Although the PC isn't exactly short of quality real-time strategy games, it's not difficult to pick out the top three names in this market - the holy trinity of RTS gaming, if you will, being Westwood (Command & Conquer), Blizzard (Warcraft/Starcraft) and Ensemble (Age of Empires).
Westwood, of course, is no more, with what's left of the studio being assimilated into the EA mothership - a process which yielded the arguably disappointing C&C Generals, although that may yet be redeemed by a promising looking mission pack. The stunning Warcraft III took great leaps away from the standard RTS conventions, and has recently been bolstered with an excellent mission pack... While Ensemble's Age of Mythology, in our estimation one of the best traditional RTS games ever made, is also just about to receive a mission pack, and one which makes some sweeping changes at that.
Spoils of War
Making one of the world's best loved strategy games isn't a task without its rewards, if the offices of Ensemble Studios in Dallas, Texas are anything to go by. Used to the standards of UK development studio offices - all cubicles or converted warehouse space - it's hard not to be taken aback by the opulent surroundings of the company's two-floor premises in an office block previously occupied by stockbrokers, and now home to science-fiction style decoration and facilities including a private theatre, recording studio and impressive libraries of games and books about history and mythology. The Stargate-esque décor cost in the region of $2 million, we're told - sounds like Age of Empires really does bring home the bacon, then.
We're here at Ensemble, nervously avoiding the red circular pads on the floor for fear of accidental teleportation, not just to escape the withering heat of Texas in midsummer but to see the next chapter in the Age of Empires saga. The aforementioned add-on pack for Age of Mythology, it transpires, introduces changes and new features that are sweeping enough that even experienced players of the original will have fun getting to grips with them - and an innovative take on the RTS endgame which will also take quite a bit of getting used to.
Before we get on to the real meat of the new stuff in the game, let's briefly look at some of the more minor new features. The most obvious is the appearance of a fourth race in the game, namely the Atlanteans, who come with a brand new selection of units, abilities and disadvantages. They're quite different from the other races in the game - one major advantage is that their villagers don't need to return goods to a drop point in order to harvest, which saves a lot of time and effort. Atlantean heroes are also quite unusual, in that any Atlantean unit can be promoted to Hero status for a certain amount of resources - leading to situations where you control entire legions of heroes, albeit at fairly significant resource cost.
Along with the Atlanteans come a host of new gods and god powers - we were particularly taken with one god power which lays giant spider nests around a point on the map, from which vicious burrowing spiders pop out and nab any unwary enemy units who happen to wander past. Another creates a spinning vortex that sucks in nearby units with a large radius (and looks very cool indeed when you fire it off) while new myth creatures are also plentiful - a personal favourite being the Man 'O War, a giant jellyfish that annihilates fleets of enemy ships with a chain lightning attack.
As you might expect from an expansion pack, most of the graphics and the interface elements are unchanged - although one key new feature is the ability to tell a building to keep pumping out the current unit in production until further notice. It's handy to be able to wander off elsewhere while your village continually pumps out soldiers or villagers, although it also seems all too easy to accidentally leave villagers on auto-production and then wonder twenty minutes later why you appear to have no food, and about half a million idle villagers having an illegal rave in the forest behind your armoury...
The real muscle of the expansion pack doesn't show up until the later stages of the game, however - and as you might expect from the name of the pack, it involves the Titans, gigantic and very angry creatures which you can summon from the ground to wreak havoc on your enemies. The ability to construct a Titan Gate is essentially a fifth Age in the game, which can be researched at your town centre once you've reached the fourth Age (the Mythic Age); once you've done that you get to place a Titan Gate somewhere on the map, and send your villagers to excavate it in order to free your Titan, by far the most powerful unit in the game.
This is where the sweeping changes to the endgame are most visible. The Titan is an incredible superweapon, capable of strolling through even fortified bases levelling buildings left right and centre - it can be taken down through incredible concerted effort, or through use of a lot of hero units, but essentially the only sensible way to deal with a titan is either to prevent its excavation in the first place... Or to get one of your own, of course, in which case you get to watch two giant creatures duking it out for the heavyweight championship in the middle of the map, probably doing some pretty hefty ecological damage to any nearby forests in the process.
The Titans seem to be a great twist to the Age of Mythology formula - they pose an incredible threat and make the race through the Ages even more important, but most importantly they speed up the endgame massively and prevent the sort of wars of attrition which many RTS games can become in the later stages. Titans just don't do attrition, really - what they do do, however, is smashing things up and destroying entire towns in seconds, which is a lot more fun at the end of the day.
Expand your Myth
It's rare for an expansion pack to introduce anything as radical and interesting as the Titans to a game formula, so it's great to see Ensemble trying this new twist on RTS gameplay in Age of Mythology. Whether it'll be embraced by the fans is another question - the Titans and the Atlanteans are a lot of fun to play with, but we reserve judgement on how they affect the overall balance of the game until we get a chance to sit down with a full copy shortly.
However, for casual RTS gamers at least, we're confident that The Titans will give Age of Mythology a new lease of life - at least until we find out what the ultra-secret project being worked on in the locked offices at Ensemble is. Although nobody would even go so far as to admit that the secret game is a strategy title, we both suspect and hope that work on the next instalment of Age of Empires is already well underway under the hot Dallas sun.