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ROMper ROOM: Hold entire empires in your hand

- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

Nintendo DS owners can conquer the world with a little help from the gods in Age of Empires: Mythologies (for DS, THQ, rated E10+ for players 10 and older, $29.99). Based on Ensemble Studios' PC-based real-time-strategy-game franchise, the action is squeezed down into a pair of hand-held-size screens but remains as potent as ever.

In a robust series of solo campaigns, the player controls characters and resources in three civilizations, Egyptian, Greek and Norse. Through a story told in eight missions for each, he takes turns versus a computer-controlled opponent to dominate a landscape and destroy any opposition.

A player must balance food, gold, and construction and military units to not only successfully attack enemies and defend his positions, but also meet statistical requirements to "age up" to more advanced time periods and take advantage of new technologies.

Human, myth and hero troops are trained and dispersed to stop threats or invade on a gridded map. They can include archers on chariots, a well-developed bunch of light and heavy infantry, and cool creatures. Instead of being locked into more realistic historically based skirmishes, like many of the strategy games, minions such as dragons, scorpion men and sphinx now walk the battlefield.

The wild card in the action is access to the mythical gods, a well-crafted group for each civilization, which quickly can turn the tide of battle. Imagine harnessing a tornado unleashed by Egyptian god Horus or creating an earthquake to destroy legions with help from the Greek war god Ares.

The game excels with slick visuals and battle sounds, culture-specific gibberish and orchestration. Statistics meld into animated battles, highlighted by those mythological creatures, on the DS' top screen. Its lower, touch-sensitive screen holds the map and hot points for administering to a civilization. The player will find a combination of button control and stylus to be the most effective for navigation.

The inclusion of skirmishes and scenario battles, varied multiplayer options (including simply passing the DS around), and wireless, single-card play and WiFi matches give the game nearly infinite life.

Learning time: The game is mired in strategy as it mixes resource management with troop placement and attack planning. The player is exposed to a full roster of famed mythological creatures and gods as he works through campaigns.

Unfortunately, no encyclopedia exists in the game to shed light on the legends it could have been a fantastic resource for a student. What the game offers is plenty of narrative text that should at least make the player curious about the origins of legends such as Perseus or the female pharaoh Hatshepsut.

Age range: The tween who loves an intelligent fight will find a nice variety of missions and multiplayer matches to appreciate. Developers even allow players to save their game right in the middle of a campaign so the weary can rest their eyes and brains. The cartoony violence of the battle is not graphic.

Final advice: By the powers of Ra, Zeus and Odin, the turn-based strategy game robustly lives on through the Nintendo DS in Age of Empires: Mythologies. Megalomaniacs in the family will spend hours embracing their destiny.

Game Bytes

Here's an abbreviated look at some multimedia titles for the entire family:

Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip (for Wii, Ubisoft, $49.99) — For the kid who truly wants to feel part of an extreme sport without leaving the house, this legendary frozen athlete delivers the goods.

A player picks a character from an ever-growing group of buds and quickly takes on slippery mountainous challenges based on speed and scoring points for performing tricks.

Most crucial to this experience — though the standard controllers do work — is the Wii Balance Board (sold separately, $199.99), another wonder from Nintendo. A player stands sideways with the board facing the screen. He now controls his avatar nearly as effectively as if he actually was standing on a real snowboard.

The moments are priceless for older members of the peanut gallery as they watch a younger player, not likely to get on real powder of this magnitude for years, intensely focused and succeeding on the board.

With the fog of the couch potato archetype lifted, players use a coordinated effort to execute a trick, perched in position to gain speed, teetering, shifting his weight and using leg and ankle muscles he probably never knew he had to grind, shred and jump his way through courses.

The presentation takes on a more than satisfactory, cartoony style compared with its PlayStation3 and Xbox 360 brethren. However, what the game lacks in realistic graphics it more than makes up for in creating an interactive wonderland for the player.

A fantastic rock soundtrack along with a nice selection of tricks fuels the action that even an out of shape grump can appreciate (no names please).

Up to four players are able to join in on the slick ride.

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (for PlayStation 3, Activision, $49.99) — Before you start bellyaching about another crummy movie-based video game clogging up not only retail space, but also the time developers could be spending creating real breakthrough titles, guess what? Although this virtual ode to DreamWorks Animation's latest effort often teeters on the edge of mediocrity, it offers just enough to mesmerize its targeted demographic.

Through frantic, barely explained action, a major mash of minigames pelts younger players as they control Alex the lion, Melman the giraffe, Marty the zebra and Gloria the hippo along with a liberal supply of animals featured in the film.

Within a dozen levels and pretty attractive terrain across a few continents, King Julien the lemur orchestrates much of the madness as he directs swimming, racing, climbing, coin collecting and micro missions.

Be it Melman head-butting moles stealing things, Gloria using a butt stomp to close suitcases or Alex roaring the feathers off birds, the characters are authentic to their on-screen counterparts with even celebrity voice-over impersonators doing a solid job.

If that's not enough for the kiddies, a visit to the Duty Free shop allows them to spend their virtual money on items for the characters to wear and extra minigame levels.

The avalanche continues with a selection of 10 of the minigames — ranging from miniature golf to a mutated version of chess — opened for up to four players to compete.

The game has some sloppy development issues (camera control and stuttering animation), but the continual assault on the senses will make fans punch drunk over the burgeoning Madagascar franchise.

Joseph Szadkowski's ROMper Room is a place for children and their parents to escape the world of ultraviolent video games and use that gaming system or computer to learn something while having fun. Send e-mail to jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.