Age of Empires is a genre-defining real-time strategy game. Five years after the release of the original Age of Empires, in 2002, Ensemble Studios decided to bring a mythological spin to the series formula, and ended up creating one of the best RTS games of all time. Age of Mythology didn’t just apply a fantasy coat of paint to Age of Empires — it helped push asymmetrical design forward, while featuring one of the most memorable campaigns of all time.
Unlike Age of Empires, Age of Mythology only offers three different civs to play. The reason for that, however, is that each one plays completely differently, encouraging a more asymmetric approach to gameplay, instead of the more minor differences in Age of Empires 2.
The core gameplay of Age of Mythology is the same, rotating around the three major resources of food, wood, and gold, but a fourth major resource is introduced called Favor, which is used to produce powerful myth units and upgrades. This also ties into the differences between the three civs.
The Greeks are a more standard RTS civ that has strong heroes and gains favor by having villagers pray, the Egyptians get powerful healing bonuses and gain favor by constructing monuments, and the Norse are focused on military and mobility and gain favor through fighting. While the core tenets of gameplay remain the same, each civ has entirely different units, buildings, and upgrades, meaning you’ll need to put the time in to learn all three.
The number of strategies that you can develop, based on the civ you’re playing and who you’re playing against, is staggering. This is even more true when you factor in god powers, the other major difference in Age of Mythology. As you progress through the ages you’ll get to choose from a variety of god powers to use, some of which are on cooldown timers while others are single-use.
God Powers are all themed on specific gods, and the ones you unlock can help shape your overall strategy. For example, choosing Athena as the Greeks unlocks the Restoration power that heals units and buildings, while choosing Anubis as the Egyptians unlocks Plague of Serpents, which spawns a horde of serpents to attack the enemy.
While all of these gameplay elements can make for intense multiplayer matches, where things really come together is in Age of Mythology’s phenomenal campaign, as well as the campaign of the expansion, The Titans. Age of Mythology completely breaks the mold for RTS games with its campaign, telling an epic character-focused story that revolves around an Atlantean general named Arkantos. Through a mix of cutscenes and in-game dialogue, Age of Mythology delivers a tale packed to the brim with mythological characters and deceit between the gods.
This story is bolstered by some fantastic mission design that consistently keeps things interesting and dynamic, with no two missions ever feeling the same. One mission sees you collecting the scattered pieces of Osiris to resurrect the god, while enemies breathe down your neck. Another mission quite literally takes a page from The Odyssey and has you rescuing Odysseus and his crew after they’re turned into pigs.
The expansion only perfects the game’s mission design, with some absolutely massive missions that have you fighting to stop the massive mythological Titans through whatever means you can. In one you summon an ancient dragon called the Nidhogg while trying to save as many villages as possible, and another has you defending from an onslaught of enemies while your Pharaos summon an ancient Egyptian guardian.
Mythology has become more and more popular in video games over the years, thanks to games like God of Wår (2018), the Assassin’s Creed series, and Hades. However, Age of Mythology feels like one of the earliest games that really tackled mythology in a meaningful way, and used it to create an utterly unique gameplay experience.
Twenty years later, it's still one of the very best RTS games ever made, and with a “Definitive Edition” on the way, it could easily claim that top spot for years to come.
Age of Mythology is available for PC via Steam.