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Decade Feature – 2002: Age of Mythology

January 28th, 2010 by Rob Zacny · 11 Comments · Ensemble, Feature:Decade, RTS

What this is about.

My father has always enjoyed the Age of Empires series, even though he’s quick to admit that he’s not skilled enough to really master them. He likes them because they will run on his laptops, unfold slowly, and reward him with lots of eye-candy. He loves all the moving parts: the siege weaponry, the farmers working their fields, and the towering walls and turrets that rise out of the landscape.

In essence, my father loves the Age of Empires series because it lets him play SimBase.

That is also one reason why the Empires games always left me cold. Fortifications tested my patience, and siege-warfare tested it even more. They confronted me with so many options that my choices seemed meaningless. I could see why my father liked them, but they were 180 degrees from the Blizzard RTSs that informed my expectations.

So I dismissed Age of Mythology, at first, because it seemed like a cash-in on a franchise that I already knew wasn’t to my taste. I could hear the pitch: “Age of Empires meets Clash of the Titans. Same game, but with monsters.” Perhaps it would work for the people who already loved Age of Empires, but it was probably not for me. My prejudice didn’t relent until long after the game reached discount racks. That’s when I learned I was a fool.

I had been correct about it being the same basic game with an exotic ingredient, but the effect was like adding vermouth to chilled gin. Age of Mythology was a perfect martini, smoothing out the rough edges of the Empires series while deepening the game through some fundamental changes.

Age of Mythology cut the factions down to three and threw out the extraneous units. Each civilization had such a strong identity that it was clear where the strengths and weaknesses lie. Crafting an effective strategy around them was devilishly tricky, however, because everything depended on who you were fighting and the choices each side made during the course of the battle.

The mythology elements, far from being the gimmickry I feared they would be, proved to have subtle and far-reaching effects in every game. Choosing a supreme deity from among each tradition’s Big Three (for instance, the Greeks have Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon) gave each faction an inflection. Playing Greeks-Zeus was quite different than Greeks-Hades. Those differences became even more pronounced as players chose new gods with each new age.  Aphrodite could give the economy a huge shot in the arm, but Apollo offered giant Scorpions, archery bonuses, and a passage through the underworld for instantaneous point-to-point travel.

The most important addition for me, however, was a sense of wonder. The first time laser-crocodiles showed up on my doorstep and started blasting down towers while my Minotaurs sent Egyptian spearmen cartwheeling through the air, I felt giddy. I was astonished the first time an opponent opened an Underworld Passage behind my lines and started blowing my base apart from the inside out, and the thrill of launching an attack or rushing well-timed reinforcements to a battle using the Passage never gets old. It is wonderfully odd to see two hostile armies standing intermingled, peaceful as lambs, during an enforced truce while doves wheel and coo overhead.

For all Age of Mythology’s complexity, I rarely feel overwhelmed. In most RTSs, I’m dead certain I’m losing by the time my first barracks goes up, and usually get my proof a few minutes later as my troops are steamrolled by units two steps ahead on the tech tree. That rarely happens in Age of Mythology, where I still have time to think and plan. Expanding the economy alongside the army and technology is consistently challenging, especially since the factions and match-ups call for different strategies, but it’s not a black art of build orders. Most of the game is pleasantly self-explanatory, and even when I’m losing, I usually know why and leave the game with a bunch of ideas for the next match.

The RTS in general is a genre where I find as much that bothers me as pleases me, so when one comes along that instantly makes me so comfortable and hints at so much depth behind a straightforward design, I am ecstatic. Age of Mythology is one of a very few that strikes that balance.

In my household, it occupies the position of a favorite family boardgame. Several times a month, my partner will stand in a corner of the room, making certain that she’s in my line of sight, and start marching in place.

Eventually, I’ll peer over the edge of my book at where she is grinding carpet fibers into the floorboards. “I take it you wish to stomp some comps?”

She places a finger to the corner of her mouth and casts her eyes to the ceiling, making a show of thinking about my question while her big toe continues to press an imaginary Egyptian base into oblivion. Then, with a grave and solemn nod, she says, “Yes, please.”

Next up, Troy looks at the last great Impressions city builder.


11 Comments so far ↓

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  • Kingdaddy

    Thumbs up for choosing to feature Age of Mythology as one of your games of the decade. Crazy fun.

  • Troy

    Just a clarification: These aren’t necessarily “games of the decade” – just games from the decade that spoke to us in some way or are representative of something in our weird eyes.

  • Naum

    While I loved AoE/AoK, AoM was where the RTS went off the rails for me…

    …initially, cast the migration to splashier graphical eye candy as the culprit — I really was enamored with the mass numbers of units on the screen and emphasis on smaller quantities were a big negative (ditto for WC3 though that game had some other redeeming qualities that compensated for the reduced unit count).

  • Alan Au

    Have you tried the boardgame version?

  • Josh Bycer

    AOM takes me back, it was my first entry into the Age of series if I remember right. I’ve always love mythology and while the game wasn’t a huge history lesson I enjoyed reading the unit info in the encyclopedia section.

  • Bobby

    AOE, AOEII and AOM are finding their way back into my gameplaying life due to a shift in my computer use. I’m spending a lot more time on my laptop (cira 2007 Toshiba with ATI X1200 graphics) which will run all 3 games just fine, not so much AOEIII or any RTSs in the last 5yrs very well. However I can play the classic RTSs games over and over again so I don’t mind.

    I was put off by AOM when it first came out even though I bought it because it was from Ensemble but it wasn’t anything like AOEII which was my all time favorite game at the time so I was thinking what the hell is this when I started playing. Turns out that was a good thing as I played it more and more and realized what a gem they had created in Mythologies. It really could be called just Mythologies and not have Age in the titles. Its a great RTS game in its own right.

    Playing this game makes me sad though in some respects because Ensemble has gone away and we’ll probably never have another Mythologies game let alone from the minds of the original.

    This Decade series is great Troy. My hat is off to you and your collaborators.

  • Kingdaddy

    “Just a clarification: These aren’t necessarily “games of the decade” – just games from the decade that spoke to us in some way or are representative of something in our weird eyes.”

    Actually, I think that’s a more meaningful way to mark the passing of a decade worth of gaming than the “Best of…” lists. Hearing why a game spoke to you is a lot more interesting and useful than arguing over which game deserves some arbitrary distinction as #1 in its category.

  • Natus

    What can I add? Nothing. This is my RTS love. Still a wonder after all these years.

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  • Graham

    I really wanted to like AOM, but early balance issues made that impossible. After getting steamrolled by an unbeatable Centaur rush for the 20th time in a row, I finally gave up on it. My game of the decade was definitely C&C Generals. Same premise from a franchise perspective, and more successful and fun from my perspective.