Review

Age of Empires Online Review (PC)

It’s easy to forget the stature of Age of Empires as a gaming franchise. The first game was released way back in 1997, and it’s been six years since the robust but unspectacular Age of Empires III. Yet upon its release it was more popular than that video of Rupert Murdoch being hit with a pie. It’s one of those games that introduced a generation of young non-gamers to our beloved virtual hobby. There are even tales of Age of Empires influencing people to study history at university.

Now, after a lengthy hiatus, Age of Empires is back to compel a new generation to undertake absurdly expensive and massively undervalued degree courses. Only this time it has emerged as contender in the viciously unforgiving realm of the MMO, as its strategic competitor Warcraft did in 2004. But how has it changed itself in order to compete with other online behemoths?

Battles are still a sharper version of a mosh pit

Well, in many ways it hasn’t. The core mechanics of Age of Empires are almost religiously recreated in the online version. The developers have concentrated on fitting the online aspects around Age of Empires rather than forcing Age of Empires into an online model.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more difficult I find it to consider Age of Empires Online as a single game. It’s more like two separate games which mutually benefit each-other through a shared tunnel of experience points, upgrades, unlocks and so forth.

Enough introductory preamble; here’s the bit where I tell you how it all works. You start the game by picking the empire of your choice. AOE Online has returned to the classical historical period of the first game, and at present two factions are playable, the Egyptians and the Greeks. I spent most of my time with the Greeks, though I also dabbled with the Egyptians. Once you’ve named your capital city, the game begins.

Thinking about it in MMO terms, your Capital City is essentially your character, growing and evolving as you play. It’s also the first of those two games I mentioned and the focus of the “Online” aspect of AOE Online. It’s where you communicate with other players, trade with them, and arrange PvP scenarios and cooperative quests with them.

Yes, quests. Your capital city also acts as a quest hub, with major characters from your city assuming the role of quest-givers. Historical characters such as King Agamemnon send you on extensive plot-based quests such as the Siege of Troy, others like the Scout and Dockmaster offer repeatable quests themed around their vocation.

It is in these quests where the second game of Age of Empires: Online comes into play. Quests are just like the missions in the first Age of Empire. You have four resource types to collect, four ages to advance through, and objectives that range from “collect 250 food” to “advance to the Silver age and defeat two opposing armies while spinning ten plates and entertaining a difficult child.” Personally I’m very glad for the return to the franchise’s roots. The first Age of Empires was always my favourite, and when I first loaded it up the nostalgia was flowing like the Yangtze during monsoon season.

While the core of the game plays the same, it looks completely different. Stylistically it has ditched any semblance of realism and adopted a colourful, cartoon vibe. I found myself in two minds about this. It definitely works, and the attention to detail is superb. Deer and gazelle literally prance around the outskirts of your town, and the trees look solid and sturdy until they feel the bite of a villager’s axe, at which point they sway and creak and eventually come crashing down. I even noticed insects buzzing merrily around the berry bushes. On the other hand, it does verge on the side of cutesy, clearly targeting a younger market, and I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with that.

Despite its zealous adherence to the Age of old, there are some differences in the quest mode. Though the game world is extremely vibrant, you may notice that your units look a little dull. Well, on each map there are several guarded treasure chests that you can opt to…recover…from their protectors while completing your other objectives. These chests can contain a wide variety of items. Foremost among these are weapons and armour with which you can customise individual unit types.

Empires are completely unique visually, even the farms are different

These are not merely aesthetic changes either. Some provide damage and armour bonuses, while others reduce unit cost or the time it takes to produce them. Resultantly, your hoplites might be more powerful than those of your opponents, but they may be able to produce their hoplites quicker at a lesser cost (I like hoplites). It’s a subtle and effective way of mixing up established Age of Empires tactics and encouraging players to formulate their own personal play style.

If you’re lacking in interesting items for your units, there’s always the option to craft your own. Crafting is easily the most complex and intricate aspect of Age of Empires: Online. To start with, you need basic crafting materials, of which there are a vast number. These can be purchased from the general store of your city, an AI city, or a friend’s city. Alternatively, you may find them in quest chests, or you can opt to create your own by building craft houses, which slowly generate raw materials as you play the game.

This is part of how the two games in AOE Online mutually benefit one another. As you progress through the levels, your capital becomes a bustling hive of industry, allowing you to take your basic unit types and upgrade them into a formidable fighting force. This in turn helps you progress through the more difficult quests. It also helps to mix-up tactics and strategy, so you can never fully anticipate what an opponent might throw at you (except spears, you can always expect spears).

Speaking of levels, they work as they do in any other MMO. Completing quests awards you experience points, and at each new level you are allocated three technology points. These allow you to unlock new units, buildings and abilities on your tech tree. Quest rewards also include coin, empire points (which can be spent on new items, crafting recipes, and advisors, who give you permanent stat bonuses for as long as you “equip” them) and various faction points, which work like empire points in allied cities.

The game excels at keeping you busy. There’s always something to do and as such it’s very easy to get sucked in for long periods of time. As I said though, it feels more like two interconnected games rather than one cohesive whole. There are things that could be done to help this, such as towns that you create in quests existing on the world map, which could then trade with your capital city, and occasionally required defending and fortifying. Granted, this could translate into pesky micromanagement a-la Spore, but if handled carefully it would really help meld the game together.

There are other issues too. As each player exists in their own little capital city bubble, there’s a sense of disconnection between players. Aside from trading with other people and visiting their capital cities, the online features don’t feel that much more advanced than other strategy games. I mean, cooperative and competitive imperialism both featured inAge of Empires way before this, and the inclusion of leaderboards is hardly a great leap forward. Again, the ability to cooperate and wage epic war on the macro-scale would help address this.

Last but by no means least is the free-to-play model that AOE Online so proudly boasts. The code I was given included the “premium” content, which means I had access to more than free players will. This puts me in a difficult position in terms of reviewing from a “value for money” perspective.

Glasgow, before Buckfast

Having said that, one premium civilisation will set you back £15, and there are two new civilisations due for release soon after launch plus the two which are available to upgrade, totalling £60 for everything. Frankly, this seems extremely expensive, and I suspect Microsoft will quickly find people unwilling to fork out so much for some additional units and items, especially with so many big releases due for the end of this year. Also, the eye-watering premium prices combined with the childish visual appeal had my cynic’s alarm ringing like a bell foundry in an earthquake.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Age of Empires: Online, but I think more can be done to make it a truly compelling online experience, and the marketing men at Microsoft are kidding themselves with those premium prices. Nevertheless, this is a bold step for an RTS into the ripe and unconquered pastures of the Internet, and while it isn’t completely surefooted, its spears are certainly sharp.

Top Game Moment: Besieging an enemy town and watching it crumble under the force of your battering rams. Also, hoplites.

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Comments

By nocutius (SI Elite) on Aug 16, 2011
nocutius
Oh, this has been released already, nice. Going to try it out, i loved the original back in the day.
By nocutius (SI Elite) on Aug 16, 2011
nocutius
Don't like the prices of the stuff they're selling at all. 20$ for one fully enabled civilization? No thank you.
By unsilviu (SI Core) on Aug 17, 2011
unsilviu
I still prefer the old games. AoE2:Age of Kings in particular holds a special place in my heart
By nocutius (SI Elite) on Aug 18, 2011
nocutius
100$ for a seasons pass LOOOOOL, are they crazy?
RTS games cost about 50$ and you can play multiplayer for free and you get the entire game for that cash, with all the races and everything.

Seriously, i was interested in this at first but looking at the prices a bit more closely i don't feel to play it at all. Meh, down with this kind of f2p.
I understand it cost to make f2p games too, but please at least keep the prices realistic.

I'm definitely not even playing this, i regret registering cause now they can include me in their statements like "there are xyz thousands of people playing, join them". I'm not playing i just registered, so when you see such a number number thrown in your face subtract at least one person :).
By FoolWolf (SI Elite) on Aug 18, 2011
FoolWolf
I'm with you unsilviu - I also prefer AoE2.

This is plain ridiculous - to have a free version - fine cool everyone else is doing it so of course MS have to cook some crap up and jump the bandwagon - but trying to go after the big bucks - I think that the gaming market has shot themselves in the foot here. it demands a game of WoW's calibre or maybe TOR to make that kind of cash from monthly fees etc.
By JustCommunication (SI Core) on Aug 20, 2011
JustCommunication
You can do 1v1 and 2v2 multiplayer for free, you just won't be able to be on the leaderboards.

Considering it doesn't cost you guys anything to get the game, try out the free version and experiment with what you can do. Seriously, there's plenty og content in the free version. The "premium" civs are only really restricted when it comes to high-level content.

And any MMO vet will know it takes a while to get that far anyway.

Seriously guys, this isn't as bad as you think.
By NetRockX (SI Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
NetRockX
It is really like Online game rather than a RTS. (at least at the beginning, you can't just go for PvP. )

anyways, not bad.
By scaocs (SI Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
scaocs
exelent game .. but poor pvp D:
By Sporey (SI Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
Sporey
I really like this game and am excited about the future content. I think this game has a lot of potential and look forward to wear its going. Especially cant wait for the celts and persians.
By ZoZoN (SI Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
ZoZoN
I like this game, but premium is too expensive.
By Caedes (SI Veteran Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
Caedes
I liked all other Age-games a lot and since this one is free to try out, I am going to install it tomorrow. It feels weird though they released the game with only 2 nations ...
By MrBlobz (SI Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
MrBlobz
I love this game but he is right, prmium is too much, I intend to wait for price to go down
By Caedes (SI Veteran Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
Caedes
^^ I guess in the future a combo-package with several premium civ's will be available foor a "normal" price.
By MrBlobz (SI Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
MrBlobz
that would work too, where did you hear that
By junior_birdman (SI Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
junior_birdman
Premium is hardly too much, considering each Civilization has comparable amount of content to an entire AOE game in the past.
By hamparr0 (SI Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
hamparr0
Yeah the pricing isn't too bad if you look at each civ for their whole content, not just number of civs. Although I believe some countries are made to pay up to double the prices for what they want which is rather unfair.
By junior_birdman (SI Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
junior_birdman
Region pricing is most definitely unfair (and it seems that all the big dogs do it - Steam, MS, etc). But a whole bunch of people just look at how it's "1 civ" and then scream about how "there's not enough content" for the price. You should have seen the official forums just a few days ago (and still now, actually).
By barkat99 (SI Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
barkat99
agreed too high for f2p game. it should be more like 5$ for the whole premium content or switch to a monthly rate ?
By weliveagain (SI Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
weliveagain
sick game overall...
By junior_birdman (SI Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
junior_birdman
So...pay the same price for ALL the premium content as a skin pack costs? THAT is crazy pricing.
By BlueKhorth (SI Newbie) on Aug 25, 2011
BlueKhorth
Im loving it but wish there was a pause mid quest
By arlas (SI Newbie) on Aug 26, 2011
arlas
I love all the Aoe
By lytrotis (SI Newbie) on Aug 27, 2011
lytrotis
Love its style!
By lilarcher (SI Newbie) on Aug 29, 2011
lilarcher
Interesting style.
By necomm (SI Newbie) on Aug 31, 2011
necomm
servers arent that good...
By necomm (SI Newbie) on Aug 31, 2011
necomm
at least after maintenances...
By Haluciniram (SI Veteran Member) on Sep 05, 2011
Haluciniram
I just have to buy it! Im a huge Age of Empires fan, i remember when i had Age of Empires I and i just couldnt live without it!