RTS/citybuilderish Age of Mythology: Extended Edition is a tweaked, slightly modernised re-release of the dearly-departed Ensemble’s myths & legends spin-off from Age of Empires.
A mild graphical overhaul, Steam-powered multiplayer & mod support and Twitch integration headline the changes, but really it’s about reintroducing something that has withstood at least some of time’s many tests into a market that might just be crying out for it. So, how does it hold up?
I’ll never slag off the plot in a Blizzard RTS again. I suspect I simply took Age of Mythology’s white noise hum of a tale for granted upon its initial release – expectations were low, and cuboid in-engine men wobbling slightly while someone charged a day rate to drone out their first and only reading of a script about nothing came with the territory.
A more generous soul might deem it “Alan Bennet does Atlantis”, but I’m going to go with “M. Night Shyamalan does The Archers.” I think I’d do well to bear in mind just how far we’ve come the next time I’m having a grumble about the narrative shortfalls of more contemporary games.
That aside (well, and some outdated UI concepts), I’d say Age of Empires’ fantasy offshot holds up rather well. Visually it’s, y’know, fine, having successfully shaved perhaps four or five years off its apparent age, but the it’s the game itself which stands tallest.
It’s a happy mix of good, old-fashioned, getting-on-with-it building and surprisingly large-scale battles with varied armies. It’s oddly, lackadaisically-paced compared to today’s gogogo real-time strategy, though you can very much see the seeds of the intensive multi-tasking that has increasingly come to the fore.
There’s a tranquillity here between battles though – the measured chopping of tall trees from lush forests, the unhurried herding of found animals back to base for the sort of bloodless, painless death our parents promised our ailing, ancient dogs and cats received at the vets. Towns have a life and personality to them too – they’re not just a random bundle of utility buildings. There’s a touch of the citybuilder here, hidden slightly behind brutish cyclopes, Harryhausian Collossi and noisy lions.
When fights do kick off they’re big and fast and eye-catching thanks to the dramatic size difference between humans and their mythological allies, but there’s a ton going on underneath the surface carnage, as humans vs myths and associated vulnerabilities adds an extra layer of rock, paper, scissors.
There’s good reason this RTS has been given a coat of spit and polish for the modern age, and that’s because there’s good multiplayer barney still to be had from it. The tinkering in this do-over is focused just as much on getting online up to speed and adding Twitch support as it is on better resolution support and whatnot, which is telling.
That side of RTS isn’t really my world admittedly, but I’ve been enjoying slowly learning how the jigsaw fits together in singleplayer, and on its own merits rather than mere nostalgia. This really wasn’t a game I played too much of on first release (the Age series is a bit of a blind spot for me, in all honesty), so I’m confident I’m enjoying what’s actually there rather than what’s in my memory.
Stuff like branching tech trees – depending on which gods you choose to worship – and decisions over whether to invest early-to-mid-game resources in offensive, defensive or economic upgrades comes across as fairly progressive if perhaps not rule-rewriting.
This is a bittersweet reminder of where build’n’bash was heading in its last heyday, and I’m left wondering what might have been if the great RTS highway hadn’t effectively closed into just three lanes – StarCraft, MOBAs and Total War. What might have been? Well, it could just as easily have been bloat and over-complexity as it could have been another golden age – perhaps, too, that’s why RTS as we knew it ended up in this extended fallow patch.
As it is, this veteran game oddly ends up filling a gap in the modern market, which is no doubt why I’ve taken to it despite its woeful cutscenes and visual outdatedness. I really miss casual RTS, those familiar toyboxes for one, though at the time I’m quite sure I was bemoaning the excess of similar games. The great wheel forever turns.
Age of Mythology: Extended Edition is out now.