By Erik Wolpaw
January 10, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

The five-year-old age series has so far produced nothing but solid, fun, and wildly popular real-time strategy games. But because they solely focused on the empire building of ancient civilizations, the titles, like old parchment, were always a bit dusty. Until now. At one point in the newest entry, Age of Mythology, our band of Cyclops (Cyclopses?) and Medusas (Medusi?) found itself battling an army of mummies and what can only be described as giant alligators with beam weapons strapped to their backs. If ancient history were more like this, we would’ve paid closer attention in class.

Which isn’t to say Mythology is a total overhaul of the Age formula. What worked well before hasn’t been monkeyed with. There are still resources to gather, technologies to research, and armies to train and deploy; but now the influence is more Ray Harryhausen (Clash of the Titans) than your junior-high history teacher.

However, a few notable innovations have crept in. Everything’s been streamlined, but the biggest change is that the three factions (the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Norse) are significantly different from one another — in terms of population units available to them and in ways they acquire resources. Along with more traditional human soldiers, there are hero units specifically designed to combat the powerful new myth units. Every side must also align itself with one of three primary gods. These deities (for example, Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon for the Greeks, and Loki, Odin, and Thor for the Norse) grant various bonuses and make extra unit types and structures available. They also give ”god powers,” whose effects range from calling down hugely strong (and hugely satisfying) meteor strikes to more benign economy-boosting magic.

The god powers — in fact, the entire game — look great, in large part because the graphics are completely three-dimensional. From a tree gently swaying in the breeze to a giant squidlike kraken plucking hapless soldiers off the beach and tossing them 50 yards, the attention to detail is amazing.

Mythology contains an extended, enjoyable 35-level single-player campaign. There’s also a robust skirmish mode that lets you fight against (or with) up to 11 computer-controlled players. If there’s one complaint to be made, it’s that the computer has a few holes in its tactics that you’ll quickly learn to exploit. Luckily, though, you may never need to play against your computer, since the game comes packaged with a free and utterly effortless Internet player matching and tracking service that, at the touch of a button, will automatically set you up with opponents of equal skill.

With its streamlined interface and modern makeover, Age of Mythology is itself a mythical beast: a sequel that’s simultaneously deeper and more accessible than its predecessor.