Use the power of the gods to rule a world of mortals and monsters.
PC Release: May 8, 2014
By Ian Coppock
Real-time strategy games can be a lot of fun, but sometimes they can also be a bit dry. Training an army and sending them to destroy a castle is a pretty straightforward process. It can allow for unexpected creativity, especially when using sheep as spies or monks to wololo, but the sight of a battle in an RTS game can be little more exciting than the minutiae that went into planning for it. There’s usually room for strategy games to liven things up a bit, be it through faster gameplay or fantastical elements, or through a compelling story. Age of Mythology: Extended Edition may very well have all of these things in spades.
Originally released by Ensemble Studios back in 2002, Age of Mythology is a spinoff of the Age of Empires games that sends players to a mythological world — a world where the ancient gods are real, strange creatures roam the earth, and sheep can, well, still be used to spy on enemy players. Age of Mythology received near-universal acclaim when it first released, charming players and critics with its apt blend of real-time strategy gameplay and exotic mythological elements. It layered a bit of magic, a bit of mysticism, onto the fine-tuned strategic gameplay Ensemble had already pioneered with its Age of Empires games.
Age of Mythology allows players to play as the ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Norse civilizations, while a later expansion pack added the Atlanteans. The Extended Edition being reviewed here tonight rolls both games into a single title, as well as adds HD capabilities, integration with the Steam workshop, and a few graphical touch-ups. Forgotten Empires, the studio that makes the new expansions for Age of Empires II, made an expansion for Age of Mythology that adds an ancient Chinese civ to the game.
Each civilization in Age of Mythology has its own gods to worship, from the Greek Zeus to the Norse Odin. Players can choose one of three major gods to worship within each civ, and this selection has a massive impact on how the player’s culture will grow. Because of this dynamic, Age of Mythology provides much more variety than a total selection of 4-5 playable civs might suggest. Even though Zeus and Poseidon belong to the same Greek culture, two Greek players picking each god will end up with noticeably different bases and armies. The same can be said of Egyptian players who pick Ra or Set, Norse players who pick Thor or Loki, etc etc.
After picking a major god, players are given a town center and a few villagers, which is classic Age of Empires. And, just like in the Age of Empires games, villagers can go out into the wilderness to gather wood, food, and gold. Unlike Age of Empires, Age of Mythology features a fourth resource called favor, a sort of godly currency that allows players to train mythological creatures and research top-tier technologies. Each civ has its own way of gaining favor that reflects its respective gods. Because the Greek gods are vain, Greek players gain favor by assigning villagers to worship at temples. The Norse, by contrast, gain favor by killing enemy units and are therefore way more bada**.
As players gather resources, they can grow their civilization by building out a town and training military units. Similarly to other Ensemble strategy games, the key to success in Age of Mythology is a strong economy. Gathered resources do no good unless they’re being spent, which means that players can expect nonstop unit production and technology research. With a proper balance of resource income and military buildup, players can train enough troops to defend their town or go on the offensive in relatively short order. Research allows for units to be faster and deadlier, and for buildings to be better fortified against attacks.
The mechanic of advancing to a new age returns in Age of Mythology, with a twist. When advancing to the next age, players can pick from one of two minor gods within their civilization. Like the major league gods picked at the start of the game, these gods have perks and rewards that can alter playstyle. Bast, a minor Egyptian goddess, grants agriculture benefits, while Greek party boy Dionysus improves certain unit attacks through the power of… alcohol? Different assortments of minor gods will appear depending on which major god is picked.
Minor gods provides two perks that definitively set Age of Mythology apart from Ensemble’s other strategy games. The first is that each minor god has his or her own mythological unit, which can be trained at the temple. These units are usually pretty expensive and always cost at least a bit of favor, but they excel at destroying human enemies. Frankly, each civilization provides some pretty awesome monsters to train. The Greeks have centaurs, of course, but later in the game they can also build giant colossi that tower over the battlefield. The Egyptians, who are apparently fans of The Mummy franchise, can train up plague-bearing zombies and half-arachnid, half-Dwayne Johnson scorpion men. The Norse have dragons. Because they are the best.
Over the course of the game, players can also acquire something even more pivotal to gameplay in Age of Mythology: god powers. This is where Age of Mythology‘s ability to shake up the dryness of the Age of Empires formula really comes into play, and where players can change the course of a battle in a split second. Whether it’s conjuring a lightning storm that kills every enemy on the field, or an earthquake that swallows an entire town, players can harness the powers of the gods to shatter foes in ways that human armies can’t. This mechanic adds dire unpredictability to an Age of Mythology match, because players never know if that town they’re about to sack is packing a meteor shower. Some powers can be used multiple times; others, only once.
Like the Age of Empires games, the units in Age of Mythology are unknowing participants in a massive game of rock-paper-scissors. Cavalry beats archers, infantry beats cavalry, myth units beat infantry, etc etc. Players have a much greater chance of beating the opponent by building an army composed of several different unit types. It’s tempting for wealthy players to simply field an all-myth unit army, but even the monsters in Age of Mythology have an Achilles’ heel: heroes. Each civilization can train specially gifted human heroes that can put even the mightiest minotaur to shame.
Because of myth units and god powers, matches in Age of Mythology are usually a great deal more chaotic (and fun) than their Age of Empires counterparts. It’s fun to surprise the opponent with a massive column of cyclops, and the sight of monsters can strike more terror in an opponent than the columns of human troops to which RTS games are restricted. God powers can make or break a match, and knowing when to use them adds a novel bluffing element to Age of Mythology.
For players who are new to real-time strategy games or lukewarm on the idea of multiplayer, Age of Mythology features a single-player story campaign. Unlike the campaigns in the Age of Empires games, which are often split between multiple civs or characters, Age of Mythology features a single, massive campaign starring Arkantos, an Atlantean general, as he travels the world in pursuit of the evil cyclops Gargarensis. The campaign is by far the most compelling narrative Ensemble Studios ever crafted; the writing isn’t great, but its 30+ mission length allows for a surprising amount of character development, exciting battles, and references to ancient myths.
The other neat thing about the campaign is that even though Arkantos is Atlantean, his campaign is split into roughly three chapters that cycle through usage of Greek, Egyptian, and Norse units, whom Arkantos rallies to his cause as he journeys around the world. It’s a novel way to introduce each civilization to the player while in the context of a grand adventure. Plus, with each level featuring missions ranging from infiltration to massive battles, players won’t be hurting for level or objective variety. Because the Extended Edition of this game includes the aforementioned Atlantean expansion, players can play another, albeit much shorter, campaign starring Arkantos’s son Kastor. Despite its reduced length, its scenario variety rivals that of the main campaign.
Whether players are interested in the single-player campaign or a round of multiplayer, everyone’s in for quite a visual treat. Age of Mythology‘s game world is absolutely beautiful, perhaps even more so than the maps in Age of Empires III. From verdant Greek hills to scorching Egyptian deserts, Age of Mythology features a rich variety of maps inspired by locations all over the world. Each map is beautifully detailed with rugged terrain and ancient ruins, as well as populated by dozens of different animals (elephants, gazelles, zebras, polar bears, the list goes on).
The graphical improvements introduced with the Extended Edition include some well-implemented texture and resolution touch-ups, as well as a day/night cycle and better water rendering. These improvements don’t quite put Age of Mythology on graphical par with modern RTS games, but between the title’s bewildering variety of maps and strong use of color, polygonal precision falls by the wayside. Couple this with the game’s memorable, relaxing soundtrack of deep drums and Mediterranean guitar, and the result is a deeply immersive ancient world that’s a lot of fun to explore.
Because it’s an older game with simple processing requirements, Age of Mythology runs problem-free on modern machines. The Extended Edition adapts the game to newer software well, and the options menu allows players to make tweaks to almost anything in case problems do occur. Though it’s not as big as Age of Empires II‘s resurgent multiplayer community, Age of Mythology has experienced a revival thanks to the Extended Edition. Players have also taken to the game’s Steam workshop with rigor, producing a few custom units, skins and even campaigns that can be downloaded for free.
Unfortunately, though, Age of Mythology is not without one major flaw, but it has less to do with the game and more to do with the Tale of the Dragon DLC released shortly after the Extended Edition. To put it frankly, it’s one of the buggiest, most poorly designed pieces of DLC on Steam, and that’s not exactly a light statement. The Chinese units the DLC adds suffer from pathing errors, and the entire production is rife with bugs and glitches. The campaign mode features a particularly game-breaking bug that casts an assassination target as an essential NPC. In short, stick with the main Age of Mythology game. It’s great. Tale of the Dragon is a hot piece of garbage.
Luckily for Age of Mythology, its big flaws are restricted to a single piece of DLC that can easily be glossed over in pursuit of the main game. The gameplay in Age of Mythology makes for a well-oiled strategy machine that has aged well despite having originally been released in 2002. Its multiplayer community has been resurrected, and the single-player campaign presents an affable world tour of diverse mythological lore. Strategy fans would be remiss to not add this game to their library immediately. It’s not the most popular game Ensemble Studios produced… but it is the best.
You can buy Age of Mythology: Extended Edition here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.