Age of Mythology
Ensemble’s latest offering is a sprawling, epic tale packed with all manner of mythic beasts
Without a doubt, Ensemble Studios is one of the premier developers of real-time strategy games. Its first two titles, Age of Empires and Age of Empires II: Age of Kings, received great critical acclaim and combined to sell approximately 9 jillion copies, thus adding substantial amounts to Mr. Gates’ already bulging coffers.
Of course, that kind of success brings with it gargantuan-sized expectations. The next offering, Age of Mythology, does an admirable job of living up to those expectations, even though it falls just a bit short in a couple of areas. In fact, were it not for these gripes, AoM would easily rival Warcraft III as the best RTS game of the year.
For its third title, Ensemble jettisoned the semi-historical settings that fueled the first two Age games in favor of the classical mythology of heroes and monsters from the ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Norse cultures. The primary hero of this saga is Arkantos, a young fella who hails from the magical isle of Atlantis.
A Three-Hour Tour
The story, which is sort of parallel to Homer’s Odyssey (in fact, Odysseus appears at various times throughout the tale), begins with Arkantos heading off to fight in the Trojan War. It seems that Poseidon is ticked off at the Atlanteans, and the only way to placate him is if the war in Troy is brought to an end.
After the battle of Troy, Arkantos wishes to head home, but circumstances dash his plans and he’s forced to journey across most of the known (and unknown) world on mythology’s most tortuous route back to his pad. Along the way he visits the Underworld, Egypt, Circe’s Island, and the Norse lands of Northern Europe before he finally manages to get back to Atlantis for the final throwdown.
As you’d expect, this kind of epic globe-trotting campaign makes for some imaginative settings and situations. The 32 single-player missions (not counting the three tutorial missions) are divided into three campaigns — Greek, Egyptian, and Norse — which also represent the three playable sides. And many of the missions are extremely well-crafted.
The early mission where you sneak out of the Trojan Horse under the cover of night and let in the rest of your troops, who quickly raze the city, is a great deal of fun. Circe’s Island serves as the backdrop for another standout experience: As soon as you land on the island you’re turned into a pig (!), so you must set out and free the other pigs (which are Odysseus and his men), all while fending off farmers and other would-be butchers.
Another highlight is a mission set in the Underworld, where you have to protect a group of dwarves who are desperately trying to build a new hammer for Thor. And the “Welcoming Committee” mission has you luring Norse clan leaders out of their bases so you can kill them.
Sprinkled throughout these encounters are moments of genuine comedy — a truly delightful surprise. During an early cut-scene, Arkantos and Odysseus share a disgruntled look after they learn that Agamemnon’s plan is for them to do all the fighting; once the fighting is done, Agamemnon will “rush in” and rescue Helen. Another great moment is when the bad guy Skult tells Arkantos and Ajax to surrender. In response, Ajax fires a giant wooden bolt that kills one of Skult’s men, and Ajax then says: “We surrender...move a little closer.” Great stuff.
Build Me a Settlement, Dammit!
Regrettably, most of AoM’s missions suffer from one recurring, frustrating problem: a severe case of “build base-itis.” No matter the situation, you’re forced to form a settlement, build an economy, and raise a large armed force before heading out to take on the enemy. Even the mission set on Circe’s Island sees you eventually building a settlement so you can destroy her. Why not just have your men, once they’ve been returned to human form, sneak across the island, find a boat, and escape?
I know base-building is inherent to the genre, but even the most ardent fan will be put off by just how much there is. What’s most disappointing is that AoM’s setting really lends itself to imaginative mission design — and I don’t think the designers took full advantage of the backdrop, which is a shame. It would’ve been cool, for instance, to have an entirely sea-based mission, wherein Poseidon threw sea monsters at you while you tried to steer a ship convoy to safety.
Fans of the earlier Ages will find managing these settlements extremely familiar. The resources to collect are your standard food, wood, and gold, with a fourth resource called “favor” that each side has a unique way of collecting (see sidebar).
In addition, AoM follows the same age advancement from the Age games. Moving through the four ages requires you to collect a specific amount of gold, wood, or food, and build a specific structure, such as a market or an armory. The really cool thing about the age advancements is that each of them provides you with a unique opportunity to shape your strategy for the remainder of that mission, thanks to the gods above.
Because of AoM’s setting, interaction with the gods is a regular occurrence and especially plays out during the age upgrades. Depending on the mission, you can choose to worship one of two minor gods, and your selection determines which special units, upgrades, and god powers will be available, adding a wonderful bit of strategic depth. For example, if you’re playing a mission wherein water is a factor, you’ll want to pick a minor god that gives you a water-based myth creature, such as the Kraken, which you can then summon to obliterate an enemy fleet.
After each age upgrade you’re given a god power, with a maximum of four per mission. Again, these powers — which range from swarms of locusts to massive asteroid attacks that flatten stretches of land — help bolster a particular strategy. And if you pick your god powers carefully, you can use them one after another to decimate an enemy’s forces.
Go Forth and Pillage
In terms of military units, the three playable sides provide a bevy of unique men, heroes, and mythological units. Each side has its own standard military grunts, such as spearmen or the equivalent, but the real fun comes from using hero and myth units. These are the bona-fide ass-kickers, and they’re an absolute joy to play around with (see sidebar). More importantly, they’re also properly balanced.
And this balance is particularly noteworthy. A powerful myth creature will make short work of the game’s standard grunts, but since heroes get an attack bonus when fighting myth creatures, it’s extremely important to have a couple of heroes mixed in with your fighting force. And if you create a hero that also heals allied units, you’ll have a powerful army at your behest.
Managing that army can be a bit annoying at times, though, because of AoM’s errant pathfinding. On more than one occasion, I’d try to send my units to a specific spot on the map and they’d end up on a hill overlooking the spot where I wanted them to be. Other problems include units getting trapped between rows of bushes, units “jerking” this way and that as they move, and units hugging a cliff instead of simply walking down the road in front of them (which results in them moving much slower than they should).
It’s also irritating that units won’t move to let another unit pass by. During one mission, for example, I needed my hero to board a transport ship, but the shore was covered with my army. Instead of the army moving to let her through, she tried to walk around them, which got her nowhere. Only when I went in manually and created a path was I able to get her onto the ship. That level of micromanagement is a drag.
But when it comes time to fight, the units do an excellent job of butchering each other. The AI recognizes and confronts enemy units quickly and efficiently. The AI for your workers is a little more sketchy: Sometimes, they’ll automatically get to work when a resource is depleted, but other times they won’t. Luckily, a handy interface tab tells you when a worker is slacking off.
Instead of using the 2D graphics that powered the first two Age games, AoM enjoys a brand-new, fully 3D game engine. And boy, does it look sweet. The environments, units, and buildings are packed with detail. I especially enjoyed the levels that featured water: waves wash against the shore, seaweed sways with the tide, and ambient sea creatures such as sharks are visible swimming beneath the surface.
What really impressed me, though, were the game’s animations. When a Minotaur smacks a dude with his club, the schmoe goes flying, skids on the ground, and then bounces back into the air. Krakens will grab units off the shore, shake them, and then fling them away. And the special abilities of the myth units, such as Medusa turning a foe into stone or the Frost Giant freezing a hapless victim, really immerse you in the mythological world.
Those sweet graphics come at a price, however, especially if you want to crank up all the details. Even on my 2.2GHz with a GeForce3 card, there were noticeable slowdowns when I played at the maximum (1600x1200) resolution with everything cranked up. These slowdowns were especially noticeable when I had numerous units on the screen and I was using a god power. I tested the frame rates on a lower-end system — a 1.33GHz with a GeForce4 — and the game ran fine at lower resolutions.
Slay Your Friends
In addition to the single-player campaign, you get 21 random skirmish maps (each map has specific elements, such as a main river, but randomizes its location) that can also be used in multiplay. AoM has four multiplayer modes — Supremacy, Conquest, Deathmatch, and Lightning— and the game is playable over a LAN or via Direct IP, or through Ensemble’s in-game matchmaking service. Of the four multiplayer types, Deathmatch will be the most familiar to Age of Kings players, while Supremacy and Conquest are variations on the “destroy everything in sight” theme.
Before starting a multiplayer game, you pick one of nine gods to determine which myth units, upgrades, and god powers you’ll get during the course of the game. A useful handicap feature also gives an advantage to a less skilled player by letting him collect resources at a faster rate, and by reducing build times.
Overall, the multiplayer segment is finely balanced. The games are a little slow to get started (the Egyptians, for example, can’t build a barracks until they hit the second age, and the Greeks can’t build farms right away), but once you’re into the grind, the combat is fun. And because of the way the population cap is designed, you have to constantly expand by finding and building new settlements. Fail in this goal, and you don’t stand a chance.
Age of Mythology isn’t a straight-out classic, but I had a great time playing it. It’s an easy recommendation for fans of Ensemble’s Age of Empires games, or for any RTS aficionado.
— William Harms