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SummaryA great game in its own right, but also where everything started to go wrong
The GoodIn the media there's a term known as "jumping the shark." It's where TV show, author, band, whatever, makes a creative decision that, while it may be well-received, marks the point where the artist/band/whatever begins their downward slide. Years later, people will point to that change and say "see? That's where things started to go shitwards."
Metallica jumped the shark when they released The Black Album. The Brady Bunch jumped the shark when they added the Cousin Oliver character. The Simpsons jumped the shark when they moved away from their core conceit of Springfield itself and began basing their shows on non-sequiturs and celebrity cameos. And guess what? Ensemble Studios jumped the shark when they released Age of Mythology.
Age of Mythology is a real-time strategy game similar to Age of Empires I and II, except instead of history it's based on the myths of the ancient world. You don't get to conquer the world as Alexander the great, but you do get to is destroy enemy armies with the Greek Cyclops and Hydra, and sink enemy ships with the many-tentacled Kraken.
The game's design is far simpler than Age of Empires II. You play as one of three civilizations; the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Norse. Once you've selected a civilization you can then pick one of three primary gods to worship, each of whom will confer special abilities upon your civilization (for example: worshipping Zeus gives you stronger infantry and allows you to build Pegasi flying units). Each time you advance an Age in the game (there are four) you get to pick a minor god to worship, who will likewise give you special bonuses. This allows you to tailor and develop your civilization as the game progresses with far more flexibility than in Age of Empires II, where you start out with a pre-set civilization with fixed bonuses and abilities.
What makes the game really fun is that each god grants you a special "God Power" which lasts for a limited amount of time and can only be invoked once. Your early god powers are things like Zeus' lightning bolt (instantly kills an enemy unit) and Loki's Spy (allows you to see what the enemy is doing). At the end of the game you've got super-powerful God Powers like Horus' Tornado, which sucks whole enemy armies into a whirlwind of dust! The graphical effects for these God Powers are truly astounding, even by today's standards.
Since God Powers can only be used once, you've got to decide whether to use them early in the game to gain a quick advantage or hold on to them like a hidden ace up your sleeve. They can even be combined, for instance you can use Nepthys' Ancestors power (creates an army of undead skeletons) and Bast's Eclypse power (gives mythological units double attack for a couple of minutes) together for a surprise attack of souped-up undead warriors.
Each god also lets you build a special Myth Unit, an especially powerful mythical creature that complements your human attack force. Some Myth Units have special abilities, such as the Hydra that gains an extra head for each enemy it kills. The combination of Myth Units and God Powers drastically reshapes the way gameplay works, and shakes off the layer of complacency Age of Empires II had a times. Each Age of Mythology game plays out different, and you never know what to expect.
Other than the mythical element Age of Mythology keeps most of the rock-solid gameplay of the previous games. You can trade, fight, or boom your way to victory. You can wage huge battles or cripple your enemy's economy through raiding. This all worked well in the previous games, and what isn't broken doesn't have to be fixed. One of the few changes is that each unit you build takes up a different amount of population. Villagers only use one slot, infantry normally use two, cavalry use three, and myth units use four or five. This means you can either have a small but powerful force or a large army made up of cannon fodder...a great idea that has been long overdue.
Graphics are an impressive deal, with an advanced 3D engine coded specifically for the game that supports pixel shaders, millions of colors, and a simple physics engine that allows units to fly around the screen and buildings to collapse realistically. I prefer Age of Empires II's sprites to Age of Mythology's polygons but that is a matter of taste. The game supports ambient lighting and you can play by day, by night, or during an eclipse.
The game even takes a clue from Warcraft III and includes an in-built multiplayer game finder that immediately matches you up against equivalently skilled players, another nod to changing times.
The BadI'm not crazy enough to say that Age of Mythology is by any means a bad game. The production values are incredible, the unit balance is solid, the multiplayer is great, the addition of Gods and God powers is excellent, and the myths-based storyline is cool. But it is inferior to Age of Empires II. And not by a little, by a lot.
Once you're tired of blasting soldiers around the screen with meteorites, Age of Mythology's gameplay is shallow. There are fewer units, fewer buildings, fewer resources, fewer everything. In Age of Empires II you could delete your town center and rebuild somewhere else if you wanted, in Age of Mythology you can't. There's an obtrusively low population limit that limits everything you can do. The whole game feels...restricted.
And this brings me to another point; the game is newbie-friendly to the point of being retarded. Let's not confuse the issues here, accessibility always has been one of Ensemble Studios' main concerns and so it should be. But Age of Mythology is so dumbed down it almost cripples the game. Simplified interfaces and gameplay is one thing, but why have they made rushing impossible? And how come there are practically no formations or stance buttons? And where are all the hotkeys? Age of Mythology is tailor-made for the bottom-end newbie, at the expense of more experienced gamers.
And while there is a lot to be said about the game's mythological theme it sends the cheese factor through the roof. Personally I would have preferred a more serious approach rather than having goofy-looking giants and two-headed trolls and whatever else they got out of the latest AD&D module.
The Bottom LineAge of Mythology is a fine game and I recommend it. Unfortunately, it marks the end of an era and beginning of a new, crappier one.
Bands, writers, and TV shows very rarely recover from jumping the shark. Will Ensemble Studios buck the trend? Ask me when Halo Wars comes out.