Age of Mythology
Welcome to Ancient Greece. A time of legends - when you couldn’t move for would-be heroes traipsing off to gain riches and glory by slaughtering some poor deformed creature who’d just happened to steal a few sheep. And what about the gods? Bastards the lot of them. Bored of the endless toga parties and fighting among themselves, they meddled in the affairs of men, until those mortals raised their fists to the heavens and defied them - whereupon they gleefully descended upon the earth bringing with them torture methods involving endlessly shifting boulders up a hill or having some of the squashier parts of ones anatomy repeatedly plucked out by the local wildlife.
In fact the Greek gods aren’t the only ones getting the Age Of treatment, as the game also revolves around two other eras of gods and mortals, the Norse and the Egyptians. And what better mythical times for the setting of Age Of Mythology, the latest title from Microsoft’s world famous, award-winning RTS series and its first 3D strategy outing?
I have to admit in Age Of Empires II: The Age of Kings, I only took a passing interest in the single-player campaign. It was solid but standard fare, and multiplayer proved to be much more of an interesting training ground. But in AoM things are very different. For a start there's much more of an absorbing storyline to the massive 36-mission campaign (divided up into the three eras), akin to the quality storyline in Warcraft III. This was frankly the last thing I expected to see in a Microsoft RTS. Gameplay they do well, but a quality storyline always seemed something that was previously left on the cutting room floor.
In fairness, they have far better story-based material to work with this time around, considering that Greek, Norse and Egyptian mythology is full of rich and enthralling tales. In Microsoft’s interpretation, the single-player campaign starts with the Greeks being called upon to face down a number of threats to their lands. Initially the danger comes from local pirates, but later you get to participate in the Trojan Wars and end up in pursuit of a mysterious maniacal Cyclops.
After the main Greek heroes pursue the Cyclops into Hades and subsequently get stranded, they traverse the underworld and end up emerging in Egypt, and this seamlessly leads on to the second part of the campaign, and subsequently onto the last Norse section. While there isn’t exactly character 'development’ going on, there are key players throughout the story whose adventures you follow, and there are times when you could almost fool yourself into thinking you were playing an RPG.
Old And New
Much of the underlying gameplay of AoM will be familiar to fans of the series, as a lot of the basic structure is taken from the previous two games. Food is still gathered from berry bushes, farms, wild animals and fish. Wood is chopped from surrounding forests, gold is dug up from mines and stone is no longer part of the economic equation. The main economic buildings are still town centres, archery, stables, barracks and blacksmiths - the usual stuff.
But Ensemble Studios has made a conscious effort to make AoM's gameplay much more distinguishable from previous titles (they’ve even included a map editor) and for the most part it achieves it in a way that Warcraft III didn’t fully pull off. There may only be three main sides, but much more effort has been put into making those sides as diverse as possible, both through giving the civilisations their own unique hero units, and by making the way each side plays and evolves, different.
The Greeks are the easiest to get to grips with, because they play more like the original sides in Age of Kings, and require a balance of all resources to produce buildings and units, and adopt a similar style of gathering and upgrading. The Egyptians take a bit more time to learn, as they don’t need wood for their basic structures, so things like houses, markets and drop sites are free. However they are slower to construct buildings than the other sides, although faster at creating units.
The Norse are probably the most unique side of the three. Their gatherers do just that - gather food. Dwarves can do the same as gatherers, only slower, but they’re very fast at collecting gold. Building structures is left to the military units, which means the Norse will make an awesome rushing side.
Rather than opting for multiple civilisations with predetermined strengths and weaknesses, the way a side develops is now reliant on your personal choices to a certain extent.
This is mainly achieved by the introduction of gods and worship. The three main civilisations are divided into three sub-groups, rather like factions. For example, when you play as the Norse you get a choice of your major god of worship, Odin, Thor or Loki. While the Norse as a whole share basic units and buildings, each god comes with their own benefits and powers. So this in effect means there are nine possible civilisations in the game, although they’re not as easily defined as those in Age Of Kings. But it doesn’t stop there. As you advance through the ages you get a choice of several minor gods to worship, which each bring their own advantages. The Norse have nine minor gods in all and with two being unlocked at a time as you advance through each age, although which two you get to choose from will depend on which major god you start with.
It sounds complicated and it is at first, because it's much more of an innovative way of developing your civilisation than before. One of the problems with Age Of Kings, particularly in multiplayer, was that the seasoned player would see what civilisation their opponent was playing and automatically know what units and strengths they had to defend against. In AoM you’re never entirely sure just what you're going to face, which makes multiplayer that much more interesting, and we'll be testing that out fully next month in our online review.
Ensemble Studios has obviously had a lot of fun developing the godly powers of each deity. The gods you use as your major and minor objects of worship will determine the unique mythical units your side can create, bestow innate benefits to your side such as faster building or cheaper units, and also give you powerful spells that can be activated once in a game. These powers can do widespread damage to units and buildings such as the Meteor Storm power, help benefit your units in battle by channelling them with health or armour, as well as aiding things like speedier farming or faster mining.
A New Age
What AoM does have by the bucketload is an unparalleled sense of atmosphere for an RTS game. This is not so much down to the graphics, which while still head and shoulders above Empire Earth, pale in comparison to Warrior Kings and only really come into their own when there’s loads happening on screen. In the wilderness around your camp, deer, bear and rhinos roam; above birds and bats circle the air, while sharks prowl the surrounding waters and seaweed waves in the shallows. And the detail isn’t just confined to the landscape. Your troops look their best when in the midst of a good battle, and the new 3D engine that Microsoft is so proud of really starting to pay off. Egyptian Sphinxes rear up onto their hind legs, savagely mauling any unfortunate units that come near them with their front claws, Minotaurs and Cyclops toss their enemies through the air, breaking the trees all around them - it’s an impressive sight.
Age Of Mythology contains everything you would expect from an award-winning design team with such an impressive pedigree. I went in expecting good all-round and accessible gameplay, and I got that. But what I didn’t expect, was to be surprised by so many features, and as many a jaded reviewer will tell you, surprise is an all too rare quality to find. The storyline is great, the gaming longevity is endless and there’s an impressive level of detail throughout, from the environments, to the movements of the individual units.
While the visuals in Age Of Mythology might not be up to today’s standard, with games like Warrior Kings and Medieval shining brightly, the gameplay and especially the depth of detail is every bit as entertaining and challenging. Ensemble might not be the kings of RTS anymore, but the genre they helped to pioneer is all the better for Mythology and hopefully you’ll be able to see past the screenshots to the beauty within.
Call On The Gods To Bless You With Storybook Creatures To Fight By Your Side
Mythical units provide some of the game’s strongest and most entertaining features. You gain the ability to build them by accumulating favour points through worshipping the gods. Each side has a different way of doing this; Greeks send their villagers to worship in a temple, Egyptians build monuments to the gods and the Norse gain favour by engaging in hunting and battle. Myth units are very strong and can only really be effectively faced down by heroes. The type of mythical units you create depend on the god you choose to worship, but some of the more interesting include Hydras, which grow more heads the longer they fight and Medusas which turn other units to stone. Combine this with mythical units like the Colossus, Cyclops, giant lions and Minotaurs and battlefields start to look like an explosion in a Ray Harryhausen workshop.
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Ensemble, Creators Of the-Age Of Empires series, are taking their latest title to literally godlike proportions. Age Of Mythology is a hugely ambitious game which attempts to bring to life the stuff of legend at a time when the Greek, Norse and Egyptian cultures were competing for supremacy. While many of the units and characters inAoM will be familiar to long-time AoE fans, the dependency on the power of each culture’s individual gods will make for an entirely new type of game. Your choice of god will determine your military and economic abilities and also which ridiculously over-the-top unique abilities you get to unleash on your enemies, such as earthquakes and meteor showers among other things.
The big news here is that this will be the first Ensemble title to be fully 3D. It has to be said that while AoE II is undoubtedly an excellent 2D game," sooner or later Ensemble had to bite the bullet and bring its technology in line with its incredible knack for making hugely addictive RTS titles. It’s happened, and Age Of Mythology is its name. Stick this one on your most-wanted list and look out for an extensive preview in PC, coming up some time soon.
There was a time not too long ago when the thought of Age Of Mythology from Ensemble Studios would spin us into a delighted whirlwind of anticipation. But times are changing. Don't get us wrong. We're excited all right, but we're under no illusions...
Black Cactus (Warrior Kings) and Creative Assembly (Shogun) have proved that Ensemble Studios can no longer take their status as unassailable kings of RTS for granted. The age of empires and kings has been ousted by an era of warriors, shoguns and the odd Cossack or two.
It's an interesting predicament for the former sultans of strategy. On one hand expectation is not as high as with AoE2: Age Of Kings. On the other hand the company knows that Age Of Mythology is its trump card in reclaiming the RTS crown. And make no mistake, Ensemble Studios wants that number one spot back. By the gods, it's even prepared to go 3D.
Myth And Hype
AoM's BANG! engine propels Ensemble Studios into the 21 st century with consummate style. The gorgeous environment features lifelike rolling landscapes and oceans, realistic sunlight, and lush, living forests. The fluid animation even gives Battle Realms a run for its money.
Yep. AoM will require a slight perspective adjustment for AoK fans, and we say AoK fans because there's no doubting the inspiration behind this new baby. AoM is literally AoK with divine intervention and 3D Medusas. And why the hell not? The only real reason AoK was surpassed in the first place was because technology moved on.
And so the 'build an empire from nothing' gameplay mechanics for AoM are wholly familiar. There are nine civilisations to choose from, with three each in the Greek, Norse and Egyptian cultures. Each of these civilisations features mythological gods and creatures. So. expect epic confrontations with armies led by Minotaurs and other monstrosities. Luckily, divine assistance is at hand from gods such as Ra, Isis, Thor, Odin, Zeus and Poseidon. Players can harness their powers, smiting enemies with meteor storms, volcanoes, lightning strikes and floods.
These godly shenanigans are all accompanied by glorious special effects. The approach of a tornado is particularly impressive: the world darkens as the sun is eclipsed by swirling wind and then the deadly funnel appears and carves its way through the land. Ah, the power of the immortals! Ah, the power of GeForce! It's all very satisfying indeed.
AoM definitely has an explosive vibe about it - and it's clear that the developers are concentrating on keeping all 36 single-player scenarios as spectacular as possible. The range of locations and set-pieces include the siege at Troy, the pyramids in Egypt and a sprawling mythological underworld. Oh, and if you're interested, the people behind this inspired level design received the 2000 Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences award for story and character development. And yes, there is a huge multiplayer emphasis too, as well as a level editor that comes with the game.
So, we have a talented team of designers here, the question is can they make gathering berries and raising massive armies as exciting as the rest of the game? Well, obviously it's going to be tricky, but one thing Ensemble can do better than most is portray the mundane in a surprising compelling way.
Hopefully establishing profitable trade routes with other tribes and expanding your little settlements into technologically advanced civilisations will be another area that benefits from the loving touch of an award-winning level design team.
And talking of advanced civilisations; there are a total of four ages to progress through regardless of your culture, and like AoK there's a massive technology tree to explore. Players even get to chose different ways to advance though the ages to create unique civilisation bonuses.
God Only Knows
From what we've seen, Age Of Mythology may just possess everything you could possibly want in an RTS game. It's got the looks, it's got the power and it's got gameplay heritage that simply screams quality. But like we said, it's going up against some damn fine competition. Warrior Kings and Shogun will not just stand aside. So, what's it to be? Gaming obscurity or immortality? In the end only God knows.
For The Second time in as many pages, I decry a game for its ugliness even though its of venerable 2002 vintage - but then again, Age Of Mythology looked like a slapped arse compared to its rivals even when it was released. So don't let the dogs loose just yet.
If youre an Age Of Empires nut, then you should by all means make use of its budgetary presence to bump up your back catalogue - it remains an intriguing strategy affair with a neat storyline. A tenner does seem a bit much though. Potential buyers should perhaps check out Stronghold: Legends first which may not have so much of the Civilization-management, but still plays some similarly neat tricks for a relatively low price.
Rushing, the art of surprising your opponent with a quick yet lethal attack before they've got their act together, has always been a carefully honed tactic in the Age Of community. Experienced players even time unit creation down to the second, and I really hoped that Age Of Mythology would help stamp out this questionable art. But the bastards are still there, bombarding the forums with their smug little equations for taking the fun out of a game.
What Lies Beneath
Although the underlying mechanics of AoM bare a resemblance to the previous games in the areas of economy balancing and unit creation. Ensemble Studios has added a lot of features to spice up the gameplay, especially in multiplayer. For a start there are only three main sides, all be it with their own factions, depending on your deity of choice, so more work has gone into making sure the sides are more defined and balanced than those in Age Of Kings.
The Greeks play more like an Age Of Kings side, they are strong and reasonably fast, a great choice for beginners, but a bit boring when compared to the other powers. At first glance the Egyptians and Norse may look like the weaker choices, and in truth they do take a lot more dedication to master and exploit. However, in the hands of an experienced player, they can both be extremely effective.
The ability of the Norse to build structures without the need for peasants along with the Egyptian's free-build feature on basic buildings makes them a golden choice for rushers. But the most important thing for those thinking of embarking in some online combat is to learn to defend against such tactics, as the longer games are ultimately more satisfying, as well as being a visual feast. The sheer delight of seeing your Norse Nidhogg dragon embarking on an airborne battle and trouncing fire-breathing Egyptian phoenixes is a sight that strategy gamers live for.
Keeping Things Under Control
Interface wise there doesn't seem to be as many options for tweaking the features of your game as there were in Age Of Kings, such as starting at different ages, but the variety of maps are much more interesting with verdant green Greek landscapes, sandy Egyptian oases, snow-covered Norse tundras and even the blackened, lava-strewn Hades levels.
The Age Of games have always had a strong online profile and Mythology is no exception with an abundance of servers available. However, in this case the single-player is such a great experience that it still edges over the multiplayer. Unfortunately, as is often the case, multiplayer has brought out a few minor bugs, mostly in the areas of upgrades not appearing to effect units, but it has already been patched and hopefully Ensemble will continue to do its best to keep the game as bug free as possible.
In contrast to its sprite-base predecessor, Ensemble Studios is treating the RTS gamer to a brand new 3D engine for their soon to be released Age of Mythology. The October 31st launch of AoM has been highly anticipated by many gamers who have eagerly awaited the follow up to Age of Kings, however, AoM is visually and strategically different than its sister title. Having played through the Beta and Alpha releases, most find themselves on one end of the spectrum or the other"?Love it'? and 'Hate it.'? To love it is to relish the graphically stunning environments that comprises the AoM environment.
Highly detailed buildings, animals, and vegetation are simply eye-popping. Unsurpassed water effects are no less than perfect and from the wave action and rippling of the water to its semi-translucency, gamers will continually lose their focus while staring in awe at the sea. Single player campaigns seemlessly blend cutscenes with skirmish scenarios. The incorporation of mythological Gods, God powers, and units is creative and adds a new twist to strategies used against your opponents.
What better way to stimey your opponents' advancement than to rain down a flaming meteor storm on his seemingly protected city? To hate it is to have anticipated that this is a glorified expansion of AoK, which it isn't. This is a title unto itself and its base qualities separate it significantly from its predecessor. Some may be frustrating with never-ending supplies of fish or food from farms. Others will pull their hair out at the population cap that results from not having occupied enough town center locations. Gamers will continue to argue the merits (or drawbacks) of changes such as these for months to come.
To put it simply, you have to try it before you flog it. Buy it with the knowledge that this is a different game entirely and it should supplement your 'Age'? library, not replace it. Ensemble has done an exemplory job of giving us a great RTS title with graphics and animations that fail to dissapoint. With a slew of other strategy titles on the market, Ensemble has established itself as second to none. Put AoM at the top of your Christmas list this year and pray that you've accumulated enough favor with Santa to get this perfect stocking stuffer.