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Interview: Rock of Ages

Today we count ourselves blessed, as we get the opportunity to sit down with Ensemble Studios' Bruce Shelly and rap about Age of Mythology
Age of Empires and Age of Empires II have been two extremely, extremely popular RTS titles. They may not have broken any new ground in the genre, but their polished gameplay has touched the right nerve of the strategy fan world and reaped the reward. Now on the back of this success comes the third instalment in the franchise: Ensemble Studios' Age of Mythology.

With its next game Ensemble is drawing on Greek, Norse and Egyptian mythical history, moving away from the more fact-based backgrounds of its first two RTS titles and focussing instead on something far more fantastical. As the name suggests, Age of Mythology deals with the world of gods, epic heroes and creatures both exotic and bizarre.

The title's singleplayer campaign is broken down into 35 different scenarios, following a storyline that has pretty much been lifted straight from the halls of mythology. Playing hero Arkantos, gamers will find themselves embroiled in an epic battle between good and evil - helped by a dark god, a treacherous Titan is trying to wheedle his way back into the world. As Arkantos you'll be attempting to put paid to its schemes, calling on gods of the Underworld to aid you in your cause.

With Age of Mythology Ensemble looks as though it's got another RTS winner on its hands - graphically mint, the franchise's quality gameplay also thankfully remains. Despite the mythology angle, the developer is confident that fans of the previous titles in the series will eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and probably supper if they're allowed. In other words, it expects its game to do well.

This morning we were fortunate enough to knock heads with Bruce Shelley, so we took the opportunity to quiz the senior games designer about this upcoming dish of real-time strategy delicacies.

Why did you decide to go for the mythology setting?

Shelley: Well, when we finished Age of Empires II we wanted to come up with another real-time strategy game, but the biggest question was what the next game would be. We decided we didn't want to do the same kind of game we did with the first two, partly because of the marketplace - we wanted to do something fresh... the reviewers were pretty nice [about the first two titles], saying there wasn't much new there but it was done really well. So we thought we couldn't get away with it a third time; we thought we had to do something different. We talked about a number of ideas, but mythology was the one we liked best.

Mythology is still couched in this ancient period, but at the same time it brings new elements into play. We also thought that mythology would be a good way to show off the new 3D engine. We had the idea of gods interfering from the start with these special effects - such as lightning. There were great ideas we had for the story of the singleplayer campaign - the mythology had a lot of things going for it.

It was also nice to do something different internally. Our artists had new things to work with, as did the design team. It's worked internally, and we're hoping that it will work in the marketplace as well.

What can you tell us about the new engine? What's it enabled you to implement into Age of Mythology?

Shelley: First of all everything looks better. The animation's better, the building's look better. It made it possible to do the special effects for the god powers - the lightning bolts, the meteor showers, tornados and such. For the singleplayer campaign we were also able to do all the cinematics in-engine, which has really helped us integrate the story.

One of our main goals was to bring this crisp, realistic look alive in 3D - we think that's one of the definitions of what our game's all about.

Are the god powers the most important new gameplay feature that you've introduced in Age of Mythology?

Shelley: Well, with Mythology we're bringing in several things that are new, and the god powers are simply one. When you start the game, you don't select the civilization you want to play, you select the god that you're going to worship. There are three Greek, three Norse and three Egyptian major gods you can choose from at the beginning, and then as you move up the ages - there are three additional ages in the game - you select an additional minor god, so you have four in total in the game.

Each god comes with one power, which is a one-time-use thing. That's a big change in the game. The powers can really make a difference in the play. For example, the god power Eclipse darkens the world, shortening the line of sight of archers and other missile units. If you're fighting someone who has a lot of missile units you can use Eclipse on his army, so you can get in really close before you're fired upon.

It sounds as though the different gods will offer different styles of play. Is that the case?

Shelley: They do to some effect. Each of your cultures plays really differently - the Egyptians, Greeks and Norse all play differently. As you shape your civilisation by going through the ages, you can adjust your strengths and weaknesses depending on what gods you choose. That's a new element in Age of Mythology too - you don't make all your decisions about your civilisation the moment you start the game. You can pick gods that help your archers or gods that help your cavalry, depending on what things you're happiest doing.

You mentioned earlier about reviewers' responses to Age of Empires, that it wasn't doing anything particularly new, but what it did it did very well. Looking at the RTS genre as a whole, do you think it's gone as far as it can, or do you think that there are innovative ideas out there that will bring something fresh?

Shelley: Yeah, I do. We've been working on real-time strategy games for almost 15 years... I can't predict what the changes are going to be, but I don't think we've got to the end of RTS. I mean, Blizzard did some really different things with their game [Warcraft III - Ed.], and we've got new things in our game, and there're some other RTS titles in the works that might have some new stuff.

Part of the risk is that you don't want to innovate too far away from your market. 10 million people bought Age of Empires and we'd like to grow that, we'd like to sell more obviously. But the risk is that you go too far in one direction and lose people who are already your fans.

Have you actually got ideas that haven't been implemented into Mythology? If so, does this mean we can expect an expansion or maybe a sequel?

Shelley: Any new ideas we have right now will probably go into an expansion. If we have a good idea, we want to use it - we don't like to put ideas away. With Conquerors for example, we had the idea of a new world and it could have turned into a whole new game, but we decided to put it into an expansion because we thought it was really cool.

Age of Mythology obviously has a multiplayer side to it to go along with the singleplayer game, but do you see a time coming when everything goes multiplayer? Or do you think the solo experience will always be important?

Shelley: For us, singleplayer is still the thing we put the major emphasis on. We've invested a lot of time and effort into our singleplayer campaign. There are 35 scenarios in the singleplayer campaign, and it's all focussed on one character and all linked together in one story.

Have you got any plans to bring Age of Mythology to Xbox?

Shelley: Microsoft would love to have this game on Xbox. But we rely on the mouse and keyboard too much.

So the controller is the main reason for not doing a conversion?

Shelley: Yeah, the controller is the big problem. The best RTS players in the world use the keyboard aggressively - hotkeys for example. How can you translate this combination of controls onto a console controller?

Finally, do you think fans of the previous Age games will be happy with what you've done here, with the mythology angle?

Shelley: Yes, I think so. It may be that they'll be upset, but I can't see that. Everyone who's played it - even if they were questioning it to begin with - has been really excited. We invited some hardcore Age fans into our offices to play it not long ago, and they thought it was fabulous. They were concerned about the mythology elements, but they thought that the way those elements changed the gameplay was really great.




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