|Dev: Gas Powered Games|
|Pub: Microsoft Game Studios|
|Release: August 16, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p||Mild Violence|
by Robert VerBruggen
There's no denying that throughout its history, Microsoft's Age of Empires franchise has been an amazing real-time strategy experience. With the release of Age of Empires Online, however, we see the series in a whole new light: as a free-to-play MMO with cartoonish graphics.
A disclaimer: It's difficult to review a game like this. MMOs are, by their very nature, constantly evolving, so anything I complain about might be better (or worse!) by the time you read this. As problems emerge, developer Gas Powered Games will undoubtedly roll out patch after patch, with balance adjustments and glitch fixes. (I could tell they were busy before launch, because every time I wanted to play the game, I had to wait a few minutes for the updates to install.) There are even plans for monthly content expansions. Also, it will take weeks of play to figure out whether the paying customers will have too much of an advantage over the free-riders, which could break the player-versus-player (PvP) aspect.
But based on my pre-release experience with Age of Empires Online, this is a deep, challenging, and wide-ranging game that successfully melds RTS gameplay with the MMO formula. While it does fall into some MMO pitfalls during the early hours—sending you on lame, simple, repetitive "quests" just to build up your EXP and get you into the swing of things—it will prove a worthy experience for Age of Empires fans. Further, the free content is extensive enough to serve as a good preview of the game, even if serious players will have to pony up a reasonable amount of cash in the end.
After choosing a civilization—I picked the Egyptians, but the Greeks were also available, and the Celtics and Persians will be added soon—I was thrown into my capital city. The capital city serves as a hub of sorts; you can build all sorts of facilities there to craft the items you need, set up shops that sell goods to other players, and even host advisers that give you battlefield advantages. Interestingly, the city continues to live and breathe when you're not logged in, so you often return to a better inventory than you had when you left. In FarmVille style, other players can visit your city if they're on the same server—not just looking around, but buying things at your shops and the like. They cannot, however, attack while you're not there.
The capital city is also where you're given your first quests, which are presented in the true World of Warcraft format: You're told what to do, what the reward is, and how much EXP you'll earn, all in a convenient little text box. What's great about this feature is that while Age of Empires is an incredibly complicated game—the complexity hasn't been toned down for this online version—the quests serve as a sort of walkthrough and tutorial, directing you to do each step rather than trusting that you'll figure it all out yourself. Slowly, you branch out from your own city, visiting other locations on the world map to receive instructions on what to do next.
Once you take a quest, you find yourself with classic gameplay that's drawn heavily from Age of Empires II and III. Unfortunately, the missions start out with some of the most annoying MMO tropes: You have to kill a certain number of enemies, or gather a certain number of resources, or build a bunch of farms in a limited amount of time. Personally, I'd have preferred for these early missions to be a little more engaging, but they do an effective job of teaching you the basics.
After the tutorial missions, you're pushed into battles and other quests that get progressively harder, requiring you to marshal your attack units, strategic instincts, consumable items, and supply lines to the best effect possible. Every decision you make is fraught with risks and rewards: Do you spend your resources building up your strength to attack later, or try to strike before the enemy expects it? How many villagers should you have harvesting each resource? How should you divide your attack between land and sea? And, of course, the strength of all your units depends on how good of a job you did equipping them with armor and other power-ups back in your capital city. As you level up, you're allowed to unlock items on your civilization's tech tree, which customizes your abilities.
Eventually, the AI grows extremely powerful (and seems to cheat a little). If you're the type of person who doesn't want to replay some of the missions over and over, this is not the game for you. You also have the option of fighting other players who might have radically different tech trees, which opens up the possibility of an unlimited variety of matches, requiring any number of strategies. Cooperative quests are another highlight, pitting you and your fellow humans against a powerful AI opponent and requiring you to vanquish the other side, rescue hostages, or fend off waves of attackers.
I did notice a few hiccups. The most annoying was that attack units seem to randomly decide, when they spawn, whether they're going to join the battle or just wait by the barracks that spawned them. This forces you to check regularly to make sure that no one is left behind or charging fearlessly into a fight he's sure to lose. As frustrating as this was, I'm sure a patch will clear it up soon.