November 4, 2002 - Ensemble's a great developer. Their Age of Empires series has long been one of my favorites, not just in the RTS genre, but for gaming in general. But until now, Ensemble's been a one-trick pony. And while Age of Mythology isn't a big enough departure to qualify them as a two-trick pony, the refinement and sophistication of the title should put to rest any fears that they've strayed too far from their established models. In fact, Age of Mythology is much more polished and gripping than any of their previous efforts.

But like I said, they didn't change too much of the series' core principles. The basics are almost entirely the same. Players must build towns to gather resources to produce armies to conquer their enemies. It's effectively the same mechanic that Ensemble, Blizzard and Westwood have reduced down to a science. The big change here is that Ensemble leaves behind the world of historical conflict and moves on to invent a new world of myth. Using three rich mythological legacies -- Greek, Egyptian and Norse -- Age of Mythology finally offers a place where mythological creatures contend with mighty heroes with timely support thrown in by attentive gods.

The single player game tells the story of Arkantos, the leader of Atlantis. A disturbing dream and an invasion or two call him away from his home to join the fight against the city of Troy. Fans of Homer should already be clued in to this but for you non-Classics majors, it's enough to know that this conflict is an important one for the Greek pantheon. The gods all chose up sides and used the siege as an excuse to work out a lot of repressed rage and violence.

But things move beyond this simple war pretty quickly and Arkantos finds himself involved in something much larger. Without giving too much of the story away, Arkantos and his ever-expanding company of heroes is trying to stop a big evil guy from releasing an even bigger evil guy on the world. This plays out over the course of 32 missions from the shores of Atlantis to the walls of Troy to the banks of the Nile to the snowy forests of Scandinavia. I could say so much more but that would just ruin the experience for you.

I will say that this is a much tighter and more interesting story than those found in the previous Age games. Admittedly the subject matter allows for a lot more invention and reinterpretation than the scenarios in the more-historically based Age of Empires games. But even so, the game makes a real effort to be faithful to the idea that these ancient cultures considered myth as a form of history. Bruce Shelley has said that his team approaches myth with as much research and accuracy as any of the purely historical titles.

And while I'm impressed with the fantasy elements of the story, I'm also equally happy that the vast campaign tells a single story with lots of recurring characters and situations. Arkantos really becomes the hero of the story (well, one of them at least) in a way that William Wallace never could have. The plot twists and rivalries that fill the game all assume greater significance because you start to get attached to certain characters and story elements. This identification and interest is supported by some amazing cutscenes that add lots of personality and character to the game. (In one of the later cutscenes, an enemy army stands opposite your own. The enemy general tells you to surrender if you want a painless death. One of your heroes launches a bolt at one of the enemies and says, "We surrender. Come closer.")

At first the narrow, single story approach seems like a bit of a weakness. After all, with 32 missions that build upon one another, it takes a while for the game to get to the real cross-cultural dynamism that we all tasted in the multiplayer beta. There, leading Greek forces against Norse or Egyptian, you started to think in terms of complete extermination of an entire group. The actual game requires lots of cooperation between the cultures, not so much in terms of fielding multi-cultural armies but in terms of the purpose of each mission. The Greeks are never out to wipe out the Egyptians. Instead, all three sides are fixated on thwarting the plans of their various nemeses, regardless of the forces they're controlling.

As a result the first several levels are strictly Greek on Greek (note to self: register While I was impatient to get to the Egyptian and Norse sections of the campaign, the fact that Age of Myth takes its time to introduce new unit sets means you get to learn about the game a little at a time. Eventually you may even find yourself in charge of Norse raiders and Egyptian camelry all backed up by a group of Greek cyclopses. Again, I won't spoil the story; I'll just say that the game makes all of this make sense in context.

I'm quite pleased that Ensemble has opted to replace the "kill everything" missions of most RTS games with much more limited and focused goals. A particular mission might require you to gather three relics at one central location, or merely escort one unit to the other side of the map. As a result, you can be a bit more inventive (and a bit less unclear) about your objectives. Last ditch, heroic efforts can actually turn the tide here.

The god powers are also incredibly influential. And since there are three core gods for each of the three sides and numerous minor gods, there's a lot of room to vary the gameplay. If you'd prefer to focus on a particular aspect of gameplay (like economy) or a particular unit type, there's a god that'll work for you. Each god comes with a special one-time use power that can radically affect the game as well as a batch of special myth creatures that only they have access to.