When Age of Mythology and its expansion pack The Titans first came out in the early 2000s I was sure that Real Time Strategy games had entered an era of improvement and advancement. Microsoft Game Studios had already delivered the stellar Age of Empires series and built an impeccable track record from which to pioneer new developments in strategy gaming. Now, with the release of Age of Mythology: Extended Edition on Steam, I look back at the old style graphics and gameplay and realize that Age of Mythology was not so much a precursor of things to come as it was a development studio experimenting with new concepts as it prepared to embrace the new millennium.
Age of Mythology brought the myths of antiquity to the RTS genre. Now players could command the heroes of Greek myth as they opposed legendary monsters like Minotaurs and Cyclops or marched alongside ranks of hoplites to fend off Viking raiders and their Giant allies or conquer Egypt with its incarnate demigods and mummified pharaohs. Microsoft Game Studio’s superb attention to historical detail exhibited in Age of Empires II returns here with lore for each unit as well as an amazing variety of obscure mythical creatures to populate each of the four playable civilizations’ unit rosters.
Made back in the era when multiplayer and LAN was still coming into its own; Age of Mythology features a very well developed single player story mode. The campaign guides the player through an ever expanding storyline with separate sections focusing on Egyptian, Greek, and Norse mythology. Alongside an engaging story and a very diverse set of challenging missions the campaign also gives players a full experience of the game’s content; familiarizing players with the differences among the civilizations and showcasing the different units and god powers. The campaign isn’t perfect; Age of Mythology abandons the traditional method of specially scripted and constructed cut scenes and uses its own in-game graphics to animate the characters and events. The voice acting is marginal and those characters that aren’t mythically based are rarely sympathetic and often annoying. Occasional touches of humor alleviate the disappointment to some degree.
The wide variety of information inherit in the unique civilizations can feel overwhelming if taken all at once and the single player campaign, while long, is easily the best resource for becoming familiar with the variations among and within the different civilizations; and there are many. Players familiar with Age of Empires III will recognize precursor elements in the choice between minor gods that represent advancements to higher ages. Each civilization has nine minor gods to choose from, with three major gods dictating which minor gods are available. Once a major god is chosen, the minor god choices come in pairs with each minor god offering a myth unit, god power, and set of unique technologies upon reaching the next age of development.
The game doesn’t start with the myths either. Mundane workers and soldiers are different for each faction with the Greeks taking the traditional approach of infantry, cavalry, and archers supported by a multi-tasking villager. The Egyptians on the other hand, while still using simple laborers, must empower their resource and production buildings with their unique Pharaoh hero to increase their productivity and efficiency. Egyptians military units are also more specialized, with each unit designed to counter another type; unless you construct the mighty war elephants which are effective against anything smaller than them. The Norse throw an even bigger variation by having their soldiers construct all their buildings. Dwarf units serve as specialized gold miners and Ox Carts are mobile drop off points following the gatherers and dwarfs to each new resource node.
The differences among civilizations make for a very interesting multi-player experience. As with all of the older RTS titles Age of Mythology’s core concepts remain the same such as base building, resource managements, and large scale unit combat. Once the unique aspects of each civilization enter play things become much more interesting. Different combinations of minor gods keep each civilization fresh and observing the variations in each civilization’s economic system can lead to unusual strategies; particularly where Favor is concerned. Favor is the new resource that allows the production of myth units, the monsters that make heroes what they are. Each faction gains favor in different ways; the Egyptians construct increasingly large monuments while the Greeks need only assign villagers to pray at their temple. The Norse must engage in combat with their foes, with hero units gaining more favor than myth units.
Modern RTS players may find Age of Mythology’s dated graphics, somewhat simple AI, and more varied civilization design primitive compared to more recent RTS titles. Multiplayer matches can be routine, especially against weaker AIs, but players willing to invest the time in learning the finer parts of each civilization will find many new challenges to oppose other players. It should be remembered that Age of Mythology: Extended Edition is a remake not a sequel. Players who enjoyed Age of Mythology in its early days will find all their nostalgia return for the modern PC. Newer players may question the game’s novelty but some patience and a little enthusiasm are all that’s needed to find one of the finer titles in RTS history.