|I suppose it's not saying much about Age of Mythology, Microsoft's new real-time strategy title based on the Age of Empires legacy, that the most remarkable thing about it is that I've seen commercials for it on television. It really isn't that often that I see PC titles advertised while I'm watching, say, Monday Night Raw, and considering how often console titles show up during ad breaks, it's enough to make you wonder how hard PC game publishers are working to win new gamers to their cause, and whether or not many titles are just sold to an existing market of familiar customers. |
There's certainly enough that's familiar about Age of Mythology to make a body wonder. Building on the original Age of Empires and the subsequent Age of Kings, Age of Mythology takes players into the real-time strategy world of the Greeks, Egyptians and Norse, affording them not only the opportunity for those cultures to clash, but also their heroic and mythological figures as well. Building a careful balance between each culture, players can go head-to-head online or take on a fairly lengthy single-player campaign as they gather resources, build their civilizations, and win the favor of their gods.
None of which, if you've played an RTS title in the last few years, is especially new or dazzling. And yet despite the all-too-familiar trappings, Age of Mythology still manages to be an interesting, addictive and compelling title, mostly for the way it streamlines its own conventions for the sake of fun gameplay.
The game's premise is based on the adventures of a Arkantos, an Atlantean general who happens to run with the Big Boys of Mediterranean myth. Beginning with some tutorial adventures in which he slays a cyclops, drives off pirates and defends his own shores, players follow Arkantos through to the siege of Troy, the deserts of Egypt, the frozen plains of the Danes and to the gates of Tartarus itself. As he travels, players have the chance to play as all three civilizations, and must adapt to each culture's peculiarities in order to prevail.
In fact, the balance between cultures is one of the most entertaining aspects of Age of Mythology. While the previous Age of Empires titles boasted some wonderfully complex technology trees and unique units, playing one culture was fundamentally the same as playing any other. One might demand a greater focus on building, mining or research than the others, but the mechanics of play were basically the same. Rather than simply adding more units to this approach, Age of Mythology has changed the very means by which each of its three civilizations goes about their daily business.
For experienced players, the Greeks are the most immediately familiar, using peasants for the daily business of gathering resources and building structures, while a dedicated army goes off to war. On the other hand, the Norse can dedicate their fighting forces to both warfare and construction, making any attack on their town center a risky proposition indeed.
Somewhere in the middle are the Egyptians, who play much the same as the Greeks, but with the addition of the uniquely powerful Pharoah. Much like the Core Commander of the classic Total Annihilation, the Pharoah can lend his influence to greatly accelerate the construction of new buildings, or turn his powers towards turning the tide of combat.
Besides the Pharoah, each civilization also has access to hero units, which are generally advanced versions of stock soldier types. Hero units are generally pivotal to the scenarios in the main campaign, particularly Arkantos, and carry special powers to make them especially effective when the odds are against them, or when they're faced with mythical foes. Some heroes have the power to rally the units around them, while others fire missles at a superhuman rate, or smash foes around as though they were mythical units themselves. Whatever their powers, hero units can make the difference between an effective assault and a lost cause, particularly considering the wide array of myth units at the enemy's disposal.
Ah, and who am I kidding? Myth units are half of this game's fun. Powered by divine favor, myth units add all kinds of flavor to the battlefield, allowing players to field an army of minotaurs, medusae, dragons and giants alongside their regular troops. Magical units like these aren't really anything new to players of games like Warcraft III, but Age of Mythology manages to make it especially fun to have a hulking, blue-skinned giant or a massive, impassive colossus patrolling around the player's town center.
Partially this is because mythical units are relatively hard to come by, thanks to the addition of a new resource to the game. Now, along with staples like gold, food and wood, players must also gather divine favor from the gods, in order to win their favor and generate mythical units and bonuses. The different civilizations have different means for winning favor -- the Greeks worship at temples, the Egyptians must build ever more elaborate monuments, while the Norse win favor for their victories in battle -- which in turn drive their overall strategy. Mythical units are balanced out by their high resource demands, some of them demanding four to five times the population space of a single hoplite, but woe to the player who concentrates exclusively on conventional units to win their victories. It's only too easy for a single hydra or a small group of medusae to lay waste to a squad of the most elite troops.
All of which is all well and good, but is made better by the fact that many of the slowest (and occasionally most agonizing) parts of the original Age of Empires interface have been left behind. Most obviously, this is demonstrated in the fewer number of more robust fighting units; however, it manifests itself in the smaller touches as well. The Norse, for example, have oxcarts to transport their goods, rather than constructed drop-off points. Farms offer unlimited resources, rather than needing to be re-seeded every six or seven minutes. And perhaps my favorite, units are automatically sorted as soon as they're grouped, allowing players to isolate unit types and issue orders to them quickly, rather than forcing them to individually point, click, and hope.
Finally, as players advance through their ages, they're offered the choice between a number of different patron dieties to worhip as they move forward. Each diety offers their own set of advantages to the players, in terms of myth units, bonuses and structures, granting new variety to those who choose to play even the same civilization repeatedly. On top of that are some spectacular gods-granted powers, again dependent on the players' choice of patron, which can rain down fire, plague, lightning and even reptiles on their enemies, even as they can heal, protect and bless their allies.
All of this is delivered on a new three-dimensional engine, an improvement long overdue for the series. Individual units are detailed and interesting, each of them featuring a few more animations than the standard chop, block and run. Heroes and mythical units will leap, smash and toss each other and lesser units around with ease, bringing to mind the chaotic combat of Battle Realms -- indeed, like Battle Realms, it's almost too easy to lose track of your most valuable units in a melee. Age of Mythology does offer a quick flag at the top of the screen that allows players to scroll through their heroes, but often it's not nearly quick enough to save heroes from an all-too-ignominious demise on the battlefield.
Nevertheless, the game itself is very pretty, from the spectral souls that rise like steam from the soil of the Underworld to the devastation of a divine meteor storm. Hapless soldiers sail gracefully through the air as they're flung from the jaws of dragons and manticores; water laps peacefully at the shores of Atlantis; tornados whirl menacingly across the landscape, tossing aside all those unfortunate enough to stray into their path. The sprites are detailed enough that they're used for the in-game cinematics, much in the same vein as Battle Realms, to provide a relatively seamless transition between scenarios as the game moves forward. The sound is effective as well, if a little sparse in actual unit sounds; the music is appropriate and unobtrusive, though, and carries the spirit of the game very well.
Much to my pleasant surprise, Age of Mythology arrived at my desk relatively bug-free. An automatic option allowed me to check for a patch immediately after I installed, and I was up and running with the most recent version within a few minutes.
There are still a few graphical hiccoughs, though, the most serious of which keeps a persistent and ugly glitch following the mouse cursor wherever it goes on-screen. Considering that's the worst I've come across, though, I have to say it's one of the most reliable titles I've played in the last few months.
For that matter, reliable is a word that describes Age of Mythology pretty well. Not the most visually breathtaking title on the market, and not exactly the most original either, Age of Mythology is instead like a very logical, entertaining and playable next step for the series. All too familiar at first glance, it promises fast, fun gameplay with a streamlined interface and a surprising amount of depth, and is an excellent alternative for both those who are looking for a worthy heir to the Age of Empires games, as well as those looking for a solid alternative to the Warcraft series.