Much as I love piping obscure stuff through my Windows XP machine, it’s important to break out a proper big gun every now and again. For whatever reason, despite an abiding love of Age of Empires II, I did not play Age of Mythology at the time (admittedly it’s of an age with Warcraft III, so I was probably… preoccupied). But people have always said it’s good! It’s a hole in my RTS experience!
It is time.
Age of Mythology
It’s so pretty. That was my first thought. Crunchy little trees. Crunchy little Town Centres. It’s exactly what I want from a game, exactly what I love about AoE2. The transition to 3D has brought some changes in scale — people seem relatively bigger compared to buildings than the pretty much 1:1 sprawl of Age of Kings towns, and farms are straight-up a quarter the size — but overall it’s just lovely.
Age of Mythology‘s campaign tells the story of a dude called Arkantos as he interrupts everybody’s favourite legends. The siege of Troy? Yep, he was in the horse. Putting Osiris back together after Set chopped him up? Instrumental part of that, mate. Although Arkantos is from Atlantis, his world-hopping adventure allows him to play first as the Greeks, then the Egyptians, and finally the Norse — so you get your complete campaign tour of all the civilisations on offer while following a single story arc. In-game cinematics abound, too. The modern world has arrived in the Age franchise!
There are structural elements of AoM that make playing the same civilisation for ten missions a lot more varied than you might expect. Play is still governed by the titular Age setup, where you’ve got four Ages to advance through that give you access to better units and better technologies — but here, advancing also includes a binary choice between two gods, each of which brings a different subset of research and troops. Do your Greeks worship Dionysius to get access to the multi-headed hydra (yes), or do your Egyptians pick Hathor to get the laser crocodiles? (Yes, abso-fucking-lutely!!)
I think, on balance, there’s probably about the same amount of stuff as in AoE2. The difference is that rather than locking into a tech tree by picking a particular civilisation at start-up, you get to refine your choice as you play. Certain campaign maps, for example, include Relics that give passive bonuses to some unit types, making it a sensible choice to focus your worship on whatever god also boosts those units, to create super-soldiers… or you can ignore that because cavalry suck, and build up your army of Cyclopses instead.
Mind you, those myth units sure change everything. Normal human units are basically useless against myth units, so realistically, your play in any campaign mission is to stall until you get have a platoon of your favourite monster — a bit like how most of any Supreme Commander mission is just assembling the infrastructure that lets you build the giant T4 Experimental units, the things you’re actually playing the game for. It’s not quite as bad as that, because myth units are drip-fed through the ages rather than all saved for the end, but it’s definitely there.
After all, little human soldiers just aren’t that interesting when you’ve got manticores and giant scarabs as back-up… though I appreciate that the contrast is necessary to make the myth units feel special. Carving bloody paths through enemy footsoldiers, of course, never gets old. Most myth units have special attacks they use automatically every now and again, which aren’t exactly game-changing but add some fun colour to battle scenes — it’s always a delight to see a Cyclops send some hapless warrior tumbling through the air, smashing down trees on impact.
The God Powers, I am somewhat less enamoured with. Advancing in age and picking an object of worship also grants you a single-use spell that can be cast anywhere you have line of sight. This goes from stuff lke a single thunderbolt that instantly kills a unit, to a pestilence that prevents buildings from training units for a period of time, to boosting resource harvesting and summoning creatures. So yes, they’re very varied, but they’re single-use — a single use thunderbolt to kill one unit at some point in an hour-long match? That’s barely worth mentioning.
The higher tier powers are a little more justifiable. Meteor Shower can do terrible, terrible damage over a wide area, which is ideal for softening up somebody’s defences before your actual troops roll in. The Vault of Plenty gives you a steady trickle of resources forever, but honestly, by that late in the game you’ve probably got your villagers doing just fine. So, basically, I barely used the God Powers. (Maybe this is Balanced in an eSports context and they make more sense in online skirmishes, but, well, Windows XP machine and no friends and all that.)
Of course as a modern (uh…) 3D RTS, the campaign also comes with the usual grab-bag of alternative objectives to basic, wholesale slaughter — build a thing, guide your heroes and/or a squad somewhere, steal an artefact, you know the drill. Many missions start you half-way up the tech tree with a choice of god or two already locked in, which also keeps people like me from making the same choices every time.
There are 30-odd missions of varying size and scope, including playable dream sequences, which was… well, I want to say it’s a generous helping, but a lot of the missions were a bit of a slog. I think you’re supposed to Rush, but I like to take my time, turtling and building up my armies before heading out. Unfortunately it feels hard to get the resources coming in reliably in the early stages of a game, and with constant raiding parties melting your army every time it gets back on its feet, some missions become more frustrating than fun. That’s not to say that it strictly discourages turtling — quite the opposite, the modernised wall-building system is fabulous and every civilisation gets a Castle equivalent… Although all of these defences seem markedly more vulnerable to being pulled down by random soldiers than their Age of Kings counterparts.
This can lead many missions to feel somewhat anticlimactic, as after struggling to turtle and defend for an hour I suddenly found myself waltzing through the enemy base and thinking… well, maybe I could have done that twenty minutes ago. You know you have a problem when siege equipment is basically optional.
I also want to say that most maps feels quite small. The traditional Age base sprawls, and in Age of Mythology there is still that tendency to spread out — but I also frequently found myself putting down my walls within sight of the enemy’s own ramparts. At least when you had to march troops halfway across the map before entering battle, proceedings had a bit more heft to them.
So yes, lots of cool stuff going on even if it doesn’t quite scratch that Age itch. The myth units add so much delight and variety to every scenario, even if the God Powers are mostly a bit lacklustre. If the editor was half as good as WC3‘s… well, unfortunately it isn’t, so I did make the right choice back in the day.