Guest Blog by John @roundeggfilms
I remember a time, it wasn’t that long ago either, when the realm of real time strategy was dominated by three major franchises. Back before the cruel reign of e-sports and competitive matchmaking, these games sat atop their strategy thrones akin to the likes of Xerxes or Caesar Augustus. Millions of fans (I being one of them, of course) and if it wasn’t for their development or subsequent domination of the market, gaming as we know it today just wouldn’t be the same. What are these games I’m speaking of, you ask? Simple. I’m talking about Command and Conquer, StarCraft, and Age of Empires.
Even if you’ve never played these games first hand, chances are you probably have. Their unique playstyles and mechanics have been copied and retooled so many times throughout the years, that even to this day we can still see them pop back up on gaming radars from time to time. Command and Conquer with its fast paced, no nonsense combat. StarCraft with its competitive edge and focus on balance. And of course, Age of Empires: its base building, economy juggling, worker placement meta-game we’ve all come to love, continue to leave an impact on the gaming world at large.
As great as these games were, however, they seem to have fallen spectacularly out of favor with the masses as of late. New gamers, many of which are young or uninitiated, crave nothing more than quick, easy gratification (something a slow, methodical game like Age of Empires can’t deliver.) As a result, it’s rare now that developers choose to emulate these older yet venerable titles, and give ornery old codgers like me a trip back on memory lane.
But the times, as they say, are a-changin’. Seemingly out of nowhere, the developers at SkyBox Labs have done what very little developers do, that is, I.E: release an expansion pack for a 14 year old game. This latest blast from the past is none other than Age of Mythology: Tale of the Dragon, giving fans a long awaited touch up to one of gaming’s most beloved franchises. Boasting a plethora of new units, scenarios, maps, buildings, and effects, can this posthumous expansion pack herald a return to the glory days of Real Time Strategy? Or does it simply just light a candle in honor of one of the greats? Well, grab your Chu-Ko-Nu and praise your ancestors, because we’re about to find out.
For those of you who might not know anything about Age of Mythology, I’ll try to sum it up as best I can. In the game you’ll take the role of one of three major pantheon of gods: Egyptian, Norse, Greek, or Atlantean. Each pantheon has its own strengths and weaknesses to consider, as well as a whole laundry list of divine powers to benefit from. As you build, defend, and research your way to domination, you’ll be given the opportunity to “age up” just like you could in earlier Age of Empires titles (and countless other spin-off games.) This gives you access to even more powerful units and magic that you can then use to crush your enemies and make them squeal. Age of Mythology: Tale of the Dragon, takes this tried and true formula by adding a fifth pantheon to the game: the long speculated Chinese.
Throughout my time as The Chinese I could best compare them to the Egyptian pantheon, a faction whose might at first is fairly weak when compared to their Western counterparts. However, if a Chinese player can survive the grueling early ages and keep a level head, the Chinese evolve into one of the strongest late game factions in the game, bolstered by powerful mythic units and a borderline overpowered economy game.
The latter is brought about by the unique Chinese building called the Garden. A Chinese player can build Gardens which will grant a slow trickle of any of the four collectable resources: food, wood, gold, or favor. Giving the player the ability to collect on a resource without the need of assigning a peasant to collect it gives that player a huge advantage over other players, an advantage that I I’ve now grown accustomed to having. At first the trickle is slow, giving you a few extra resources here or there to help you get over the hump in dire times. But considering the fact that you can build up to 10 gardens at a time, that Trickle can soon turn into a down right geyser of extra resources, so much so that you can totally ignore harvesting, say, food for instance, and instead just let your gardens do it for you. This mechanic, while unique, is a tad overpowered, but future tuning might knock it down a peg.
But let’s not get bogged down with the negatives so early. The one thing I absolutely loved about the Chinese is their mythic power. Everything from their gods to their magical abilities downright throbbed with Chinese influence, and it really hit the mark. Units like giant amphibious salamanders do tons of damage, and bridge the gap between naval and land combat. Massive birds of fire called Vermilions fly overhead and wreak havoc with whirlwinds of flame. Terracotta soldiers fight nobly, only to explode in a poisonous gas when finally killed, dealing extra damage. They even brought back the much beloved Monk unit from the original Age of Empires. While he might not recite the epically quoted “Wololo”, he does heal units and convert the unbelieving just like his distant cousin could. All in all the Chinese go into the game with a tough lineup and most importantly, are fun as hell to play.
I’ve also had no qualms with the graphics. The Chinese buildings have some of the most soothing aesthetics out of all the pantheons, and I quite like just building massive cities just because they look pretty. The new maps are alright too I suppose. While I didn’t get a chance to play all of them, I don’t remember any of them being boring or bland looking. SkyBox Labs did an amazing job with the HD remaster of Age of Mythology a few months back, and unlike some, I find the visuals and effects to have come together nicely considering the game is again, 14 years old.
Unfortunately, the single player campaign which accompany the Chinese in this expansion pack, feels roughly the same age, despite it being totally new and crafted in the modern age. Characters are boring, the voice acting is weak, and individual scenarios are long and drawn out. While the Chinese may be fun to play as, the campaign that revolves around them was nothing more than filler in my eyes, and after a few missions, I got fed up and reverted back to random skirmishes and multiplayer.
I should also mention, that there does seem to be a slew of bugs and crashes. One simple glance at the Steam discussions page bring about over a half dozen posts about people’s game’s no longer functioning after the DLC was installed, etc etc. But since I had no such bad luck with the expansion, I’m going to leave a lot of those complaints up to user error or client side hiccups. Everything just simply worked for me, down to the multiplayer, which when played with friends, is as awesome as it was years ago.
So does Tale of the Dragon deserve a look? Yes. Absolutely. Despite the bugs, despite the semi-overpowered nature of the new Chinese faction, and despite the slog of a campaign, Tale of the Dragon adds a bunch of new content to a venerable franchise that many would have thought to been long deceased. I’m all for developers reviving older games at acceptable price points (This expansion is only $9.99 USD) and if the trend can continue, I can only imagine what they might do with some of my old favourites.
Pick it up if you’re a fan of the old “Age of” titles, have a soft spot for ancient mythology, or just want to take a trip on memory lane, and see how far Real Time Strategy has come along since those glory days of old.
Guest blog by: John @roundeggfilms
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