In an age where innovation means risky business, where first person shooters are dominating the market and pushing real-time strategy gaming into the outskirts of the industry, Ensemble Studios shine through the darkness and deliver a product that has been anticipated for so long, and for a justified reason.
For all you non-believers, Ensemble Studio's are the fellow's behind the infamous Microsoft's Age of Empires series, highly acclaimed for its graphics, game play balance and splendid diversity, Ensemble Studio's crank up those afterburners to create an unbelievably balanced, gorgeous and by all means perfected game.
Age of Mythology, as the name states, is more of a mythological influenced title, using mythological figures, gods and setting as the background for the title, adding some of the more successful aspects of modern RTS's (real-time strategy games) and incorporating some new, perfectly implemented, innovative concepts.
Ensemble Studio's didn't fall short around graphics, they have a reputation to maintain after all, and Age of Mythology falls into the category of best looking strategy game of the year, having scratched the old engine of the "Age of" series, Ensemble created a lush new 3D engine that out paces (in my opinion) the one used in War Craft 3.
The 3D engine sports many positive features, some that usually do not co-exist, though the 3D transition in this case has only completed the excellence of its predecessors, let me get into the details:
I'll start off with the landscapes, maps if you wish. The textures and models of the trees, rocks, shores and all-around map design are far superior to generally any game out there, more specifically to its predecessor, they are crisp, realistic, well blended and well textured; the units/building and landscape come together and seamlessly integrate into one another, giving a much more satisfying feeling and quite satisfying notion of perfection.
Age of Mythology breaks an old myth of 3D engines ruining strategy games. War-Craft 3 avoided some of the more traditional 3D-related problems by changing the style of the game, a more personal, less units and more importance per unit approach, thus avoiding low frame rates due to excessive polygon rendering. Also unit size on the map had gone bigger, making it easier to distinguish units, specially infantry, one from the other (something that major games such as Emperor: Battle for Dune had suffered from), so how did Ensemble deal with this? Well, in a very gentlemanlike way...
The minute you enter the game, you notice that the camera is more of the traditional, old school isometric one, stationed slightly higher than Emperor: Battle for Dune, much higher than WarCraft 3, the general resemblance is to the original "Age of" series rather than giving a whole new basis for viewing the game.
Unit wise, while featuring mythological and normal units, I will address the latter first rather than the former. The infantry problem that I had mentioned before has been solved in a very clever and noteworthy way, [how?] simply by making every unit unique in every way, from height, width, clothing, textures, accessories and weaponry.
You might say, everyone does that, that's in any game released today, but Nay I say, Ensemble did, from my vast experience with strategy games, perfect this method for the first time, truly giving a unique and exceptional look for each and every different unit in the game.
The same methods apply to the mythological units, which if you haven't figured out, are the link between the mythological setting and godly powers that can be used within the game, the units, besides being highly detailed, feature fantastic special effects, a tool that in my opinion has been greatly over-hyped in most games, but just right in this one. Special effects range from fireballs, lighting effects, amazing water effects (the water waves are truly some of the best in games today, astounding). I was especially fond of the Waterfalls found in the game, very nicely balanced between looks and low-system demands.
Animation is also an area perfected; every unit has its own special movement animation; the animations are fluid, beyond believable and push the game into higher levels of realism within this mythological framework.
Gameplay wise, AoM (Age of Mythology) perfects what was in my vision, good about its predecessor, and tune what was less enjoyable, starting with the resource gather system; no more will you have a gazillion resources that need to be gathered (something even more present in the Empire Earth series), but resource management has been tuned down to (yet again) the basic three: food, wood and gold.
Sure, for all you micromanagement freaks, harvesting food, cutting wood, mining ore, gold, aluminum, Zink, uranium and all other evil resources might seem fun, but for the average (and hardcore, if I might add) RTS player, resource management, while being by all means, important, it shouldn't be a laborious and burdening task.
Balance is also one major player in the Ensemble equation, with the vast numbers of combinations, godly powers, fortress building and strategic potential, ensemble created a wonderfully balanced game, giving this title longtivity that will most likely out precede its competitors and surely its predecessors.
Audio has taken much of my attention in the past 2-3 years, growing up as a kid I had never given audio much importance (because I was too poor to buy a SoundBlaster and some decent speakers), but as I grew more mature, I found much satisfaction in the gaming musical experiences, AoM features one loop that I was extremely fond of, the Egyptian starting loop, I had loaded that file into winamp and played it over and over for around and hour or so (it's a one and a half minutes long loop), and no, I am not a freak, just appreciative of the effort put into this game.
Overall, I think this game is what makes Microsoft what it is today, the right choices, made within a reasonable time frame, perfected to the inch (after 2-3 generations), while writing this we already know that game had gone gold, so expect a review from my colleagues over at GamersHell.com to elaborate even more.