Review by “Da Munkee” M.Burrell
It’s been over five years since the folks at Ensemble Studios brought us the original Age of Empires. When the game was first released, it was as a landmark game for most fans of real time strategy games. It combined a simplistic but solid balance of resource management and military expansion with the rich history of some of the world’s most influential cultures. Thousands of gamers found themselves lost for hours, struggling to build an empire and conquer any foes, while learning a thing or two about history along the way. Next, Ensemble brought us Age of Empires II: Age of Kings. Based in the middle ages, the game expanded on the basics provided in AoE, developed new and more powerful buildings and units, and still managed to work in some more serious historical information.
Now, after three long years, Ensemble has rolled out Age of Mythology. The latest in the series, Age of Mythologies incorporates the gods and deities of Greek, Egyptian, and Norse mythologies, and brings it all to us in full 3D. But the question still remains... Was it worth the wait?
Unlike its predecessors, Age of Mythology doesn’t incorporate any actual history in its single player mode. Instead, it presents us with a fictitious story about an Atlantean hero named Arkantos, who is destined to protect Atlantis from the attacks of a mythical Cyclops named Gargarensis. Along the way, Arkantos will have to meet and team up with the Egyptians and the Norse Vikings to defeat what is ultimately a much more powerful foe than originally thought. While this may not teach gamers anything about history, it does manage to incorporate over 30 authentic gods and deities from the religions of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Norse cultures. Each culture worships a different set of higher beings and each religious figure has its own powers and benefits to offer.
The special powers of the gods are a very important feature of AoM. As in the previous installments, you’ll race to accumulate the resources and construct the buildings necessary to progress to the next technological age. However in AoM, when you advance you are given the choice between two gods, each offering different blessings, units, and technologies. This can make a huge difference in the outcome of a game as it can be used to set the odds in your favor as well as to offset an opponent’s advantages. For instance, while one god might grant your opponent stronger archers, another god could grant you stronger armor against arrow attacks. When an opponent advances to a new age, a message displays which god they advanced by. With enough experience, a player can learn which gods provide what and use this knowledge to keep the playing field level or better.
One of the reasons the Age series has been such a success is that manages to make the complex chain of tasks and management required seem instinctively easy. Each game in the series has used what are essentially the same interfaces presented in the orginal. Although each revision moved things around a bit, improved the automation of functions and gave the heads up displays new looks, under it all, it was all pretty much the same concepts presented in AoE. Age of Mythology once again uses the same overall interfaces, but this is a very good thing as it makes it extremely easy for newcomers to catch on as well as allowing experienced players to slip back into the swing of things. There are some notable differences in the new resource model however.
Breaking away from the typical rules of the Age series, (and borrowing a bit from the War Craft and Star Craft games) the cultures are no longer as similar as they used to be. Each of the three main cultures earns and uses resources in a different way. The Greeks are essentially the same as the traditional Age civilizations. They use stationary storage buildings for resources and use the resources in much the same way as in the previous Age games. The Egyptians however, use no wood for the construction of buildings and focus much more on gold consumption. The Norse culture is by far the most revolutionary in comparison to the resources models of the previous games. Instead of stationary buildings for the collection of wood, food, and gold, the Norse have mobile ox carts to store these resources. The ox cart can easily be moved to the locations of uncollected resources. Combining a group of villagers with an ox cart can make for some quick land clearing as the carts can be used for much more aggressive resource collection. This is also very useful since aside from farms, Norse villagers can not construct anything. With the Norse culture, only military units can create new buildings. It may sound odd to fans of the previous games, but its' very easy to adapt to.
Also new to the series is favor. Favor replaces stone as a resource and is basically stored blessings. Favor can be used to buy mythical units as well as armor and weaponry upgrades. Favor is also acquired differently by each culture. Greek villagers build and worship at temples, continuously acquiring favor. The more worshipers, the more favor. Egyptians build monuments to acquire favor. The more monuments, the more favor. The Norse are granted favor based on destruction and combat, so the more carnage, the more favor. The mythical units range from heroes such as Perseus and the Pharaohs to creatures such as Valkyries and mummies, and they are some of the coolest and most remarkable additions to the game. Each mythical unit has a unique attack and other special benefits, and can easily change the course of a battle.
The new myth units are an incredible addition to the formula. Each creature has a specific function and while they can be incredibly effective in the right situations, they can be decimated in a moment’s notice if they end up in the wrong situations. The same can also be said for all of the other military units in the game, and this is another one of the game's strong points. The balance of powers between all of the units is very impressive as well as complex. Although things have grown and progressed quite a bit since the days of the first Age of Empires, the developers have maintained and expanded on the already excellent balance between the different troop types. As always, each troop has a counter troop and units of different types must be grouped to protect each other in order to be effective. All around, the game play is exactly what you would expect from a good RTS, but the fact that it was accomplished so well with so many troops varieties and attacks available is amazing.
As mentioned, this is the first game in the Age series to be in full 3D. This has its good and bad points however. While the simple fact it is in 3D is a very good thing, the overall graphic quality seems to have lost a little style compared with the original. At many times during a game, there can be hundreds of units and buildings on screen at once. While this might have been a minor issue for the 2D displays of the older games, it presents major issues when rendering each object as a textured 3D model rather than a 2D sprite. In order to keep the game from lagging, the models have far less polygons than the models used for the 2D images in the previous installments. This gives the game a slightly boxy look at times and may be a little upsetting to fans at first glance. This is not to say that the game doesn’t look good. Even by today’s 3D standards, it still looks great and in fact, some of the God power attacks are incredible (particularly the meteor attack). The game still looks like the Age series, but with a slightly more cartoonish feel to it. However, once you see the game in motion and begin playing, you quickly find yourself forgetting about all that and appreciating the benefits of the 3D rendering.
The angle of view is locked in a typical isometric view, but can be rotated and zoomed. This means you no longer have to settle for an outline of an object or unit when it passes behind a building, a cliff, a line of trees, or other units. The rotation feature is especially cool. If you have a mouse wheel, by default it will function to conveniently spin the camera around the field. Spinning around a raging mass of units and buildings is as entertaining as it is functional, but when combined with the zoom feature, it is especially useful for viewing and selecting specific troops during a massive battle. The models and textures alone wouldn’t be groundbreaking, but when you see how smoothly the game moves, how well the models interact with each other, and how well the particle and lighting effects are used all at once, it’s easy to see why this was scored so high.
The sound effects in the game are one of the few things that aren’t particularly outstanding. All of the effects are appropriate for the on screen actions and are of standard quality. The stereo mix is also very nice and while there’s really nothing wrong with the overall sound effects, they don’t seem especially significant either. It would have been nice to hear more variety from the troops and villagers. Each unit has only two or three sound bytes and a few more would have easily helped to add a little personality.
The voice acting in the single player missions is especially bad. At one point, while the game’s end credits roll, there are voiceover “outtakes” playing, which are intended to be humorous. Unfortunately though, the voice acting is so bad that they are obviously scripted and only serves to showcase how poor some of the voice work sounds. The main voice actors are only used during the single player cut scenes though, so all in all, it's a minor thing.
The music however is wonderfully done as usual. As with all of the Age games, the music is subtle and pleasant, and at times, even worth turning up. The themes capture the feel of the different cultures as well as the map terrains, and the music changes during battle or whenever a threat approaches. This, along with many other sound cues, can help to alert you to danger you might not have seen, while subliminally raising your blood pressure just the slightest bit. It is because of the strong musical score and the usefulness of the sound cues that this category received its above average score.
There are five choices for multiplayer options: Scenarios (which can be custom made and include co-op as well as head to head), Lightening (basically accelerated game speed), Deathmatch (start with high resources and a later age), Conquest (totally eliminate your opponents’ units), and Supremacy (which allows you to win through conquest, building and maintaining a wonder, or obtaining all settlements). While this provides nothing new for returning fans of the series, the options are standard and solid, and along with map and script editors, they add a lot of replay value to the game.
The breakthrough in this category is the new match finder feature. When you first run multiplayer, you will need to set up an account with Ensemble Studios Online. Once in, you’ll select the type of game you are looking for and ESO will find a game for you based on your selections and rating. Not only does this make it incredibly easy to find the kind of game you want to play, it helps to prevent the problem of expert players sneaking in and annihilating newcomers (which was often a problem in Microsoft’s Zone games). Hopefully this is a feature we’ll be seeing a lot more of soon, as it is a significant step in the right direction.
So to answer the question, 'Was it worth the wait?’, all in all it would seem so. With an easy learning curve and single player missions that serve as tutorials for the major cultures, gamers who’ve never tried the Age series before will be able to jump in and easily catch up with the veterans. Experienced players will find new challenges in mastering the uses of the myth units, learning the god powers and when to use them, and especially in controlling the new and more aggressive Norse culture. While this might not be exactly what fans of the series had been expecting, it’s pleasantly familiar and it not only builds on the previous formula, but takes it in a new direction. In a year when so many outstanding games have been released, Age of Mythology ranks high and should be one of the biggest games of the year. Let’s just hope it’s not another three years before we see the next one.