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Age of Mythology

Age of Mythology

Does Wielding Godlike Power Corrupt?

by Jim Bray

“Real time Strategy Games” is one of the most popular niches for PC playtime, and if you’re a fan of such adventures you’ll probably love Microsoft’s Age of Mythology.

Following such other fun games as Age of Empires, and in fact descended from it, Age of Mythology (created by Ensemble Studios) puts you in command of the classical ages of Greek, Egyptian, and Norse mythology.

The game itself is quite similar to Age of Empires and the other RTS games on the market, and that’s good: this is one of my two favorite game genres (first person shooters being the other) and I’m glad when they don’t deviate too far from the tried and true.

That doesn't mean they shouldn't try new things, of course - just that they shouldn't screw up what's good about this genre in an attempt to be different for the sake of being different.

Fortunately, that hasn't happened here.

AOM not only lets you unleash God powers on unworthy opponents, it gives you a whole bunch of new mythical characters to control, characters that would do Ray Harryhausen proud. In fact, between the Cyclops, the hydra, and other lovingly rendered creatures, I’d think they owe Mr. Harryhausen some royalties for, if not stealing his designs outright, for being so influenced by them that it’s obvious from whose mind and hand they originally came.

This is actually a good thing in the grand scheme of things, because the critters look really neat and, as a long time Harryhausen fan, I can’t imagine anyone doing them better short of today's artists at Industrial Light and Magic - who themselves regularly pay homage to Mr. Harryhausen (watch Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, for example, for a wonderful Harryhausen-esque monster sequence in the arena).

As is usual with RTS games, you start by creating your civilization, building up resources and your forces until you’re strong enough to sally forth in search of conquest - or just looking for trouble (which is also looking for you, of course). But you also get to call upon the Gods, and choose which Gods you’ll worship, to advance your cause - and depending upon the Gods you choose to worship your powers will grow accordingly. This adds lots of interest to the adventures.

Each God provides different strengths and powers; when you’ve built up your civilization to the point where you can advance to the next “stage,” you choose a God to worship and that God brings his or her own particular mythological critters to the mix.

Not all the God powers are meant to be used to wreak havoc on your opponents, though there are some dandy ones like lightning bolts and meteors. Some powers can also help you at home, for instance by bringing rain to help your crops (you can choose the part of the map you want to bring moisture to, thereby directing it at your farms and not at, for instance, the field of battle.

AOM offers a variety of game modes, from the usual single player with scenarios to online gaming. And since there are more than 15 map types, 13 game variants and five starting conditions, it isn’t likely you’ll get bored quickly. I’ve been progressing from the very beginning through ancient Greece to the Norse (a particularly warlike bunch), though I must admit that when I first noticed the game included Atlantis I experienced a pronounced sinking feeling….

Okay, maybe I'm just all wet...

Age of Mythology

I also like the way population limits are handled in AOM. Instead of being limited by the number of houses you build, you’re limited by settlements. This means that, when you’re ready to pounce but haven’t built up your force enough to assure total annihilation of your foes - and you get that damn warning that your population has reached its limit and creation of your subsequent forces has been curtailed, you can add to your population potential by starting a new settlement.

The drawback is that you can’t just build a new town center at will; you have to find a vacant settlement first and build your town center over that. Sometimes these settlements aren’t easy to find - or may not even exist depending on the particular adventure you're living vicariously.

But it’s still better than just sending some cannon fodder into action to die to free up space in your civilization! I wish there were an easy way to kill off some of your resource gatherers other than sending them to slaughter, for just this reason, but I guess if there were no challenges one would get bored pretty quickly.

Oh, yeah, you also need to accumulate favor from your Gods which, depending on who or what you are, means you have to pray, fight, or build monuments.

Producing mythical units, whether they be minotaurs, fire creatures or whatever, is done the same way you create regular forces and citizens, as long as you have the resources to pay for them. If you’re rich enough, you could put together a whole whack of frightening yet valuable creatures to send into battle, and they’re a real help when push comes to shove.

You also produce heroes the same way, and for the same reason. Heroes also cause favor with the Gods to be generated more quickly, though it never seemed quick enough for me…

This is a pretty quick look at the game, but it should give you the idea: if you like RTS games, this is a good one

Gameplay is very good. You can select plenty of soldiers (or whatever) at once, unlike some games that limit you to a lousy dozen or so, and by clicking on a banner at the top left of the screen you can organize them into a discrete army, activating them later merely by single clicking on the banner. This is really nice.

The graphics are wonderful, too (I ran the game at 1280x1024). The landscapes are well detailed, richly textured and nice and colorful. Buildings and, more importantly, your forces, are all very well rendered and move about as realistically as I’ve seen from this type of game.

Audio is also very good, and I like the music they chose.

There is a storyline to follow through the single player adventures, and plenty of nicely animated cutscenes to watch and to use as reference. Most of them are easily skipped if you choose to ignore all that work and jump straight into the game itself. And you can access info on your quest, find idle workers and locate your heroes, easily from the main window, and this helps keep track of all your “cyber-critters.”

Sometimes your mission doesn’t require, indeed allow, you to build up troops but merely go navigate them from Point A to Point B - to advance the storyline. These weren’t my favorite episodes, but they’re also generally fairly brief.

Anyway, I shouldn’t really give away this tale of Arkansos et al, any more lest I spoil your enjoyment of its many twists and turns. Suffice it to say I really enjoyed playing Age of Mythology and look forward to seeing what comes next from the combination of Microsoft Games and Ensemble Studios.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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October 20, 2006