AoE: Back on the Map!
Age of Empires (AoE) is a classic RTS franchise almost all gamers have at least a passing knowledge of. It was one of my favorite PC experiences in the early 90s and, even today, I’ll spew out occasionally catch phrases such as “Rogan,” “Habadakus,” or “Zo’gahn-tal!” The question is: can a new developer and publisher improve upon the classic formula?
Age of Empires has always been known for simple city-building and management systems, interesting unit designs, and engaging civ progression. All of these features are alive and well in the latest AoE outing for DS, Age of Empires: Mythologies. What’s more, the varied gameplay options, polished visuals, excellent organization, and slick multiplayer functionality make this a standout strategy title for Nintendo’s portable.
Mythologies, like the AoE spinoff Age of Mythology, sets players in the myth-filled Ancient World. Three cultures, the Greeks, Egyptians, and Norse are available, and each civilization is marked by unique characteristics and campaigns. AoE: Mythologies sports turn-based gameplay that’s heavy on strategic combat and light on comprehensive city and nation-building. This makes for very fun and fast-paced strategic gameplay, especially for multiplayer confrontations. However, the single-player component is somewhat less engaging due to the lack of complexity of the non-combat elements. Still, the three distinct campaigns and civs do a great job of keeping the solo player moving onward.
Gameplay in Mythologies is mostly about battle. The majority of games out there simply use varied units to add depth to combat. AoE: Mythologies starts there and emphasizes gameplay with a dual-layer, ever-evolving approach; each unit belongs to both a type and class and is upgraded over time.
Players will have the ability to train and deploy three different types of units: Human, Hero, and Myth. These are divided into five distinct classes: Light and Heavy Infantry, Archers, Cavalry, and Siege. More or less, each unit type and class employs a rock-paper-scissors strategy: Humans deal extra damage to Heroes, Heroes best Myth units, and Myth units beat up Humans. Likewise, Light Infantry trump Cavalry, Archers can lay waste to Infantry, Cavalry are for taking out Archers and Siege units, etc. Coming up with a nice mix of these unit types and classes to fight your enemies is a lot of strategic combat fun and is quickly mastered.
To vary combat even more, each civilization has access to a pantheon of culture-specific gods. Each of the gods has its own divine boons and/or smiting abilities that can be employed by players to turn the tide of war in their favor. These extremely powerful abilities may provide you with greater production, stronger units, direct healing, damage to your foes, hampering enemy movement, etc. The three pantheons of gods are a great touch that truly helps to distinguish the different civilizations.
In addition to pure combat, Mythologies, like traditional AoE titles for PC, allows players to gather simplified strategic resources (gold, food, and favor) to apply toward technological research, unit development, and building construction. Gold and food are used for most units, buildings, and research, while favor is used for constructing Myth units and researching Divine Technologies. All three resources, along with specific tech requirements, combine to allow you to Age Up.
When you Age Up, new units as well as God Powers and new techs become available to you, which can all have a powerful effect upon the battlefield. In other words, you’ll always want to stay a step ahead of your foes and press the advantage, as every age provides new bonuses and essentially levels up your armies. Researching new techs, securing resources, and aging up is an incredibly addictive and rewarding mechanic that has been a part of every AoE game and is just as compelling in Mythologies.
Single-player game modes include three distinct campaigns that follow the exploits of the different cultures, Skirmish battles, and Scenarios. The Campaign tells a few interesting stories and does a nice job of providing the game with flavor. The Skirmish battles allow you to play on arena-style maps against 2-3 other A.I.-controlled players. Finally, Scenarios are one-off matches that have you trying to attain a specific goal. All these modes provide players with a lot of content to wade through on their own, and they serve as a great training ground for multiplayer contests.
As complete as the single-player experience is, the multiplayer options are even better. Players are able to play online with friends and unknowns through the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, play a trial game through Download Play, play a Hot Seat match by passing the DS, or play via local wireless play. I was very impressed at just how much multiplayer content was shoehorned into AoE: Mythologies’ cart. Setting up any and all of the games is a snap, connections are flawless, and the human component makes the game far more challenging and enjoyable. The only downside is that there aren’t that many people playing Mythologies. That means getting matched to another player (let alone three others) can be difficult. Also, games can be drawn out affairs. Players often disconnect when things are going badly. However, neither of these complaints are a function of the game itself; the multiplayer technicals are perfect.
As a nice little bonus, unlockable content and rewards are given to players for various successes within the game. These are known as Player Legends and are tantamount to Achievements or Trophies. They really do serve to spur players on, especially considering that a ton of additional content, including maps, units, and relics, can be unlocked for multiplayer matches. All these rewards and a few key stats like wins, time played, favorite units, etc. are saved under your player profile. It’s these little touches, found throughout the title, that make AoE: Mythologies such an enjoyable and complete portable experience.
As if solid and deep strategic gameplay wasn’t enough, the presentation and execution are excellent. Whereas many DS games, including Age of Empires: Age of Kings, rest on their depth and shun slick visuals, AoE: Mythologies shines with a polish few titles see on DS. The sprites’ animations and details are very nice. All units are easily distinguished due to their very unique models, and the varied backgrounds and environments are quite pleasing to the eye. Moreover, the background music not only captures the feel of the title, but it is of high enough quality that most players will leave it on during hours upon hours of play. Plus, the culture-specific command recognition phrases exclaimed by your units are great!
On the execution side, Mythologies employs an easy-to-use control scheme. Players can use either the D-pad and face buttons or the stylus. I found using both to be the most efficient and fluid. Simple touches of the stylus will have you cruising across the maps, while the face and shoulder buttons are very precise for giving you map overviews and issuing specific units commands. Finally, the menu layout and overall organization is about the best I’ve seen. It is very easy to get in and out of games as well as obtain crucial information during campaigns.
Without a doubt, this is one of the very best strategy titles for the Nintendo DS. Some may gripe about the lack of non-combat depth; I know I would have liked to see more. After all, this game is much more similar to Advance Wars than it is to 1701 AD, both of which are excellent DS titles for strategy buffs but have very distinct focuses. Nevertheless, this is strictly a subjective comment. Age of Empires: Mythologies is an amazing game that truly demonstrates the power, complexity, and fun that can be wrung out of Nintendo’s handheld. Griptonite’s setting the bar! We’d love to see a sequel to this game, but we’d also really like to see this model applied by THQ and Griptonite in future games of varying themes.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.6 Graphics
The varied sprites are reason enough to buy this game. 4.3 Control
The hybrid between touch screen and standard controls works nicely. 4.4 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The background music and culture-specific unit catch phrases are a joy. 4.5
Between single and multiplayer modes, this is a game that you can play for a hundred hours in its first year, and then come back to time and again in the future. I just wish there was a bit more depth outside of combat. The technical execution is flawless!
4.4 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.