonus once belonged to Thor. "But," Street says, "we have since steered Thor more toward an armory and dwarf strategy." Loki's economic bonus specifically deals with ox carts. They are 50 percent cheaper and 50 percent faster. This gives Loki a small jump on gathering--he can have ox carts at more resource locations or move them between gathering sites quicker. However, to compensate for their improved efficiency, they are weaker, with 50 percent fewer hit points.
Rounding out Loki's strengths are his god power and myth improvement. "Loki's god power is the unusual spy," Street says. "Spy can be used on any enemy unit, and it allows Loki and his allies to see what that unit sees for as long as the enemy unit continues to survive. The enemy has no indication that the spy god power has been employed--not even the chat notification that spy has been used, like with other god powers. So [he or she] can't just delete the unit or send it off to get killed. Loki's Archaic Age myth improvement is eyes in the forest, which gives a +3 line of sight bonus to all infantry. This benefits his hersirs, of course, but is also useful for the starting ulfsark when scouting."
It's worth going over the longhouse units again, since two of Loki's bonuses center on the longhouse and hersir, and some confusion has resulted from other reports following the beta test. The Norse longhouse is where you build four units: the hersir, the ulfsark, the raiding cavalry, and the throwing axeman.
The hersir is the Norse hero. Unlike the named heroes of the Greek and the pharaohs of the Egyptians, hersirs are like normal units in that they can be mass-produced. However, as they're heroes, they aren't cost-effective when compared with normal units. Instead, they are myth-unit killers (as is the case with other hero units), doing eight times more damage to mythological units than normal units would. "In Age of Mythology, all hersirs have randomly generated names that come from assembling a first name with a two-part last name to produce results like Grimi Icebiter and Arn Stormfist," Street says. "I have seen players generate hersirs just to see the occasionally humorous names that are produced."
The most basic unit of the Norse, though, is the ulfsark. A standard infantry unit, they're good against cavalry, though in the later game they're not ideal against other units. "The ulfsark has a high attack (9 damage per second, which is even greater than a hoplite), but low armor (absorbs 30 percent hack and 5 percent pierce damage)," Street says. "Fortunately for him, the ulfsark benefits from more myth improvements than any other unit in the game--six--though it is impossible to get them all in one game, as they are divided among different minor gods."
As potentially the first cav unit you could build, the raiding cavalry is a light horseman. They're quick and very good against archers (+25 percent damage against them), but they're not as strong as other cavalry units. "He is also good at killing throwing axemen, which is fortunate, or Norse vs. Norse battles might quickly degenerate into throwing axeman vs. throwing axeman," Street says. "The raiding cavalry is not as strong as a Greek hippikon, and it's certainly not an Age of Kings knight. Unless players choose minor gods such as Freyja and Baldr, the Norse are better off switching to jarls or huskarls for their archer-killing needs."
Mortal and Myth Units
The final unit from the longhouse is the throwing axeman--the Norse's counterpart to archers. "The throwing axeman is one of the most misunderstood units in the game," Street says. "Even though he is ranged, he does hack damage like other infantry, not pierce damage like archers. Since he is still an infantry-killer (as are archers), this distinction might seem academic, but it does have important ramifications, as the throwing axeman generally does more damage against buildings than you might expect from an archer, and you need to keep track of opponent hack armor rather than pierce armor."
Although the throwing axemen are ranged attackers, they do not have the liabilities of an archer, such as a great vulnerability to archer counter units. "It is important to remember that the throwing axeman is an infantry and not an archer--peltasts and slingers do not get bonus damage against them," Street says. "In fact, it is hard to get bonus damage against a throwing axeman. While hypaspists and axemen (the other two counter-infantry) do get quadruple damage against the throwing axeman, the throwing axeman still beats them on a per-cost basis. Why the apparent inconsistency? Think about it like this: Norse have no true archers. This means they can't easily kill counter-infantry units, the way a Greek would use toxotes to defend his hoplites. Since the Norse are so dependent on infantry, players could just simply train nothing but counter-infantry against them if the Norse did not have a good way to stop an all counter-infantry strategy dead in the water."
With the longhouse units explained, it is now time to delve into Loki's more fantastic abilities, namely those derived from his choice of minor gods. First off are his Classical Age choices. In this second age, Loki can choose between Forseti or Heimdall. Forseti gives the Loki player trolls and the healing spring god power, while Heimdall offers einherjar and undermine. "Heimdall was the sentry of the Norse gods," Street explains. "He guarded the Bifrost Bridge that allowed access to Asgard, and blew his horn at the first sign of danger. He was a grim figure, as were many of the Norse, but also had a connection to humanity and may have fathered the first humans."
Heimdall's einherjar myth units (pronounced "ine-HER-yar") are based on the einherjar of Norse legend, who were fallen warriors carried off to Valhalla by the Valkryies. They are to be the foot soldiers in the upcoming Ragnarok, but they occupy themselves with feasting and brawling while waiting. "Age of Mythology's einherjar are massive human-looking warriors dressed in full armor and armed with axes in each hand," Street says. "Their armor rivals a fully upgraded hoplite's in the 60-70 percent range, they have 275 hit points, and they do more than 15 damage per second with their axes. The einherjar's special attack is to blow their horn in combat every 20 seconds or so, temporarily boosting the morale of all other allies in the immediate area (about 10 meters). The boost is about a +50 percent bonus to damage for the unit's next attack."
Heimdall also has three myth improvements. The first, called elhrimnir kettle after the bottomless cauldron used to feed the einherjar in Valhalla, benefits einherjar, giving them +5 attack and +10 percent hit points. Heimdall's other two myth improvements are Arctic winds, which adds +10 percent speed and hit points to Norse longboats, and safeguard, which doubles the hit points of Norse walls and towers and decreases their cost by 25 percent. Arctic winds is available in the second age, giving the Norse a nice naval advantage early in the game, while safeguard is a vital improvement for keeping the Norse balanced with the more powerful and sturdier Greek and Egyptian defenses and fortifications.
Finally, Heimdall also offers the god power undermine, which sends shockwaves at an enemy wall, destroying it completely and possibly toppling nearby walls as well. It does not have the destructive force of the earthquake power, and it's primarily used to open a hole in an enemy's defenses.
In the Heroic Age, Loki can choose between Njord or Bragi. Njord is the god of sea and winds, providing the Loki player with some water map bonuses and the mountain giant and kraken myth units. He was detailed more heavily in the Odin showcase, although in that showcase we neglected to mention his god power: walking wood. "To be honest, we weren't sure for a long time that we could pull this god power off without it looking completely silly or making the game slide toward fantasy instead of mythology," Street says. "Walking woods, however, has proven a popular god power once we got all the bugs knocked out of it. You invoke it on a forest of any type, and seven to eight of the trees in the forest uproot themselves and move to attack enemy units or buildings. Like the snakes in Anubis' plague of serpents god power, the walking woods trees are not under player control. They seek out their own targets and destroy any buildings in the area."
Bragi is Loki's other choice in the third age, and he offers some interesting bonuses. "Bragi," Street says, "was the Norse god of poetry and skalds. Skalds were the Norse equivalent of the bard character class popularized by fantasy role-playing games. Rather than strumming lutes, Norse skalds were more likely to recite epic poems similar to the Anglo-Saxon saga of Beowulf. The Norse had no paper, and carving runes into stone was time-consuming, so they passed down most of their stories, including much of their mythology, through storytelling around the campfire. That is the spirit represented by Bragi."
Bragi's myth unit is the battle boar, a hulking boar made of shining golden metal. "This myth unit," Street explains, "is based on the magical boar Gullinbursti, a mechanical construct forged by the Norse dwarves that could run faster than a horse." The battle boar is a bruising melee unit that is also incredibly fast, making him a quick and powerful cavalry equivalent. Its special attack is a bucking attack, in which it spins in place and throws up its back legs, knocking back all units in the area several meters. While not as powerful as the minotaur's gore attack, the buck attack lets you scatter a bunch of units and still do damage to the whole group.
In explaining Bragi's god power, Street says, "Flaming weapons is invoked by targeting one of your own human soldiers, ships, or siege weapons. All your soldiers, ships, and siege weapons (but not myth units) on the entire map then have their weapons or projectiles burst into flames, doing double damage for as long as the power remains active. Unlike powers such as restoration, flaming weapons affects the entire map, but does not affect allies."
Bragi also has three myth improvements. His first two, call of Valhalla and swine array, both benefit ulfsarks. Call of Valhalla gives ulfsarks a +20 percent hit points, while swine array doubles their attack power against cavalry. According to Street, "A Norse swine array was a formation where spearmen pointed their spears out in every direction to receive a charge, bristling like a boar." Bragi's final myth improvement is thurisaz rune, which boosts all myth units' speed by 12 percent. It makes the speedy battle boar even quicker, but it's especially useful for the slower-moving myth units like the einherjar and giants, which are the staples of Loki's army, thanks to his fourth age myth choice.
War is Hel
In the fourth and last age in Age of Mythology, Loki can choose between Tyr and Hel. Tyr is a good choice, offering the fimbulwinter god power and the fenris wolves, but Hel is even better. Only Loki can choose Hel, a mighty goddess who is inaccessible to Odin and Thor players. Her secrets are Loki's alone. "Hel was one of Loki's daughters, and the ruler of the worse part of the Norse underworld, where she ruled over those who died of sickness, old age, or capital punishment (it was much more glorious to die in battle as a Viking)," Street says. "Hel's power was so great that she could even defy the other gods, as she did when she refused to raise Baldr when he was slain by mistletoe."
Right off the bat, Hel gives the Loki player a great array of myth units. "Hel is unusual because she has access to three myth units--all the Norse giants," Street says. "That's right, even if Loki chooses Bragi over Njord in the Heroic Age, he still can train mountain giants in the Mythic Age. While Thor can train frost or fire giants, and Odin can train all three giants, neither can train all three within a single game. Odin must choose between frost or mountain giants, for example. Not Loki. He can send all three giants at you at once, and they are cheap to boot."
Street continues, saying, "Hel has two myth improvements, and both benefit myth units. Rampage lowers myth unit [training time] by an incredible 95 percent. That's right--Loki can train giants in one second, provided he has the favor. Granite blood is a combat boost to giants, providing 100 hit points to each type."
Indeed, it looks like with Hel, Loki is basically ushering in Ragnarok, pushing out legions of giants in record time thanks to Hel's myth units and improvements. But that is not the end of her power. As if giants weren't bad enough, her god power is awesome to behold. "Hel's god power is one of the most spectacular, for it summons the one and only dragon in the game: Nidhogg," Street says. "Nidhogg is a slow-moving flying unit with a ranged fiery breath attack. Like the son of Osiris, Nidhogg persists until killed. He cannot be healed, and he can be killed by Zeus' bolt power. Ranged units are the only way to counter him, and it takes lots, for Nidhogg has 1,800 hit points, which is more than a mountain giant and a cyclops put together. His breath weapon affects an area as well, and he can even destroy buildings. Nidhogg's only real limitation is that he can't be everywhere at once." In one game we played, we were unfortunately on the receiving end of a summoned Nidhogg. This huge dragon basically destroyed an army of 20-plus hersirs in quick fashion. Without ranged units, a player will be defenseless against Nidhogg, who can basically win the game against an unprepared opponent.
While Hel and Loki might spirit the Norse world to the end times in the form of Ragnarok, with hordes of giants and death-dealing dragons, the world of Age of Mythology is only a month away from opening up to players. The beta testing has resulted in a fine-tuning of the game's balance, and all Ensemble Studios has left to do is add a few finishing touches before the game ships. In only one month's time, you'll be able to play Age of Mythology and wage your own war between the gods.
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