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ups: Great evolution of Age of Kings gameplay; mythological deities fighting each other; new 3D engine allows for nice viewing; really fun.
downs: Continuity between battles is spotty in campaign mode; cutscenes are rendered at low polygon count; not really breaking any new ground here.

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Age of Mythology
game: Age of Mythology
four star
posted by: GF! Back Catalogue 10/2004 => 1995
publisher: Microsoft
date posted: 09:10 AM Fri Dec 20th, 2002
last revision: 04:03 PM Sun Oct 23rd, 2005

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by Paul Cockeram

Ensemble studios delivers a stylish new installment in the Age of Empires series-the fantasy-rich Age of Mythology-among a multimillion dollar media blitz worthy of Microsoft\'s bankroll. You\'ll probably catch an AoM trailer during your Christmas season movie roundup. What you may not catch amidst the glitter and showy animations is how fantastic an addition AoM really makes to the AoK series.

Those familiar with the series will already know of its crossover style between Civilizationesque resource- and knowledge-management on one hand and strategy-based battle and conquer on the other. AoM brings to the table a foray into the ancient mythology of three different civilizations-Greeks, Norse, and Egyptians-by having players choose deities in the various pantheons for their villagers to worship. As always, once you pick sides in a conflict you find yourself involved in all the petty wars and drama of the various deities. (Lucky for you the deities grant god powers to help, which are specialized powers that may be used only once per scenario and range from a lightning bolt that destroys one unit to a healing spring or a shower of wrathful meteors.) Getting mixed up in real holy wars is the premise of the 32-scenario campaign, in which you guide Atlantis\'s heroic admiral Arkantos through an epic war against the hideous monster Gargarensis. At stake is the sea god Poseidon\'s favor and, of course, the free world itself, for Gargarensis is working to open a passage to Hades and awaken sleeping Kronos, which will trigger Armageddon, or Ragnarok, depending on your point of view. Gargarensis enlists the help of Loki, which brings the Norsemen running and brings Thor and Zeus into the fray. Egyptian hero Amanra lends her support when Gargarensis turns to Set for help in destroying the pieces of Osiris before he can be remade and given new life.

The emphasis on inter-pantheon deific strife notwithstanding, AoM never sacrifices an abiding faithfulness to the history and folklore that records all this mythology. Background given for each myth unit contextualizes the unit, so that AoM manages to invoke ancient cultures\' lore without thoughtlessly appropriating it or completely butchering its cultural significance. And the units themselves represent a fascinating diversity, from Minotaurs and Gorgons to crocodiles that shoot beams of light from their forehead and giant wolves animated by the spirits of ancient, powerful warriors. The myth units make a fearsome addition to any army, yours or the enemy\'s, though they can easily be conquered by plentiful heroes like Arkantos, Ajax, Odysseus, Amanra, and a bevy of powerful Norse heroes wielding giant hammers and characteristic horned helmets.

All of these units are rendered in crisp detail within the game, though cut scene animations are less impressive. Polygon counts appear to be quite low in the cut scenes, so that Arkantos\' head looks like a side of mutton with coals for eyes and epileptic red caterpillars for a mouth. Continuity between scenarios is also disappointing, as you\'ll routinely win one scenario with a particular group of soldiers only to be given a completely different army moments later when the next scenario starts. Transitions between cut scenes and gameplay are, however, nearly flawless, as the camera zooms out and the units are suddenly under your command. And the enthusiastic voice acting and well-written dialogue compensate for what the eye lacks, doing a great deal alone to flesh out the epic storyline and set up the rigorous challenges presented in each scenario.

The scenarios themselves have a scaling difficulty from Easy through Titan, and difficulty may be set at the beginning of each level. This makes sense considering the relative ease of some scenarios compared to the difficulty of later ones. This feature also allows broad possibilities as far as game time. You can either breeze through all 32 scenarios and watch Arkantos fight to save Atlantis (though you probably know the island\'s fate), or you can amp up the difficulty and approach each scenario like a strategic battle for territory, establishing a beach head and then creeping across the island hill by hill toward the pirate stronghold and the ultimate battle. Game time for the campaign will therefore vary from thirty hours to twice that.

Whatever your method of play, resource gathering and management remains essential to building up an army, researching advancements in armor or pickaxe technology, and ultimately gaining the favor of the gods. Resources include wood, food, and gold, which must be chopped, hunted or farmed, or mined. AoM replaces the stone resource from AoK with favor of the gods, and each civilization gathers favor in a unique way. Greeks must fall on their knees at the temple, while Egyptians build ever-more-impressive monuments that gradually accrue favor. Meanwhile, the Norse fight for the pleasure of their gods, making constant raids on the enemy vital to building up a powerful army of frost giants and valkyries. Such differences between civilizations distinguish them from one another in strategically important ways, giving each unique strengths and weaknesses.

This becomes important in the multi-player head-to-head or single-player modes, since selecting the right civilization for your method of play will mean the difference between dominance and a quick defeat. Single- and multi-player modes also offer an unlimited amount of game play, and the style is a nice balance between the spread-and-conquer, research-and-gather atmosphere of the Civilization series and the strategic hack-and-slash atmosphere of games like Medieval Total Warfare, making it possible for players to emphasize either style according to their own preferences.

Unfortunately, if you\'re not already a fan of the AoK series, AoM probably won\'t change your mind. But if you liked the series or heard your friends raving about it and were intrigued, if you enjoy RTS games and civilization-building resource-management challenges, or if you just want to see whether Osiris has what it takes to kick Loki\'s ass, then Age of Mythology will not disappoint.

Paul Cockeram (12/20/2002)