"Age of Mythology"

Many years had passed since the release of Microsoft’s best-selling strategy game, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings and the hungry public starved for a much needed sequel. It came in the form of Age of Mythology, not so much a sequel, but as a whole new addition to the series. Age of Mythology keeps the basic ideas and strategies alive that lead its two predecessors to success on the market, while adding new features which elevated the game to new heights. Unlike most sequels, which follow on where their forerunners left off, Age of Mythology steps back in time. Whereas Age of Empires II was set in the medieval period of our history, Age of Mythology is set closer to the time of the original Age of Empires (think Ancient Greece and Egypt). Hence the debate over whether this is actually a sequel or the beginning of a new series.

The game opens with a beautiful cinematic of a huge clash between two armies, both containing largely mythological creatures and wielding unbelievable powers of destruction. On the main menu, the game features a few different playing options, giving it some added replay value (yeah, like it needed it). You can decide to play the Single Player Campaign, which features an involving storyline across 30 huge missions. This also includes a “How to Play” tutorial, so if you’ve never played a real-time strategy before, this would be a good option to select. You can go for the online option, which is so simple to use, it’s stupid. If you can’t be bothered finding suitable competitors, the game gives you a few questions to answer and throws you into a game with a person who suits those answers. The final and most common used playing style is the Random Map option. This option allows you to select various gameplay preferences, each preference influencing the way the game plays out. This was also the best option to base the rest of the review on.

In Age of Empires II, you selected which civilization you would like to be, each one presenting you with different advantages and disadvantages. True to its name, Age of Mythology changes this system, instead allowing you to choose which God you worship. There are three cultures; Greek, Egyptian and Norse. Each culture has three major Gods, and each culture has a dramatically different set of buildings, units, advantages and disadvantages. This forces the player to think a little more about which God they’d prefer to worship, as they must also take into consideration which culture they would play best as. Other options you can set is the climate you play on (spanning from the Underworld to the Valley of Kings and the snow-capped mountains of Middle-Earth), the number of players that will participate, their personality and patron God, diplomatic relations between players, the size of the map, the difficulty level and victory conditions. There were a few disappointments here, I must admit, like the reduced number of victory conditions, and the limited number of sizes for the maps (only two!). It feels slightly dumbed down from its predecessor, which is never a good thing.

Well, with all that out of the way, I entered the game. The first thing that hit me was the amazing 3D graphics, a gigantic step forward from AOEII. The game’s engine allows for full 360 degrees of rotation, so no more losing your units behind trees and buildings. You can also zoom in and out, making for some nice close-up action on battles. The environments are, to be blunt, stunning. Water laps at the shores of the coast, birds fly over head while marine life swims below. The flora looks splendid and adds a touch of realism to the game. Buildings are nicely detailed and units are carefully put together to make them look convincing. However, these impressive improvements do have a downside. The 3D graphics have a tendency to cause slowdown when only a small amount of action is taking place on the screen (when compared to Age of Empires’ epic battles). This is especially true if you are playing the single player campaign, which has carefully put together scenery you don’t get in the Random Map option. Another, though less obvious, drawback is the level editor provided with the game. So popular in AOEII because of its simplicity, it has become far more technical and confusing for AOM.

The gameplay is essentially the same deal as AOEII. You task your villagers to collect one of three resources at a time (food, wood and gold) to be able to build buildings, create military units, research improvements and advance through four different ages. Once your military is large enough, you can defeat an enemy through battle, or defend your city and build a Wonder to win. Although the game is very combat-orientated, which may not appeal to everyone, it does allow you to have allies and trade. However, this is a very basic concept. One thing that annoyed me was Microsoft’s decision to remove diplomacy once a game has started. You may set allies at the beginning of a game, and exchange resources during it, but you can never change your stance towards another player. Sure, it wasn’t a very effective system in AOEII, but it was something, and I was expecting it to be improved for AOM.

In any case, the combat is very well structured. Every unit has a different level of attack and armour, and has different advantages or disadvantages towards different units, for example, a Spearman is strong against cavalry units, but weak against archer units. This ensures that all the combat that takes place in the game has a strategic edge to it. You can also gather ancient relics scattered across the landscape, which improve various areas of your culture or military. This strategy doesn’t always show strong enough, however, and sometimes winning a battle comes down to who has the larger force. In addition to your regular units, you also have siege units and naval units. One of the most exciting new features of AOM is the inclusion of mythological units (otherwise calling it Age of Mythology would have been pointless). These are attained by accumulating favour, and each culture gains favour in a different manor (the Egyptians build statues, the Greeks pray and the Norse fight). Once you have gotten enough favour you can create these heroes and monsters from your Temple. This can tip the balance for you in a tight situation, as you parade through your enemies with units like the Cyclops or the Minotaur. Plus every myth unit can perform a special action, like hurling an enemy across the battlefield.

Another nice addition is the ability to choose a new minor God when you advance through the ages. Each minor God gives the player new mythological units, advancements and, more thrilling, a new God Power. These powers are appointed to you only to use once, whenever you please, during gameplay. They include powers like calling forth an earthquake, setting a forest ablaze, or raining down a meteor shower on your foe. These are the more energetic powers, but there are also defensive ones, like the Healing Spring or the bronze armour powers. This provides another intellectual challenge for the player to overcome – would I be better off worshipping Hathor and causing total devastation to my enemy’s farms with a plague of Locusts, or worshipping Nephthys and getting a Leviathan to transport my units across the river?

While Age of Mythology excels just about everywhere else, it falls to average when it comes to sound. The game provides a decent musical backdrop, giving it a very serene feel. Too bad the game is centred on fighting, and the music may seem a little lacking when a battle starts. But it certainly succeeds in giving a mythical feel to the whole thing. The sound effects are at best half-hearted much of the time, like when you sit back and watch your budding civilization and realise the environment is making more noise than your villagers hard at work. Battles sound so unconvincing when compared to the likes of AOEII, it’s rather unsatisfactory. Arrows flying through the air and making contact shouldn’t sound like a popping piece of bubble wrap plastic. Anyway, onto the verdict!

Things That Would Have Helped:
-More diplomacy, making the game less combat based.
-A simpler editor.
-More styles to play (King of the Hill, Defend the Wonder, you know, all the old ones from AOEII).
-More diverse personalities for AI cultures (yes, I know you can script your own, but honestly, who can be bothered?).
-Better sound score.

Things That Did Help:
-Incredible graphics and lovely animations.
-Easy-to-learn-but-hard-to-master gameplay. Excellent.
-Much more strategy than its predecessors.
-Brilliant 30 mission campaign with a fantastic storyline.
-Three words; mythology is fun.

Overall, Age of Mythology is an excellent game for any strategy gamer. It provides an excellent single and multiplayer experience, though warding off your enemies can get a little tough at times. But coupled with the 3D graphics, some great battle moments and the ability to wield God powers, Age of Mythology is one of those games you simply have to get, whether you have played the older Age of Empires games or not. 9/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 03/12/04

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