Some new things that worked well, some things that could use improvement, but overall a good game.
Well, the most noticeable thing is that it actually has a storyline. Other games from the similar Age of Empires series sometimes indirectly follow a historical character, but they have a textbook feeling. Age of Mythology is more like a play in its cut scenes. It has 3D characters talking and interacting with each other, characters are added or taken away from different cut scenes with reasons given, and everyone has their own distinct voice and to some extent personality. The storyline drives the action, and gives reason for why the player must work towards a mission objective.
Besides this change, the game itself it well-done.
The interface is simple and practical. Too many games these days have complicated overhead camera controls. Age of Mythology has the camera focused at one height and at one angle, so the player only has to worry about playing the game, not fiddling with the camera. And really, it was no trouble. I think in all the time I played the game, only maybe twice did I actually have trouble with the perspective, when one object covered another that I wanted to select. But, I just moved the camera a little, and I was able to do what I wanted.
Also, the grouping system is especially well-done, and other RTS games would do well to emulate it. If you select a group of soldiers and press Control plus a number, it makes a group, just as RTS games have been doing for years now. But it also creates a miniature flag in the top-left of the screen that shows the type of unit that the group is made of. Changing groups is intuitive, since if you select a group and change it to another one; it deletes it as the first one and moves it to the new slot. Double clicking selects all of a certain type of units (though in the Titans expansion, it wouldn't select Hero and regular units as the same thing, which was sometimes useful, but more often annoying), and when moving, the group forms a neat line with the fighters in the front and the ranged units in the back. It's a bit annoying sometimes how it only allows you to select 30 units at a time, but it encourages using the grouping system, which maximizes effectiveness since while units naturally attack whatever enemy unit's closest to them, some units are better at attacking certain types of enemy units than others.
The music's toe-tappingly good. It's background music with an ancient feel (though in one song I think I heard a didgeridoo, so while it sounds ancient, I'm not sure if all the instruments were available in the Greek-Egyptian-Norse ancient world) that sounds good, but isn't intrusive and doesn't get irritating. It has a second type of music, the battle music, which doesn't sound every time there's a battle (for good reason, since it'd be annoying if the music changed for every little skirmish, like how in 1503 AD it changed for every island), but often sounds when there's a large-scale assault on buildings, particularly the town center. It's so good that I'd go far enough to say it's fun to listen to even when not playing the game. The music files are conveniently located in the "sound" folder of the game, and in MP3 format to boot, with silly names like "hoping for real betterness" and "flavor cats (in the comfort zone)". My personal favorite is "the ballad of ace lebaron".
The introduction to Age of Mythology is especially well-done. It's in 3D, but in almost movie studio quality, somewhere between Toy Story and Beowulf. Arkantos and the hoplites look almost real, and you almost feel like you could reach out and pet the Centaurs. The only trouble is that its plot, of Arkantos exploring a temple and learning of an ancient battle between mythical creatures and men which eventually lead to the defeat of Kronos, has only tangential relation to the story.
The in-game graphics are also pretty good. You can see flies buzzing, the individual stones of roads, and stripes on zebras. You can't quite make out faces or other minor details on the units, but the mini-picture that comes up when you click on it makes up for this minor shortfall. But if you click on that portrait, another strength of the game shows up. An information sheet comes up, which gives health, speed, as well as attack and defense, if applicable. But what's really interesting is the description. Every clickable thing in Age of Mythology, from Centaurs and pharaohs to fish and trees has a description about it. The most interesting things about these are that they often combine myth and reality, giving both information on the in-game unit, while also saying about the real-world history of the unit: real world history if it's a regular human unit (non-Atlantean, of course), while more mythical objects and people have a short description of the myth that inspired their creation in the game.
The introduction to the game is well-done. It starts with two short tutorials that give the basic how-to-move-and-fight that all tutorials have to introduce the game to someone who's never played games of the type before, as well as a short mission to introduce the player to buildings, objectives, and "god powers", the often one-use abilities of the player to do something supernatural that could turn the tide of the game. Also, for the Greeks, Egyptians, and Norse, Athena (the in-game guide) gives a short introduction to the faction, and explains how that faction is different from ones before it.
Something that prevents the player from being too bored or too frustrated, you have the ability to select the difficulty of each level. This means that if you don't find a level to your liking, you can either replay it in a different difficulty level. This means that if you select a difficulty level too low or too high in the beginning, and after several levels you get stuck or remain bored, you don't have to restart the whole game to change the difficulty level. I personally found that as a general rule, Medium difficulty is good if you want to finish the level the first time, while Hard difficulty is good if you want to play through a few times and use the knowledge you gained in the previous games to win that level.
Finally, remember how dumb it was in the original Age of Empires how if you killed a creature with a military unit how it instantly spoiled? They fixed that in the game, and anything can kill a creature and allow gatherers to butcher the animal. It’s really useful when there are dangerous animals like wolves, crocodiles, giraffes, boars, bears, hippos, walruses, and elephants (I’m not sure if all those animals are actually good to eat in real life, but it was fun to be able to butcher them), which could kill a settler or two without the army’s help. It’s a minor point, but I remember how much I hated it back when I couldn’t kill a gazelle with a catapult and still eat the meat.
I think the biggest thing I didn't like was the Atlanteans. Rather than give another tutorial, or at least another introduction to the faction like they gave for the Egyptians and Norse, the Titans expansion just starts with a quick cut scene, and then shoves the player into the world without explaining any of the differences of the Atlantean faction. Then again, the original tutorial wasn't all that great either. It didn't even mention that you could switch to Fight commands, something I didn't realize until around mission 5, and only just now while I was writing this did I test it out and realize AOM has Guard and Patrol options. I think of all the missions in Age of Mythology Gold, the one I enjoyed least was the first mission of the Titan expansion. But even after getting the gist of what was new, I never enjoyed playing as Atlanteans in any of the missions afterward. The Atlantean melee infantry is weak against all other enemy infantry, and battles are a repeat of infantry being mowed down by better infantry while you try to pelt the advancing troops with arrows before they can reach the archers. It isn't until near the end of the game when you finally get Fanatics, the only good hand-to-hand units they have, though they're expensive, have low hit points, and can only be purchased after you've made it to the highest age.
The Titans expansion is also buggier than the regular AOM game. There were a few errors in AOM, such as a relic that had no description and did nothing in an Egyptian mission, and ballista units being able to fire over what should have been solid rock in caves in one Norse mission. But that Titans had many more. Once on Mission 2 of the Titans expansion, when I used Shockwave, an especially useless God Power that just spreads out and stuns enemy infantry for a few seconds, when the infantry became mobile again they walked on the ground at a 45 degree angle. In that same mission I had Kastor walk over to a temple surrounded by pillars and marble columns, only to have him not be able to get back out, and I eventually had to pick him up by sea. Worse, on Mission 10, Amanra walked into an area, only to not be able to get out, unable to walk through bare ground which was causing a sort of invisible fence. On that same mission, I lured a Titan to a wall I'd built, and instead of simple crushing the wall, which he could easily crush (in loading the game later, I held fire and he crushed the wall in one step), he just paced up and down the wall and pelvic thrusted at it as he was made into a pin cushion (video on YouTube). Other Titans weren't much smarter. I was able to easily lure a Norse Titan away from populated areas by hitting him once and running away, so he'd slowly lumber away from settlements and easily buy me enough time. And even Kronos, supposedly a god walking the Earth, was stupid enough to follow a Chariot Archer like an ice cream truck to the other side of the map after it fired at him once.
Speaking of which, there's little specialization of damage. Damage is only divided into Crush, Hack, and Pierce damage. So, rather than Fire Siphons doing Heat damage, or Priests doing Magic damage, Fire Siphons did Crush damage (if anyone's ever been crushed by fire, I'd like you to tell me about it) while the priests did Pierce damage. So rather than wooden structures having more damage done to them by fire (I'll leave the complicated programming of having something light on fire and taking progressive damage to Age of Wonders), the Crush damage works just as well on wooden structures as it does on stone and metal ones. This was REALLY weird in Titans because the Atlantean Fire Siphons would do a lot of damage against stone and metal walls, even though in real life armies and people built with stone specifically so they wouldn't be burned down. That said, if a siege unit does get damaged, instead of being rebuilt, it gets "healed" like other units, which is really strange.
Titans also doesn't have a distinct intro. Like the original Age of Empires, all the Titans intro is is a butchered version of the Age of Mythology intro. It's especially stupid when you consider that the Titans expansion is largely about Kastor, not Arkantos, and the original intro was probably set before the first Age of Mythology mission, so while the original mission was at least tangentally related to the game, the edited down into to the Titans expansion had next to nothing to do with the game.
Also, the in-game cut scenes are rather low-quality, owing to using the same animation and characters as the game. But while it looks rather pretty in the game viewed from about 50 feet in the air, the cut scenes zoom in to about 10 feet, so all the little errors are visible. They don't have moving jaws, and instead just bob their heads when they talk. The oars and fire don't look realistic. Their feet sometimes sink into the ground. Barefoot people walk on snow. And once, Gargarensis moved his trident through a bolder. Now, either he should have avoided that rock, it should have hit the rock and stopped, or he should have smashed through the rock. All I'm saying is that if they didn't want to do separate full-motion cinema, if or even motion capture like the sort of movies that Nox had, they could have at least worked on the quality of the cinematics more.
And finally, as an afterthought, it's not a very realistic game, but I can't much complain because few Real-Time Strategy games are, especially if you really think about them. I could right a long essay about all the things that are unrealistic in the game, but instead I've just pointed out the ones that went beyond my suspension of disbelief. There were two other things that really didn't make sense though, and I mean beyond the ordinary things like people suddenly appearing out of nowhere after you train them, a inexhaustible supply of manpower, needing to "research" the same things over and over (I must have had to research "Hand Axe" 30 times!), and the instant transport of materials around a base. First, in the Egyptian campaign, nearly the whole time is spent trying to gather and hold pieces of Osiris so you can put him back together. But for some strange reason, you can still worship him, research his improvements, and use his god powers! It really didn't make sense to be researching Desert Wind and using the Son of Osiris power while the Pharaoh's standing 5 feet from an Osiris Piece! Second, Amanra’s clothing. Sure, it made sense that she was just wearing a vest, skirt, ankle bracelets, headband, and feather when she was in the warm climates of Egypt and Greece, but it was downright nutty when she was wearing the same things in Scandinavia! With her bare feet, arms, and waist, I couldn't help but thinking if she was real, she'd be freezing to death. Quite a few other underdressed people were in the Norse campaign, and actually it seemed like only Dwarves were actually adequately dressed, but no one was as poorly dressed for cold climates as Amanra. That said, there were also two other things that were more realistic than in other games. First, I suppose you the player could be considered some sort of god controlling people, which if that's the case it makes more sense that why you're creating boxes around people then pointing at where they want to go. Second, for myth units and other reinforcements from the gods, they suddenly appear in a flash of gold, which makes more sense than soldiers suddenly popping out of buildings.
The Bottom Line
First I tried a few levels on an older computer years ago, and played through a few levels, but it was too slow, so I switched to a faster computer, and played up to level 18 before stopping for some reason I can't remember. Then, last September I tried it on my laptop, and it ran perfectly (one of the few games, it turned out, that ran perfectly on Windows Vista). Then, from September 25th until February 10th, going by the dates of my save files, I played it one hour a day every day, even when I had a lot of homework. After 5 months of playing, longer if you count years ago, it was strange to finally finish the game. I knew from early on that I wanted to write a review of it, but it seemed like anything I could say just wouldn't be enough. In fact, when I finally did get myself to write a review of it, I wrote the good and bad, but it was about a month of "I'll do it tomorrow’s before I finally got around to writing the ending of it. So what can I say about a game I spent so long on? Are there any deep psychological underpinnings of the game that set it off from other games? Well, now that I mentioned it, maybe. It seems like a journey into the unknown to me. I mean, you start off playing the Greeks. Everyone who’s ever played a real time strategy game will know how to play the Greek campaign, and every 6th grader who paid attention in class will know of the main gods in the campaign, and probably most of the minor gods and the myths things are based on. Then it moves on to the Egyptian campaign, which also every 6th grader could know some of the gods and myths, and while the play style is a little different, it’s not too different. Then it moves on to the Norse, which I can bet that most people can’t name more than two Norse gods or any Norse myth, and the play style is drastically different then what they’re used to. Finally, the Atlantean campaign comes along, which has almost nothing familiar at all, both in terms of gods, myths, and gameplay. So, while the characters are going places they’ve never been and seen things they’ve never seen, the player is learning about other European mythologies besides the Greek ones that everyone knows and that show up practically every week on Jeopardy.
Quite simply, it's good. It's interesting while not necessarily enthralling, fun while not usually exciting, more intellectual than other games, and as difficult as you want it to be. It's the kind of game that's perfectly suited to the patient, persistent, intelligent, and perhaps casual gamers. And after playing it so long, that's really all I have to say.