Burning meteorites begin to rain from the heavens with an ethereal whistle, their smoky tails of destruction scarring the ancient sky. In an instant their celestial-hardened bodies pound into the rich earth, grounding the town of an unfavoured civilisation into dust and ash, as if guided by a force beyond coincidence. The gods are angry.
If the Real-Time Strategy genre is defined by a playerâ€™s sense of â€˜playing as godâ€™, then Ensembleâ€™s Age of Mythology must be the most literal personification of this in years. RTS veterans Ensemble Studios, most memorable for their work on the groundbreaking Age of Empires series, have raised heaven and earth to bring us the continuation of the â€˜Age ofâ€™ brand in this latest Myth tangled package. But when the loading screen has vanished and the match settings become law, does AoM play as a gift from god or just another forbidden fruit?
The greatest weakness of the â€˜Ageâ€™ seriesâ€™ has always lied in the lacklustre single player campaign mode, which forever has been composed of a ragtag collection of semi-scripted scenarios, peppered with a little pre-match text and intermittent voice work. But, Lo and behold! Ensemble takes a significant leap this time around, offering a mythological inspired single player romp that puts the meat and potatoes squarely on AoMâ€™s plate. The mode spans a little over 30 lengthy missions, interweaved with not overly pretty, but much welcomed story cinematics. Through the campaign mode you will command the Greek army (at least initially) and hero Arkantos as you unravel an apocalyptic plot to unleash a devastating evil across the land. The narrative may come across as hackneyed in nature but proves deeply engaging in action, presented extremely well through a wonderful convergence of beautifully scripted cinematics and first-rate dialogue. Reassuringly, there are enough bumps and twists along the road to keep your interest peaked and your cursor firmly cemented on the â€˜next missionâ€™ button.
There is little doubt AoM is the true heir to Age of Empires throne, of which â€˜Ageâ€™ fans will find a snug fit. Its typical age advancing, resource collecting, battle and build strategy at its best. But despite expectedly ripping a fair chunk of its gameplay from the traditional AoE strategy bible, what is most impressive is that AoM has managed to build beautifully on the classic formula to benefit the pace, strategy and fun of the game.
There are some fundamental differences here. From the get-go you will notice there are only three main civilisations to play as: the Greeks, the Egyptians and the Norse, each of whom have three main gods to choose from. As opposed to choosing just a civilisation as in â€˜Ageâ€™ games past, you choose the civilisation you wish to play as and one of the three available gods for that culture (meaning there are nine gods to choose from in total). But this is where AoMâ€™s deity entwined strategy really thunders in, not only are each of the three main civilisations distinctly different in their buildings, units, method of resource collection and attributes, but each of the three individual gods for each civilisation also carry extremely different attributes, god powers and special abilities. The Egyptian god Set, for example is able to convert and control wild animals on the map, on the other hand the Greek god Poseidon spawns militia from any of his razed buildings.
The traditional collectible resources; food, wood, gold and stone have also been altered slightly. Stone, which has always been collected in grey mining deposits akin to gold, has been replaced completely by a new resource called â€˜favourâ€™. What is interesting about favour is that each of the three main civilisations; Greek, Egyptian and Norse are able to earn it in different manners, and this ties in with distinct underlying differences in your choice of culture. The conventional Greeks for example are able to earn favour from their gods by ordering their villagers to worship at one of their temples; the exotic Egyptians are blessed with favour by building monuments to their gods and the bloodthirsty Norse are granted the divine resource through battle.
But favour isnâ€™t just gathered differently to stone, it is used differently too. Although it is required for a wide variety of research upgrades and units, favour is predominantly a cost to create Age of Mythologyâ€™s two new types of units, hero and myth units. These two new types of units put an exciting mythological twist on the boring cavalry, archery and infantry mix. Scorpion men? Check. Cyclops? Check. Ice giants? Giant squid? Check, check, check, check. AoM brings all these mythological monstrosities to life. Myth units are one of the most imaginative aspects we have ever seen introduced in an â€˜Ageâ€™ game, and not only are they entertaining to build, but on the battlefield Myth units prove themselves as devastating juggernauts of mass slaughter.
Strategy enthusiasts crying for balance against these ungodly behemoths can wipe the tears from their cheeks, the new hero units help balance out myth units. Heroes, just like in ancient mythology, are essentially anti-monster ass kicking pillars of goodness. In the same vein as myth units, the heroes that are available to you are dependant on your choice of civilisation. The Greeks have a small variety of strong, legendary heroes. The Egyptians have priests and pharaohs that can fight as well as empower buildings and the Norse are able to produce a powerful assortment of bearded heroes.
What AoM has done is basically create a broader â€˜paper/scissors/rockâ€™ strategy triangle, in laymen terms Heroes are strong against Myth units, Myth units are strong against human units and human units are strong against Heroes. This all works on top of the traditional Age of Empires â€˜infantry beat cavalry, cavalry beat archers, archers beat infantryâ€™ triangle, to create what becomes a surprisingly deep strategic experience.
But Ensemble Studios didnâ€™t stop there with their mythological inspired take on strategy, they flew with it and served up one of the most entertaining parts about being a god: god powers. You wonâ€™t be able to wait to get your godly hands on these babies. God powers are essentially helpful one-shot special abilities granted to your civilisation as you advance through the ages. In the early ages of a regular â€˜random mapâ€™ match you will only be able to use fairly tame powers like the animal attracting â€˜lure stoneâ€™ or Zeusâ€™s instant-kill lighting bolt, but as you advance through to the Mythic age you will be granted devastating, carnage inducing earthquakes, tornadoes and yes, meteor strikes. Not only is it extremely entertaining to use god powers to wreak destruction upon your neighbouring enemy but using and choosing your god powers intelligently is key to victory.
There is no denying that in the graphics department Age of Mythology has advanced a couple of ages ahead of Age of Empires 2, bringing the ancient battlefield into the full three dimensional realm. Itâ€™s a pretty game, from the beautiful models for every single infantry, archer, cavalry, hero and mythological beastie on the bloodstained battlefield, to the impressive battle animation. Myth units have some particularly impressive animations where they will literally pick up and throw, knock down or swallow a human soldier whole. Itâ€™s a lovely touch that really makes watching the war torn chaos of battle all the more entertaining.
What really stands out graphically however are the breath-taking effects for god powers. Watching a tornado effortlessly rip your opponents buildings from the earth and swirl the smashed remains in a vortex of malevolent destruction is a darkly beautiful sight. Many of the powers also manage to show off some impressive particle and lighting effects; Natural disasters have never looked so good.
Sound is also treated with great care in Age of Mythology. The campaign cinematics are fully voiced and the voice actors did an outstanding job bringing the characters and the authenticity of the ancient world to life. A round of applause must also go out to the wonderful AoM writers, who really made the dialogue worth listening to.
Music and sound effects have also had a delightful aural workout. The orchestrated music sounds beautiful and suits every civilisation superbly, effortlessly intensifying into a dramatic heart-charging beat during climatic or heated battles. Sound effects are also very detailed from the resounding clank of steel on steel to the grunts and groans of myth units in action. The helpful in-game audio cues (a mandatory inclusion for the RTS genre) to signal the creation of units or warn of enemy ambushes offer a great range of little sounds that avoid becoming irritatingly repetitive.
Despite being a descendant of the famous Age of Empires lineage, Age of Mythology stands on its own as a deep and fulfilling Real-time Strategy game, managing to avoid becoming a stale rehash. The mythological, god-charged atmosphere works brilliantly and offers some spicy pizzazz to the typical RTS formula, keeping what made Age of Empires fun and cutting out what was unnecessary or monotonous. If you are an RTS or AoE fan then the power of the gods should compel you to purchase Age of Mythology.
Video Card: 16 MB 3D video card is required; 32 MB video card is recommended.
O/S: Windows 98 or higher
CPU: Multimedia computer with a Pentium 450 megahertz (MHz)-or-higher processor
Ram: 128 megabytes (MB).
CD Rom Drive: 4x or faster
Hard Drive: Approximately 1.5 gigabytes (GB) of available hard-disk space
Sound Card: DirectX 8.0-compatible sound card with speakers or headphones