Age of Empires Online Review

Age of Empires Online (PC [reviewed])
Developer: Robot Entertainment/Gas Powered Games
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: July 16, 2011
MSRP: Free (some features require cash payment)

It doesn’t seem that long ago that Age of Empires was a competitive, hugely popular RTS series, able to compete with if not quite displace Starcraft’s international hegemony. But whether you blame the long wait for Age of Empires III, or that game’s tepid reception among critics and fans, the reality remains: the brand is tarnished, unlikely to reach such lofty heights again.

Rather than chase a pale shadow of their pre-millenial success, Microsoft Game Studios is relaunching the franchise today as Age of Empires Online, a “freemium” title sporting a sweeping visual redesign and a wealth of new gameplay features. Tired of trying to resurrect yesterday’s trends, the publishers have instead made a big bet on today’s, embracing a suite of popular features with obvious roots in other, established franchises.

Age of Empires Online is still ostensibly an RTS, though you’d be forgiven some confusion upon firing the game up. In keeping with the zeitgeist, the game’s new guise incorporates a giant swathe of MMORPG features meant to undergird its subtitle. Instead of simple, match-based gameplay, the world of AOEO revolves around a persistent hub city, which can be leveled up like an RPG character. The RTS gameplay is confined to various mission-style “quests,” which are intended to teach game skills and reward players with experience.

The title was developed first by Robot Entertainment and then by Gas Powered Games, two studios with extensive RTS experience, thanks to Halo Wars and Supreme Commander, respectively. This pedigree is immediately apparent upon firing up a quest — the game’s RTS engine is immaculate. Age of Empires purists will bemoan the move towards a more cartoonish style, but the units, animations, buildings and scenery all look great. Sharp rendering, pleasant colors, and amusing details are the order of the day — look for the tiny starfish glomming on to seaside rocks. It’s not easy to be so stylized without stumbling into “cute” territory, but the two developers pull off this balancing act with aplomb.

Gameplay doesn’t deviate much from the classic Age of Empires formula. Players collect resources in five categories, develop their infrastructure, and advance their town center through four historical eras, unlocking new units and buildings along the way. There is a quest to teach pretty much every mechanic, though there isn’t anything in there to surprise RTS veterans. Same goes for the intuitive, slick interface.

That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have surprises. It’s just that they mostly stem from its MMORPG trappings. These mechanics, borrowed from other titles, are mostly centered around the hub city, which the game crams with different systems until it’s fit to burst. Though they all function differently, these systems all target a principle of RTS game design that was once thought inviolable: the idea that all players, no matter their skill, would be using the same basic units and buildings.

Age of Empires Online takes this idea and sticks a knife in it. There are myriad ways to customize the armies you take into the field. Items, collected during quests by looting NPC-guarded campfires, can be equipped in various, unit- or building-specific slots; a new bow might increase the effectiveness of all your archers, for example. Completing quests, earning experience, and leveling up your city gives you access to a tech tree, with which you unlock various global bonuses and unit types. By collecting commodities like pine planks or animal hides, you can construct buildings in your hub city, which unlock further RPG-style perks like consumables, which you give you one-time boons such as temporary haste or mercenary reinforcements.

If you really want to make your city shine, you’ll have to open your real-world wallet, a necessity that always feels like the other shoe dropping when it comes to so-called “free-to-play” games. The list of purchasable swag includes units and “advisors,” who give still-more global bonuses. To get the full game experience, you’ll also have to purchase the “premium” version of your chosen civilization (our review copy came with a download code) — this option seemed more or less non-negotiable as far as the gameplay is concerned.

There are two civilizations currently available, the Egyptians and the Greeks. Series veterans will be happy to learn that Age of Empires traditional attention to historical detail has not wavered — units respond to your commands in peppy, foreign phrases, and the unit sets, design aesthetics, and mission geography all accord with cultural reality.

When it comes to geography, the game uses a world map to give a sense of epic grandeur. You won’t actually see yourself travel anywhere, but you’ll click on mission locations scattered around the Peloponnesis and the eastern Mediterranean before returning to your hub city to turn in quests. You can also visit foreign cities to unlock new missions and check out the scenery, be they human or computer controlled.

For the Grecian civilization, visiting Crete unlocked a “Horde Mode” style endurance challenge that asks you to build a base and defend it against progressively strengthening waves of enemies for as long as you can survive. Visiting Sparta gives you access to the game’s drop-on 1v1 or 2v2 PvP. Finding a game was a easy enough, and the classic Age of Empires gameplay made matches amusing, but being paired with a higher-level opponent (who is able to take advantage of commensurately high-level units and consumables) is something of a drag.

The gulf between haves and have nots is crucial to the success of Age of Empires Online. Players might be willing to ignore minor gameplay niggles, like the insufficiently loud “we’re being attacked!” warning or the unnecessarily high damage dealt by turrets, but if they keep getting creamed by opponents with lesser skill but better gear, they’re likely to move on to gaming pastures with a little more parity, especially if they have to pay cash to be competitive. Robot Entertainment and Gas Powered Games have created a great-looking, limber RTS, but if they can’t get people invested in its RPG aspects or its nickle-and-dime freemium structure, the Age of Empires Online might be over before it begins.

 

Pros

  • Looks great
  • Fun to play — RTS game engine feels superb
  • Has that classic Age of Empires blend between history, strategy, and fun
  •  

    Cons

  • Profusion of confusing MMORPG mechanics
  • Some gameplay balance issues
  • Customizable armies mean that those with more money and time will dominate PvP
  •  

    Final Score: 75/100

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