Ensemble Studios has long since made a name for itself with its extremely popular Age of Empires series of real-time strategy games, so the company's latest game, Age of Mythology, seems risky. Not only is this the first Ensemble product to feature a fully 3D graphics engine, but it's also the first to stray from the purely historical context of Age of Empires and delve into fiction. In the game, you'll still find the sort of realistic armies of cavalry, spearmen, and archers you'd find in Age of Empires, but they'll be fighting alongside the likes of medusas, minotaurs, sphinxes, mummies, frost giants, trolls, and more. So don't expect Age of Mythology to help you ace any history tests. And yet, much like with the Age of Empires games, you still could easily end up learning a thing or two while playing Age of Mythology. While the game may not be a simulation of any battles that ever actually took place, it offers great insight into three core historical civilizations and their beliefs, which collectively helped shape much of the world as we know it. More importantly, Age of Mythology executes its concept extremely well, in a manner that should please fans of Ensemble's previous real-time strategy games as well as many of those who might have found the history-themed Age of Empires games a bit dry.
Age of Mythology doesn't make any huge departures from the conventions of real-time strategy gaming, but rather represents arguably the most refined example of the genre to date. If you've played any other real-time strategy game lately, especially Age of Empires II, then you'll feel very comfortable getting started with Age of Mythology, a highly complex game that will seem remarkably intuitive. If you've played a lot of Age of Empires II, then you'll get the impression from Age of Mythology that the designers spent their time further adjusting the gameplay conventions that they themselves have already helped pioneer and coming up with lots and lots of clever twists to give the game plenty of appeal, depth, and lasting value. You'll also note that Age of Mythology immediately comes across as a highly polished product--fully featured and carefully documented, Age of Mythology is also elegantly designed and surprisingly easy to explain despite its unusual concept.
Most real-time strategy games let you play as a certain number of different factions. In the case of games like this year's Warcraft III, the relatively small number of playable factions still makes for outstanding gameplay due to the very substantial differences from one faction to the next. Yet in the Age of Empires games, which featured numerous different playable civilizations, the differences between these were much less obvious--many of the factions shared units, strategies, and graphics. Age of Mythology essentially combines these two philosophies by offering you the chance to control one of three radically different civilizations--the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Norse--as well as three different subsets of each one, based on these respective cultures' major deities. There's variation even within each subfaction--during the course of a match, you'll get to ally yourself with a number of different minor deities, each of which confers its own unique benefits on your civilization. And not only does allegiance with any of the game's deities give you special bonuses, but you also get a one-time-use miracle, a unique mythological unit of some sort, special technology, and more. The option to choose from three civilizations, nine major gods, and 27 minor gods adds up to a huge amount of variety.
At its core, Age of Mythology does play a lot like Age of Empires II, as well as other real-time strategy games. A typical match will still require you to spend considerable amounts of time and attention on gathering various resources and building up your civilization, then on producing vast armies, researching numerous technologies and upgrades, and commanding your forces in large battles. The game's resource model is very similar to that of Age of Empires II, with one exception. You once again need ample supplies of food to build new units and advance from one stage of civilization to the next, and food is once again obtained from hunting, gathering, farming, or fishing. You once again need gold to research new technologies and construct military units and structures, and gold is mined from clearly visible deposits you'll find scattered about each map. You'll also need to chop plenty of lumber. Stone, the fourth resource of the Age of Empires games, is not a factor in Age of Mythology, though there is a fourth resource: favor. Favor represents the powers of your civilizations' gods and is used for summoning your civilization's powerful mythological units, as well as gaining some divine technological bonuses.
One thing that each of the game's three civilizations have in common is that their temple is one of their most important buildings. It is there that mythological units are summoned and other divine enhancements are granted. However, civilizations each gain favor differently. Greek villagers can be ordered to pray at a temple, which gradually increases favor. Egyptian workers can construct monuments to their gods--four different, successively larger ones--that generate favor. And the Norse earn favor by waging war. Civilizations also each have different types of hero units available, which specialize in defeating mythological units. The Greeks have a handful of legendary heroes such as Odysseus, Jason, and Heracles. The Egyptians have priests and a pharaoh, a powerful leader that can be used to speed construction of buildings, increase production, or serve as guardian of his people. The Norse can produce innumerable helsirs, mighty warriors that are most favored by the gods.
The way that the different civilizations generate favor and the way they must incorporate their heroes into battle make for a lot of interesting gameplay right off the bat. For instance, the Greeks can generate favor pretty easily, but cannot have as many heroes in the field as the Norse. Meanwhile, the Norse can have plenty of heroes in the field, perfect for dealing with the Greeks' large mythological armies, but cannot earn favor as readily as the Greeks or Egyptians can. Furthermore, the different civilizations gather and use resources differently. The Egyptians don't build structures as quickly, but do not use wood for making them. The Norse use their burly infantry for construction, while their worker units are used only for gathering resources. The Norse also use oxcarts as mobile drop-off points for resources, rather than the stationary structures of the other civilizations.
Of further note, hero characters are the only ones that can retrieve relics that can randomly be found on most maps. In Age of Empires, retrieved relics generated a small but steady surplus of gold. However, Age of Mythology has a number of unique relics that confer dramatic bonuses. It's therefore more important than ever to actively scout the environment, if only to discover relics early on and keep them out of your opponents' hands. You also need to search for new settlements, since, unlike in Age of Empires II, you can't just plunk down a new town hall anywhere. You need additional settlements in order to grow your population limit, and in Age of Mythology, settlements are deliberately spread out so as to discourage overly defensive play.
It may be clear by now that Age of Mythology has a multifaceted balance system that's far, far more intriguing and complex than the relatively simplistic rock-paper-scissors balance systems seen in most real-time strategy games. Besides having different resources to manage, and myth units and hero units to summon, you also have a wide variety of conventional forces at your disposal, including various foot soldiers, cavalry, archers, siege engines, ships, and more. Some of these are specialized to be exclusively well suited against certain other types of units, and all can be upgraded. While myth units can often make short work of conventional forces--units like the cyclops and the minotaur can slay most human soldiers in a single blow--you absolutely need to balance your myth units with your standard armies. For one thing, myth units can't be produced as readily as conventional forces can. For another, conventional soldiers are well suited for overwhelming enemy hero characters, which, as mentioned, are the biggest threat to your myth units.
To make things even more interesting, as you advance through up to four different ages over the course of a single battle, you'll choose between two different minor deities at each of these points. While progressing through the ages was a purely linear affair in the Age of Empires games, having these options in Age of Mythology lets you play a little more reactively and puts a certain strategic consequence on being the first to advance in age. An expert player that learns of his opponent's allegiance with, for example, Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, may then proceed to focus his efforts on training units that are effective against archers, since Artemis' powers bolster the Greeks' archer units. Of course, the player that advanced sooner should have a technological advantage to offset this.
Generally speaking, battles in Age of Mythology have a similar feel to those of Age of Empires II, meaning they're often big, brutal, and quick. Defensive structures and buildings aren't quite as resistant to damage here as in Age of Empires II, and that game's ubiquitous trebuchet is nowhere to be found. However, using long-range but vulnerable siege engines to crack enemy defenses remains a key aspect of gameplay in Age of Mythology.
The game uses a highly intuitive interface that's very similar to that of Age of Empires II and offers many of the same enhancements. Float your mouse pointer over virtually any object in the game, and you'll get concise yet thorough descriptions of what it is, what it does, and what it's good for. You can also access a technology tree that includes hypertext links to considerable amounts of historical information on all the game's units, gods, and monsters. During gameplay, automatic unit formations, good pathfinding, production and research queues, and generally intelligent autonomous behavior on the part of your units all help to minimize the amount of micromanaging you'll have to do. In another nice touch, units with special abilities use those abilities automatically--however, this can actually be used to the advantage of the player taking on those units, since he can force them to waste their special abilities on inconsequential targets. At any rate, despite all the automation, you'll absolutely need to make every moment of every match count if you plan to play competitively, and you'll have to balance overseeing your civilization with scouting and managing your battles. But at least you won't have to spend any time micromanaging any of your individual units.
Actually, one issue with Age of Mythology is that most of the units in the game appear very small, and hero units in particular--though they're distinguished with a slight glow--can be tough to pick out of the fray. Hotkeys are available for quickly cycling through all hero units, though, as well as for locating any idle villagers. For that matter, hotkeys are available for pretty much all the game's actions and can be redefined as you see fit. You can't simultaneously select as many units in Age of Mythology as you could in Age of Empires II, so you'll have to be prepared to use multiple groups of units simultaneously. But in another great touch, Age of Mythology visually represents your unit groupings with onscreen banners that indicate the makeup of that group--you'll be able to quickly distinguish your cavalry group from your siege engine group, for example.
Age of Mythology includes a linear, story-driven single-player campaign spanning three dozen missions, which let you control Greek, Egyptian, and Norse forces as you progress. Some decent-looking cutscenes using the game's 3D engine are used to drive the story along, which concerns an Atlantean hero and his legendary journeys on land, sea, and beyond. The mission variety in the campaign is good, and four different difficulty settings ensure that just about anyone should find a suitable challenge from the computer opponent. The campaign also does a fine job of introducing you to most all of the game's units and concepts contextually, or it'll at least give you some opportunity to play around with most of the units, technologies, and structures to get a sense of how everything works. While some of the campaign missions do feature some unusual circumstances or objectives that change, the game's story isn't incredibly engaging, not that Age of Empires II fans would expect it to be. These players will probably make a beeline for the game's random map mode, anyway.
The random map mode is much like that of Age of Empires II, except that it lets you choose from a significantly wider variety of settings, from the deserts of Egypt, to the frigid plains of Scandinavia, to the mythological Greek underworld. You can play with or against as many as 11 other computer-controlled players, and their behavior can be adjusted independently of each other. Different gameplay variations like those of Age of Empires II are available and include deathmatch (which starts you off with plenty of resources) and conquest (where only a military victory is allowed), while the default setting grants victory to whoever wins through conquest, through building a wonder, or through capturing all settlements. The robust, highly replayable random map mode will be the core of the game for many players.
For many others, online play will be the option of choice. Age of Mythology incorporates a much more streamlined, integrated multiplayer mode than that of Age of Empires II, and it's functionally similar to what's been found in Blizzard's and Westwood's recent real-time strategy games. Most notably, there's a feature that lets you automatically find a willing opponent looking for a similar type of match. We were able to quickly find online opponents at all hours, and Age of Mythology seems to run smoothly and stably in multiplayer over a decent Internet connection. Ensemble and Microsoft's service even tracks numerous statistics for each player and ranks them relative to the competition. Due to the complexity of this game and its broad range of options--and due to the inclusion of a complete scenario editor that lets anyone so inclined attempt to build a custom map or mission--Age of Mythology seems certain to enjoy the same sort of long life online as its predecessors.
Age of Mythology is a great-looking game, filled with bright colors and carefully detailed animations. You'll see Egyptian slingers whirl their weapons menacingly as they charge into battle. You'll see minotaurs gore their victims, sending their unfortunate foes flying. You'll see some impressive divine powers; Egyptian god Thoth's meteor and Horus' tornado are among the most spectacular. As mentioned, the game's units, and to some extent the buildings, can look a bit too homogeneous on first impression, but with time you'll learn to differentiate everything at a quick glance. And you'll consistently be entertained by the entire look of the game, which uses lots of ambient animations to make the world seem alive. Fans of classic films such as The Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts will note that Age of Mythology attempts to re-create the same sort of dynamic as the battles in those films. When you see a small band of human forces come across even a single myth unit in Age of Mythology, you'll just wince as the myth unit invariably deals grievous damage to its mundane foes.
Age of Mythology also sounds terrific. It has a stirring musical score that's distinctly different for each of the civilizations, and unit voices are done in the three cultures' native languages. The campaign's cutscenes are in English, but its voice-over is still very good, giving you a strong sense of the different characters' personalities even when the rapid-fire missions don't leave much room for development. Plenty of memorable audible cues are used to signify various in-game events deserving of your attention, and the sounds of battle are convincingly done, though a bit subdued much like in Age of Empires II. Those stepping into Age of Mythology after having played Warcraft III might miss hearing many different responses from each unit, but overall, Age of Mythology is as much a pleasure to listen to as it is to watch.
Of course, what's most important is that Age of Mythology plays remarkably well. Featuring lots of interesting, inventive design decisions, plenty of fun-to-use units, and tons of variety, Age of Mythology is the last real-time strategy game you'll need for a long time. It's a necessary addition to any real-time strategy fan's collection, and the game is accessible enough so that even those without much experience with the genre should be able to pick up and enjoy the game without getting overwhelmed. Novices and die-hard RTS players alike will all note the remarkable amount of care and quality that clearly went into every aspect of Age of Mythology--the sorts of things that have already established Ensemble Studios as one of the leading developers of real-time strategy games and that now reinforce the company's position as a leader and innovator in one of PC gaming's most competitive and most popular genres.