Age of Mythology
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.
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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.