The popular Age of Empires series won legions of fans with its bewitching combination of historical background information, extensive multiplayer options, and exquisitely refined gameplay. Ensemble Studios' latest, Age of Mythology, introduces three different races -- the Norse, Greeks, and Egyptians -- and an entire collection of mythical creatures. To their credit, Ensemble presents the various gods, myths, and mythological units in great detail; players will not learn much history, but they will learn the basic mythology of the Norse, Greeks, and Egyptians. More importantly, however, the wonderfully balanced gameplay of the Age of Empires series has been expanded and improved. The three races in Age of Mythology are drastically different -- much the way the three races in Starcraft were completely different. Each race also chooses from three major and nine minor gods, which further extends the games' complexity. A complete campaign for each civilization and a random map mode offers a great deal of solo gameplay, but Age of Mythology's multiplayer options make the game special.
In Age of Empires and Age of Empires II, a single strategy was viable for every civilization and map. Sure, there were some changes for a water map and some minor adjustments between playing Goths and Mayans. However, the principles and methods for economic domination seldom required major adjustments, regardless of map or civilization. Age of Mythology demands flexible tactics depending on the map, the civilization, and the opponent. Hunting is preferable, for example, on maps with plentiful herds, but on other maps early farming may be a necessity. For Ra players, early farming is especially viable because of Ra's Rain god power, while Loki players, with their especially fast Ox-Carts, may choose to hunt unusually late in the game. Learning the intricacies of each major god can take many games, and tactics must constantly change.
The "rock-paper-scissors" system of units and counter-units is much more complicated in Age of Mythology. Infantry trump Cavalry, Cavalry chop through Archers, and Archers immolate Infantry. Mythological units, however, slaughter everything. Heroes are very good at killing Myth units, but are expensive and succumb to normal units quickly. Also, each civilization has units that don't fit neatly into categories. The Norse Ulfsark, for example, do not receive a bonus against cavalry, but are produced unusually quickly and are effective when swarming enemy units. Players can also influence the units available to them by their choice of minor gods, and some nasty mythological units require special tactics. Loki players, for instance, can summon the mighty dragon Nidhogg, and Nidhogg can only be damaged by ranged weapons. Anyone confronting a Loki player would be wise to produce hordes of ranged units when his/her opponent reaches the Mythical Age.
Age of Mythology includes the Ensemble Studios Online (ESO) service; players can load Age of Mythology, log into ESO, click the Start button, and be playing a game with a similarly ranked opponent in seconds. While this certainly isn't a revolutionary service ( Blizzard's BattleNet and Microsoft's Zone network provide similar services), ESO's simplicity and user-friendly interface are a decided improvement. The ranking system allows a high percentage of evenly matched battles. Extensive options are available through the Advanced Options menu. Of course, for those who prefer to play against friends, LAN and Direct Connection multiplayer games are also available.
Age of Mythology has some problems, unfortunately. The unit path-finding AI is particularly bad. Sending units across the map can be a real adventure, and trying to micromanage units during a battle can be a disaster unless each type of unit is grouped (and even then it's not advisable if it can be avoided). The single-player difficulty settings include ridiculously easy, too easy, too hard, and ridiculously hard. However, real-time strategy fans will find it very easy to overlook and excuse these faults. Age of Mythology is a fast game that encourages early and constant fighting. Buildings are much weaker than their Age of Empires counterparts, and players will find exclusively defensive play difficult. Instead, games feature furious battles over centrally located resources, enormously powerful mythological units wreaking havoc, and players competing for the favor of ancient gods. The result is fantastic, fun, and a worthy member of the Age series.
Graphics: Age of Mythology utilizes a 3D engine well, but real-time strategy games are not about graphics. Still, the upgrade from 2D to 3D is a welcome improvement.
Sound: Unit sounds are interesting, the soundtrack is mediocre, but the game manages to convey lots of information to players with distinctive sounds and alerts. Shrewd players can incorporate these signals into their play and gain advantages.
Enjoyment: Real-time strategy players will play this game for years without many regrets.
Replay Value: The single-player campaign, random map modes, and online multiplayer options will keep anyone busy for months.
People who downloaded Age of Mythology have also downloaded:
Age of Empires III, Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings, Age of Empires, Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos, Age of Wonders, 1701 A.D., Caesar IV, Age of Wonders 2: The Wizard's Throne
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