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GamesFirst! Magazine

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By Ensemble Studios and Microsoft

A tough question that any legendary gaming franchise eventually faces is "How do you maintain the franchise's excellence when time's winged chariot hastens its original engine into tiredness?" Or something like that. That's the question Ensemble Studios faced after completing Age of Empires II: Age of Kings. AoE 2 was a great game, but it wrung just about as much out of the AoE engine as it could. Nevertheless, Ensemble could have haphazardly ground out an AoE3 that just projected the same game system into the Renaissance, and they undoubtedly would have sold a bajillion copies of the game. 

To their great credit, they haven't . Their newest project, Age of Mythology, does have some things in common with their Age of Empires games. For example, it's still a pre-modern gather-resources-and-build armies RTS game, and it still features AoE conventions like tech trees, progression through ages, civilization bonuses, and formations. But that's about it. Age of Mythology marks a crucial watershed in what I suppose must now be called the "Age of" series. 

First, it's changed the series' setting from the historical to the quasi-historical and mythological. Age of Mythology will include monsters, heroes, and spells--but they'll be limited. AoM is not going to be Heroes of Might and Magic in real-time. In AoM, you'll be able to choose to play one of  three cultures--Egyptian, Greek, or Norse. Each culture will also allow you to choose between one of three gods.  For instance, the Norse culture allows you to worship Odin, Thor or Loki. Each god grants certain bonuses and certain mythological creatures, and if you build temples and toe the line, your god will grant you favor points, which can then be used to cast spells or to build mythological creatures. The spells I saw at E3 looked pretty devastating--they're based upon natural occurrences, so don't expect to be casting Magic Missile or Color Spray. Instead, you'll invoke powers like lightning, meteor, and storms.  Ensemble plans to make the spells powerful enough to tilt the fortunes of battle in unpredictable ways, but infrequent enough so they don't become uberweapons. The same goes for the game's mythological creatures. There will be over 20 of them, and the ones I saw included cyclops (right out of Harryhausen, by the way), frost and ice giants, scorpion men, griffins, chimeras, and trolls. All of them have very useful special abilities--for example, the frost giant has a freeze spell and minotaurs can use a headbutt to send enemy soldiers flying. And what would a mythological game be without heroes? In AoM, you'll be able to command such stalwarts as Odysseus and Beowulf, who will also have special abilities and bonuses. 

Gameplay will also change. Ensemble realizes that too often the AoE games consisted of a mad dash to the final age, where the best units were located. In AoM, the shortest route to the final age will not necessarily be the best. If you don't build up your temples and infrastructure in the earlier ages, you'll find yourself seriously handicapped in certain areas, and players who putter around for a while in the second age will find they've accrued certain bonuses. Games will also be shorter, lasting about an hour, and no longer will you have to run down the enemy's lone surviving unit to win. 

The other great change is that AoM will be using a 3D engine. This was a trend I noticed in many of the RTS games at E3, and with AoM it's more than a cosmetic change. For example, terrain now becomes deformable and plays a larger part in combat, the in-game cutscenes are seamless, and--most importantly--equipment upgrades now appear on your units. If you upgrade a unit to a bronze shield, then by god a bronze shield will appear on that unit. This means that unupgraded units will look pretty bare, while units that have been blessed by the tech tree will look very, very, badass, kitted out from head to toe in shiny armor and evil-looking weapons.  

AoM will also include a single-player campaign. I know, the AoE series contained campaigns as well, but Ensemble really wants to ramp this one up. Right now, they plan for it to consist of over 40 missions which allow you as a hero to play through each of the game's cultures while experiencing myriad plot twists, sort of like Starcraft's memorable campaigns. And yes, multiplayer will be supported.  

Don't expect to see this one until 2002, but it will be worth the wait. It's good to see that Ensemble's not resting on its laurels, and that the future of at least this legendary game franchise looks very, very, bright. 

Rick Fehrenbacher


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