1.5GB free disk space
16MB 3D accelerator
Ensemble's a great developer. Their Age of Empires series has long been one of my favorites, not just in the RTS genre, but for gaming in general. But until now, Ensemble's been a one-trick pony. And while Age of Mythology isn't a big enough departure to qualify them as a two-trick pony, the refinement and sophistication of the title should put to rest any fears that they've strayed too far from their established models. In fact, Age of Mythology is much more polished and gripping than any of their previous efforts.
But like I said, they didn't change too much of the series' core principles. The basics are almost entirely the same. Players must build towns to gather resources to produce armies to conquer their enemies. It's effectively the same mechanic that Ensemble, Blizzard and Westwood have reduced down to a science. The big change here is that Ensemble leaves behind the world of historical conflict and moves on to invent a new world of myth. Using three rich mythological legacies -- Greek, Egyptian and Norse -- Age of Mythology finally offers a place where mythological creatures contend with mighty heroes with timely support thrown in by attentive gods.
The single player game tells the story of Arkantos, the leader of Atlantis. A disturbing dream and an invasion or two call him away from his home to join the fight against the city of Troy. Fans of Homer should already be clued in to this but for you non-Classics majors, it's enough to know that this conflict is an important one for the Greek pantheon. The gods all chose up sides and used the siege as an excuse to work out a lot of repressed rage and violence.
But things move beyond this simple war pretty quickly and Arkantos finds himself involved in something much larger. Without giving too much of the story away, Arkantos and his ever-expanding company of heroes is trying to stop a big evil guy from releasing an even bigger evil guy on the world. This plays out over the course of 32 missions from the shores of Atlantis to the walls of Troy to the banks of the Nile to the snowy forests of Scandinavia. I could say so much more but that would just ruin the experience for you.
I will say that this is a much tighter and more interesting story than those found in the previous Age games. Admittedly the subject matter allows for a lot more invention and reinterpretation than the scenarios in the more-historically based Age of Empires games. But even so, the game makes a real effort to be faithful to the idea that these ancient cultures considered myth as a form of history. Bruce Shelley has said that his team approaches myth with as much research and accuracy as any of the purely historical titles.
And while I'm impressed with the fantasy elements of the story, I'm also equally happy that the vast campaign tells a single story with lots of recurring characters and situations. Arkantos really becomes the hero of the story (well, one of them at least) in a way that William Wallace never could have. The plot twists and rivalries that fill the game all assume greater significance because you start to get attached to certain characters and story elements. This identification and interest is supported by some amazing cutscenes that add lots of personality and character to the game. (In one of the later cutscenes, an enemy army stands opposite your own. The enemy general tells you to surrender if you want a painless death. One of your heroes launches a bolt at one of the enemies and says, "We surrender. Come closer.")
At first the narrow, single story approach seems like a bit of a weakness. After all, with 32 missions that build upon one another, it takes a while for the game to get to the real cross-cultural dynamism that we all tasted in the multiplayer beta. There, leading Greek forces against Norse or Egyptian, you started to think in terms of complete extermination of an entire group. The actual game requires lots of cooperation between the cultures, not so much in terms of fielding multi-cultural armies but in terms of the purpose of each mission. The Greeks are never out to wipe out the Egyptians. Instead, all three sides are fixated on thwarting the plans of their various nemeses, regardless of the forces they're controlling.
As a result the first several levels are strictly Greek on Greek (note to self: register greekongreek.com). While I was impatient to get to the Egyptian and Norse sections of the campaign, the fact that Age of Myth takes its time to introduce new unit sets means you get to learn about the game a little at a time. Eventually you may even find yourself in charge of Norse raiders and Egyptian camelry all backed up by a group of Greek cyclopses. Again, I won't spoil the story; I'll just say that the game makes all of this make sense in context.
I'm quite pleased that Ensemble has opted to replace the "kill everything" missions of most RTS games with much more limited and focused goals. A particular mission might require you to gather three relics at one central location, or merely escort one unit to the other side of the map. As a result, you can be a bit more inventive (and a bit less unclear) about your objectives. Last ditch, heroic efforts can actually turn the tide here.
The god powers are also incredibly influential. And since there are three core gods for each of the three sides and numerous minor gods, there's a lot of room to vary the gameplay. If you'd prefer to focus on a particular aspect of gameplay (like economy) or a particular unit type, there's a god that'll work for you. Each god comes with a special one-time use power that can radically affect the game as well as a batch of special myth creatures that only they have access to.
But where would heroism be without the heroes? These are the first leg of Ensemble's new three-part unit model. Heroes are best used against the myth units in the game, myth units are best used against the human soldiers and human soldiers are best used against the heroes. It's well balanced because the human soldiers are cheap enough to swarm the heroes and take them down (albeit with a bit of support). And while this pattern holds true in general, there are some specific units that break with the tradition, requiring the smart player to know what he's got and what he's up against.
And this carries over into an extension of the existing Age of Empires examples. While the game clearly indicates which human troop type is suited to attack others (infantry, cavalry and archers), the breakdown isn't so explicit. Some infantry are great against other infantry, while others are only ever good against cavalry. Knowing these associations and taking advantage of them is crucial to your success but seems a bit incidental when stacked up against the hero-myth-human dynamic. In both cases though the balance is superb (and better yet, readily apparent) in the scripted missions and in the more open-ended multiplayer modes.
The differences between the three cultures also require some careful balancing. The Norse and Egyptians for instance, can make as many heroes as their population limit will allow. The Greeks have specific, named heroes that must be treated a bit differently.
The Norse also rely on soldiers to build all their structures using workers only to gather resources. The Egyptians build with their regular workers but don't require wood for their buildings. Instead they create structures with gold alone. These may seem like small differences on the surface, but they have a radical (but not unbalancing) effect on the way you play.
Controlling all this action is straightforward and uses nearly every convention we've come to expect from RTS games. One neat addition is the inclusion of banners at the top of the screen representing each of the groups you've made. While it's not any quicker to click on those than it is to hit the corresponding number key on the keyboard, the banners display the overall troop type within the group so you can tell right away where your cavalry, siege weapons and archers are bound.
Unfortunately the interface requires a click or two more than is absolutely necessary to get to formation and order commands. You can set attack and move orders fine (which is what you'll be doing 90% of the time anyway). But if you want to guard another unit or adopt a mixed formation, you have to click through to a separate section on the interface. Although there are hotkeys for most of these actions, they're not listed in the manual and can only be found in the readme. This seems sloppy for Ensemble. At least list the hotkey in the mouse-over dialogue in the game next time. For the record, a simple formation facing command would useful as well.
While I found the AI to be a challenge, it still falls prey to the trickle strategy of most RTS games, the Age series included. While the AI seems capable of large-scale coordination, all too often their attacks on my base were composed of tiny groups that could easily be countered by fixed defenses and the odd lingerers around camp. The addition of fixed locations for new settlements tends to open the game up somewhat but you can still get far by playing the turtle and watching your enemy wear himself out on your defenses. Pathfinding is a small issue here and there (particularly for troops who can't seem to find the other edge of certain bridges in the game) but after a few seconds of shepherding with some waypoints you can usually get your folks headed in the right direction.
When you're done with the single player game, you have almost limitless options for added fun. A random map skirmish mode provides endless fun for up to 12 players. There are loads of setting here so you can tailor each match to your liking. A reasonably supported editor also makes an appearance but isn't quite as convenient as it could be. I also have to give it up to the Ensemble folks for their robust multiplayer code. This game is sure to find a place among the top-played RTS games for a long time to come.
Visually the game is a real treat. While the overall style falls somewhere between the poetic and colorful approach of Warcraft III or Battle Realms and the somewhat quirky tabletop feeling of Empire Earth, the effect is dead-on. The units are all really distinct and have a range of believable animations. This is particularly apparent in the cutscenes. The team has also developed distinct interfaces based on the three cultures. If you're playing as the Egyptians, you get a nice sandstone interface as opposed to the leathery brown interface of the Norse. (The single player game gaffs a bit in switching the colors for your side during one mission. Suddenly I'm the red guy?)
I'm genuinely surprised that, with so many units, that the team was able to add so much personality to each. The various giants and other mythical creatures are completely convincing and the effects that accompany their special powers are incredible. Chimeras blast fire, cyclopses pick up and hurl enemy units and shades use a touch of death to send your opponents' souls skyward. Picking out these units can be a bit tricky at the start but you'll soon learn to recognize them at a glance. Hero units are nicely set apart with a heavenly glow that surrounds them.
A few levels make excellent use of a low-lying fog effect. Seeing your soldiers fight it out knee-deep in fog is a sight to behold and really adds to the atmosphere of the game. The water lapping at the shores and the awesome snow effect of the Norse levels will likewise leave you speechless. Lighting effects are also top-notch with really cool eclipse effects.
You can get a good look at the game from a variety of angles but, while the rotating and zooming camera is nice, it's an entirely optional feature. Sadly my new MX700 mouse seems to have a problem with the rotation, meaning I've had to use the arrow keys on the keyboard to get the best angle for the action. The default angle for the camera is sufficient for most needs though, so camera rotation is completely optional.
The music is quite good but, after 32 missions and hours of multiplayer, it seems really repetitive. This one theme seems to stick out nearly everywhere in the game. I can't describe it exactly but ask anyone who sits next to me and they'll instantly launch into a spirited rendition of what can only be described as "unwhistleable."
Things are much better in terms of voice acting. You don't get the varied nuances of the Warcraft III units but, given the number of units here, that's not surprising. The voice work for the cutscenes and the heroes displays just the blend of sinister and campy. The best of the sounds are the howls heard in the Norse forests. Small, appropriate voice cues also clue you in to major game events as well.
But as good as it all is, there's still room for improvement. I can look past (and even occasionally enjoy) some of the liberties taken with the mythology. And while the few bits of genuine humor in the game are welcome, including items like Boots of Kick Everything and naming pharaohs things like Bubba Joe may kill the mood for some people. The little pop-ups for mouse-overs are nice in general, but there really ought to be a listing of the corresponding hotkey included as well, especially since most of the hotkeys aren't even listed in the manual (you have to check the readme to get the full details).
Also on the standpoint of presentation, I really miss the cool summary screens that use to accompany every mission in the Age series. Seeing how many units you built, killed, etc. really helped to give a little more character and context to the games. As it is, all the missions are simply pass or fail and you move right on to the next one immediately. Why at least aren't there numerical scores for how the sides stack up?
Admittedly, these are fairly minor complaints and ones that you'll easily overlook for the sake of the fun to be had. Thankfully the game keeps up a good enough pace that you'll usually rush over any weak spots without even noticing them.
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