"Free to play" is the current trend in massively multiplayer online games. Since the success of Korean MMOs like Maple Story and Alliance of Valiant Arms as well as the slew of similar Facebook games, companies have tried to capitalize on free-to-play games. It's not just the small indie development houses, either. Veteran online developers like Sony Online Entertainment have had some success going this route with Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures and FreeRealms, and behemoth Electronic Arts took a piece of the pie with Battlefield Heroes. Even famed developers id Software and Valve have joined in with Quake Live Arena and Team Fortress 2, respectively.
Everywhere you go, it seems like another company has thrown its hat into the race or is about to do so. Microsoft is no exception, and like other big companies, they decided that their first entry into the space would be from one of their more beloved PC franchises. Age of Empires Online is set to bring a full-fledged RTS into a free-to-play world. While you know that there's going to be a substantial amount of gameplay once you fork over the money, one has to wonder how much there is for someone who wants to stay on the free path.
Age of Empires is a real-time strategy game series with a historical slant. The first game let you pick one of 12 civilizations as you took them from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. After an expansion pack that added in the Roman Empire, the second game focused on medieval times; its expansion hinted at what was to come by focusing on the Spanish exploration of the Americas. The final game in the trilogy, Age of Empires III, brought things closer to the modern era with a focus on more European expansion to the Americas as well as the chronicling of the rise of some Asian empires. While it didn't strive to be a historically accurate title, it was enjoyable enough that the public liked it, helping it sells millions of copies.
Age of Empires Online dials back the clock as it places its emphasis on two specific civilizations: the Greeks and the Egyptians. As expected, the differences between both civilizations are more than just cosmetic. The Greeks are excellent in combat since they have a few more units than the Egyptians do, but the Egyptians have cheaper building costs as well as the ability to steal troops. Both are good starting choices, depending on your preference of playing either more aggressively or defensively, and both have enough similar units that the change in play style for each civilization isn't too drastic.
Combat is exactly what you'd expect from any real-time strategy game. Your villagers are responsible for raising buildings for other units and abilities as well as resource harvesting. There are four things to gather — food, gold, stone and wood — and while three of the resources only come from one source, food can be gathered from berry bushes, farms, various animals wandering the land, or it can be fished in certain spots on the water. For your offensive units, you have a scout that can travel the fastest across the map but is only ranked slightly above the villagers as far as offense is concerned. All of your other soldiers and infantry types follow the standard rock-scissors-paper formula that most RTS games use; one group may trump another but is susceptible to attacks from a third group. Battles can take place on water or land, and in each mission, there are also hidden treasure chests that contain bonuses. Finally, with the right resources, you can level up in the middle of a battle, giving you access to more unit types and other technical improvements further up on the tech tree.
City building, a feature introduced in Age of Empires III, also follows a path that will be familiar to series veterans. Your capital city acts more like a quest hub than an actual location on a combat-filled map, so whether you win or lose matches, your city remains unharmed. Experience is gained for everything you do in missions, from completing them to taking out buildings and infantry. That experience levels up your capital city, and that, in turn, gives you tech points. Those tech points can be used to improve elements in categories like economy and combat, and that affects which buildings you'll have access to and which units you'll have when you enter combat. It also dictates what kind of missions you'll get and from which other cities you can accept missions — though this depends on whom you unlock. Experience isn't your only form of currency, as materials you collect during missions or buy in stores go toward the creation of more building types (once you obtain the blueprints). Finally, you can earn empire-specific points that can be used to buy special items that can only be used in battle.
For the most part, the combat and city-building elements make for a slightly trimmed-down version of the previous Age of Empires games. In combat, you can go through mission after mission, but you aren't given much of a story. Those expecting a fully voiced cut scene to bookend each campaign skirmish or a grand story to tie everything together will be disappointed. You still have access to a good number of units, but the hero unit is nowhere to be found. That brings some old-school RTS flavor to the proceedings, but those who were weaned on games featuring such a unit might be taken aback. You also don't automatically get resources until your villager returns the stash to a storehouse or the town center, another throwback for the genre. For the city-building elements, you no longer have to worry about building a deck of cards to buff out your army; your advisers take over that role instead. Don't expect to do much micromanaging, like you would in other city-building games.
There are a few problems that will get in the way of fully enjoying Age of Empires Online. The biggest ones involve unit pathing and AI. In small numbers, this isn't much of a problem. Both cavalry and infantry go exactly where they need to go and target who you tell them to, deviating only when their main target has been completed. Once you start going with 20 or more soldiers, though, they only become controllable in large, open areas. Getting them near enemies causes them to break apart and target other things. Your army can quickly get thinned out and beaten, and that could've been prevented if your soldiers paid attention to more immediate threats instead of beating up on walls and huts before they were specifically targeted. While it's bearable with infantry and cavalry, these issues are really amplified with boats. Once you get four or more going to one location, expect them to lag behind or attempt to traverse land masses to reach their destinations. You can also expect them to stutter along the seas while travelling, making naval movement look pretty bad in the process.
The big changes have to do with the online moniker attached to the title. Like before, you can play co-op and adversarial games with other players online. You also have a persistent chat box, so you can constantly communicate with others online. Trading city-specific resources can be done, and since every city is always online, your town can be visited while you're away, and you can make more resources when you log off as long as you let an appropriate amount of time pass. In short, online becomes a constant part of the game and adds more social elements instead of being another game mode that you toggle off and on.
What's interesting is that for a game with the word "online" in the title, you really don't have to do much online interaction. Even though there are a good number of co-op missions available, everything can be played solo. The amount of social interaction you can participate in is up to you, so you're never forced into joining other players, trading with them, or even seeing their chats. You are, however, forced into making a Games for Windows Live or Xbox Live account since the game runs exclusively on that. You're also forced to be online all of the time in order to play, and while this may be fine most of the time, it becomes problematic should you have an unstable connection or the servers act up. The game will immediately boot you to the title screen should this occur, with no grace period to let you reconnect and continue what you were doing. If you have a very flaky connection, this alone will prevent you from enjoying the game.
The question on people's minds is how much of the game you can access before you start bringing out your wallet. The answer is, surprisingly, a lot. Both the Egyptian and Greek civilizations are available from the outset, and you can switch between each them on the fly without losing progress on either one. You can still engage in trades amongst other players as well as chat and participate in co-op matches. Unranked player-vs.-player matches are included, up to 2v2, and that can be mixed up between free and premium players. Best of all, you can take a civilization up to level 20 (out of 40) before the leveling stops. The developer has estimated about 40 hours of gameplay time before you exhaust everything the free version has to offer, and considering what they give you, it would be hard to argue otherwise.
There are, of course, some restrictions in place for those unwilling to part with some cash or Microsoft points. Some items sold in shops or obtained in quests can only be used if you buy a premium civilization. The same goes for using some of the perks found in higher civilization levels. The amount of storehouses you can build is limited, as are the amount of resource-producing factories you can have at a time. The special currency for each empire you visit, including your own, is meaningless until you buy the premium civilizations, so expect to have a large cache of coins that do absolutely nothing for a while. Online matches can only be played against strangers, and all of them will be unranked with no available customization options. A decent amount has been locked out as premium content, but it doesn't end up being unreasonable when compared to similar titles.
Once you decide to buy something for the game, you'll notice that not everything is really a microtransaction, as is the case with a typical free-to-play game. The important things, like new missions or premium versions of civilizations, come in packs that cost more than a few dollars. Based on what's available, the premium Greek and Egyptian civilizations cost $20 each while the Defense of Crete game mode, basically a timed defense mode, goes for $10.
While that seems rather costly in this space, the civilizations give you access to more missions that the developer estimates to be around 12 extra hours of gameplay; you'll also get the highest level abilities of the tech trees, and that starts to make it a worthwhile purchase. Ranked multiplayer matches, the ability to invite others to multiplayer skirmishes, and the ability to spend other currency types also come into play when you purchase any premium civilization, lending more value to the packs. One can see that two more civilizations and another game mode will be offered for the near future, and the real microtransactions occur in cosmetic items for your city.
Going in with that knowledge, Age of Empires Online seems to be rather cost-effective, especially if you aren't the type who cares about having a good-looking capital city. If you're the type who usually plays one race or civilization in an RTS, the fee for that is relatively cheap compared to other games in the genre. However, if you like to try your hand as mastering as many civilizations the game has to offer, it quickly becomes an expensive affair. When you compare the number of civilizations here to that of the older titles, it becomes apparent that mastering everything this game has to offer will be very costly despite the current discounts.
The small shift in gameplay also means a different look for the game. It no longer strives for a realistic look and opts for a cartoon-like appearance. Soldiers, cavalry and villagers often sport bright colors and exaggerate their movements enough that they look humorous. Seeing a villager carry a large uncooked steak never fails to amuse. There are also some nice little touches, like carrots in front of horse carts and water jugs in front of camels, to add to the family-friendly looks.
Environments also show off a wide color spectrum, and things like jumping fish to indicate fishing grounds and lush green forests make it look rather pretty. The particle effects also look good, so expect to see lots of splintering wood when ships are hit and some nice smoke before a building catches fire. About the only real flaw would be bouts of stuttering when panning around the map, but a few tweaks to the graphical options help alleviate some of that. Unless you're adverse to cartoon-like looks in your games, you should find this game to be visually pleasing.
The sound is still the same as before. The music consists of original orchestration pieces that play in a random order, with certain ones only starting up during special events, such as completing your mission or winning a match. The musical selection is the same whether you're playing as Egyptian or Greek forces, so don't expect the audio to change much there. The effects remain clean, so sword clangs and the sound of shattering wood come out nicely. Voice, as expected, is rather minimal on the field, with soldiers and villagers either grunting or presenting gibberish once they are selected and assigned to their tasks. Unlike the main games, though, there are no formal cut scenes played for each mission, so the most you'll get are phrase snippets when selecting a mission giver. There's nothing special about their performances, but it is nice to have some voices playing as opposed to none at all.
As it stands now, Age of Empires Online is a very good game. It still retains the same mechanics and core strategy elements from the original series while adding in an online element that doesn't feel all that intrusive. Even though there's a decent amount of content locked away until you shell out money, there's enough to do here with the base free game. You can have more fun with it compared to some fully paid titles. Time will tell how the game holds up in the long run, especially with more items to buy and a fluctuating user base. With its current model, Age of Empires Online is easy to recommend even if you absolutely have no plans to buy anything for it.
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