Some long-time Age of Empires fans will have an allergic reaction to Age of Empires Online. “What happened to my realistic graphics from Age of Empires III?” they’ll ask, scratching nervously at some hives, “And how come this looks like The Emperor’s New Groove?”. Then they’ll notice the integration of social features, MMO-style crafting and ‘epic’ items, the emphasis on purchasing ‘Premium’ civilisation packs and fall over foaming at the mouth as they go into anaphylactic shock.
In one sense, they’re right. Age of Empires Online is about as in tune with the videogame zeitgeist as it’s possible to be right now, so if you’re not on board with free-to-play models and the proliferation of friends lists then pretty much everything about this title will act like a repulsion field.
Tilt your head slightly to inspect it from another angle, though, and the game actually looks like quite a clever combination of classic Age of Empires and buzzword-happy trendiness.
Inevitably, it’s about perspectives.
The new visual style is a radical departure from the previous pseudo-realistic Age of Empires games, and cynics will only need to take one look at the big, friendly typefaces, rounded border edges and cartoon art direction to declare this a sell-out move. Yes, Age of Empires Online kind of resembles a project headed by PopCap to add a Farmville mini-game to World of Warcraft. That’s going to make a few people want to claw their eyes out.
But it’s going to attract just as many fresh faces, who’ll love the villagers tramping around with their giant comedy meat streaks, the steroid-pumped Egyptian spearmen and the adorable war elephants. It’s a gamble, because the approach may shed as many players as it attracts, but it’s clear that Age of Empires Online is trying to appeal beyond the series’ existing fanbase. To achieve that, reinvention was a necessity.
Players now have a persistent Capital City, which works a bit like an expanded, online version of the Home Cities from Age of Empires III. This is the place where people with ubiquitous quest exclamation marks over their heads hang out, serving as a gateway to traditional Age of Empires real-time strategy missions. Every completed quest will earn you experience points and (most likely) a few items that can applied to your troops for passive, on-the-field bonuses.
What you’re able to build on quest missions is directly linked to your Capital City. If you’ve not yet spent the necessary technology points on, say, watchtowers in the capital, then you won’t be building any of them. Likewise, the ‘age’ to which you can advance in a mission is linked to your overall experience level. Third age technologies only unlock and become available for research from level 10 onwards, for example.
There are also a couple of other quest-reward currencies to collect and spend on various improvements. Gold can purchase blueprints for new buildings (which also require craftable/collectable resources such as planks and animal skins to construct), while Empire Points are mainly spent on helpful advisors (who provide various in-field bonuses) or crafting recipes for better items to attach to your troops, villagers and buildings.
Quests themselves take the form of old-school, real-time strategy missions (they’re really rather like Age of Empires II with a new coat of paint), with a loose, overarching plot to string them together. For the Egyptians (one of two civilisations available at launch, along with the Greeks), this is the unification of Egypt. You may find yourself having to stop rogue fishing efforts on the Nile, or tasked with crushing some tribal leaders, or maybe even liberating some missing elephants; but aside from a handful of quests, the actions performed will be the same. Build up your base through resource collection, fend off enemy attacks and slowly create a big enough force to achieve your objective.
While I can’t speak for the later quests (my time with the game got me just beyond level 10 with the current maximum being 40), the early ones begin as tutorial-level stuff and develop into the kind of resource maximisation and soldier-rushing cycles familiar to older RTS fans. While competitive matches against actual humans undoubtedly feature more strategy, quests against the AI are at constant risk of turning into a repetitive slog.
Alleviating this effect to some degree is the co-op system, allowing you to bring a buddy along on the majority of quests. This not only makes them easier (as enemy numbers don’t appear to increase), but can also help to put a fresh spin on some rather laboured ‘destroy the enemy base … again’ set-ups. My experiences with co-op proved to be a touch laggy at times, but otherwise smooth.
As Age of Empires Online is a member of the free-to-play club, there are an attendant set of content packs available for purchase. Chief among these are the ‘premium’ civilisation packs, which sell for $20 USD apiece. Without one of these, you won’t be able to equip rare items (even if you find them), or hire certain advisors (preventing you from accessing troops like Desert Archers), or generally be able to compete at the higher levels of the game. Non-premium civilisations can only join existing co-op and player vs player games, they cannot create one as a ‘party leader’.
Essentially, a premium civilisation of some kind is pretty necessary for you to get the most out of the game. Players should probably just treat the ‘free’ aspect as an extended demo and then put up some cash for a civilisation if the game has impressed them. Greeks and Egyptians are already here, with Persians and Celts coming soon. While $20 isn’t an exorbitant price, it is noteworthy that this only gets you a single complete civilisation, as opposed to the older Age of Empires titles that offered several right out of the box.
Alongside ‘premium’ packs are various ‘boosters’, which contain things like “The Defence of Crete” (an additional survival mode to play through). Cosmetic upgrades like foliage sets for your capital are also on offer.
Competitive multiplayer (PvP) unlocks at around level 6 or so, when you’re invited to attend the Spartan arena. 1v1 and 2v2 modes (either ranked or unranked) are all that’s offered at present, and to play a ranked game you need to be a premium civilisation at level 25 or above. At the time of writing, the leading PvP player on my server had played (and won) a grand total of four games and it proved impossible to get hold of an opponent for a quick match. As a result, I can’t tell you a great deal more about PvP, but I do know that non-premium and premium civilisations can be matched up; despite the fact that non-premiums will be at something of a competitive disadvantage.
It’s probably also worth pointing out that Age of Empires Online forces the use of much-beloved service Games For Windows Live (GFWL). However, this is the first game I’ve played where the presence of this ‘service’ has caused no problems. This is perhaps because you can create a shortcut straight to the game’s launcher and pretty much ignore GFWL altogether.
For those who reacted to news of Age of Empires Online getting a cartoon art style and adopting a ‘free-to-play’ model with looks of horror and disgust, the end release will do absolutely nothing to change that view.
There are fewer civilisations (at present) than in previous Age of Empires titles and each one will cost you $20 to play ‘properly’. The constant presence of chat windows, crafting features and gear-hunting will likewise be an anathema to some series purists. If left unaltered, the PvP aspects may lack appeal to those who feel competitive segments of games should be scrupulously fair.
What Age of Empires Online can be given credit for is the slick integration of old school RTS missions into an MMO shell, complete with the same compulsive drive to level up and equip your tiny men with the best gear available. It’s a success, insofar as it achieves this aim.
But, despite the charming visual overhaul (or perhaps because of this), the game leaves a nagging impression of having being designed a little too much by a committee trying to use a recognised series to pounce on prevailing ‘social gaming’ trends. As a result, Age of Empires Online feels like a title to be respected for its business acumen, rather than admired for its creative vision.