Age of Empires Online Review
Developers: Robot Entertainment, Gas Powered Games / Publisher: Microsoft Studios / Played on: PC / Price: Free (Premium Content at Varied Prices) / ESRB: Everyone 10+ [Mild Violence]
It’s not until I played Age of Empires Online that I realized how long its been since I’ve experienced a genuinely new game. Simply put, AoE Online is an RTS MMO, but don’t let that combination of acronyms fool you into thinking it can be so easily defined. It offers all the complexity and features of both genres, somehow blending both into a genuinely unique game.
For the purposes of explanation, I’ll devide the AoE Online experience into two parts–Age of Empires and Online. First and foremost, this is still an Age of Empires game. You’re challenged with typical RTS-style battles on self-contained maps that can be played against the computer by yourself or with a co-op buddy. Resource gathering, infrastructure building, unit training, and upgrade researching is all similar to past AoE games, and functionally on par with other modern RTS games like StarCraft II. You can also play against other humans in ranked or unranked PVP. So far, so good.
Where the game throws a curve is the Online bit. A huge MMO metagame surrounds these RTS challenges. The best way I can think to explain it is to liken everything to World of Warcraft. First, you pick a civilization (race) for your city (character). Various NPCs in your city provide quests, which send you to a self-contained level as described above with certain conditions for victory. Fulfill them, and you get a quest reward of experience, currency, and loot. Gain enough experience and your city will level up, allowing you to unlock new units (abilities) in battle as well as universal upgrades for your units such as more damage or health.
Expanding your city’s infrastructure is complicated enough to be its own game. You can build storehouses that expand your storage (backpack), warehouses that slowly produce crafting components in real-world time, and workshops that use those components to produce gear. You then equip that gear to your units to give them unit-specific bonuses like increased damage, sight range, health, etc. On top of that, you can even visit other people’s cities to get crafting components and blueprints that you can’t get on your own. What’s even better–anything you buy from another player actually sends them the money, so you can spec out your city and pimp your wares to the other players.
That’s just scratching the surface of the MMO trappings to Age of Empire Online. There are separate cities with separate currencies, advisers that give you varied bonuses and essentially act like trading cards in the game, and a host of other layered complexities that always provide some new feature to explore. Age of Empires Online is every bit as feature-rich as a standard MMO, all resting on top of an already robust RTS game.
Most likely in an attempt to maximize compatibility, Age of Empires Online is no technical marvel. Most units are simple and cartoony, with a style somewhat evocative of Warcraft III. Also like Warcraft III, great art direction makes up for any lack of technical wizardry. Units are expressive and easily identifiable, and the maps are vibrant and colorful. The 2D artwork in the game–in menus, inventory screens, and at shops–is all top notch. Most of the game’s characters are so visually charismatic that you can’t help but smile just looking at them. Age of Empires Online won’t push your $400 of video hardware to its limits, but it won’t offend your eyes in the slightest.
Age of Empires Online conforms to RTS norms, implementing all the now-standard features like control group management and shift-queuing commands. There are a few points of confusion, though, such as shift-queuing construction commands for villagers. Occasionally I would place down two or three foundations for houses only to come back and find half of them unconstructed. Controlling units in combat is also a little loose, as the attack priorities for units can be confusing. For example, if you tell your army to attack-move through an enemy town, they’ll stop to raze a defenseless farm while an arrow tower is merrily shooting them in the back. Age of Empires isn’t the most intensive RTS though, so no map will be won or lost because of niggles like these.
Navigating through the MMO screens is a breeze, though it takes around five minutes to acclimate to finding menu items. Most of the game’s interface is customizable, as you can place and move where buildings are in your city. Shops, upgrades, and crafting components are obtained from the buildings, so you can organize them to match your mental whims. I grouped all my shops and production buildings together in districts of a sort, which made it really easy for me to find them later.
While it may seem trivial to say, Age of Empires Online lives up to its title perfectly. It’s a fully-featured Age of Empires game, while including all the Online trappings an MMO aficionado could want. It’s the first game to so elegantly combine the two, and deserves all the credit in the world for pulling it off. If you’re a fan of Age of Empires, or even if you’re slightly curious how the game would mesh with MMO trappings, you have no reason to ignore this game–especially since it’s free to play. Granted, they’re more than willing to sell you premium content, but odds are after an hour or two with the game you’ll be more than willing to buy it.
9.0 / 10