Firstly, fans will be glad to know that Age of Empires Online is not a money-squeezing butchering of the old game you used to love. What it is is the pure Age of Empire goodness you know and love, inside the crust of a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game.
Back in college I remember playing the original Age of Empires with a friend of mine, modem to modem over the phone lines, building our little civilizations from scratch, collecting resources, and sending our troops across the map. And of course once one of us would resolve to cheat codes, the other would soon follow. There’s nothing like ancient history than attacking armies with animals, and firing rockets from your BigDaddy vehicles to win campaigns.
Things haven’t changed much since then. Well, graphics have improved dramatically, would you believe; AOE Online has a cartoon look to it, and visually it’s quite different to its predecessors. But it is also designed to scale well to older computers. If my dusty old laptop can run it, it should work for you too.
With Ensemble Studios biting the dust back in 2009, AOE Online was developed by Robot Entertainment (founded by ex-Ensemble employees) with development taken over by Gas Powered Games, the people behind Supreme Commander.
Upon starting AOE Online and selecting your civilization and city name, you are taken to your city, a sort of hub world. As you play the game you earn XP and level up your civilization. Just like any other MMORPG you accept quests, and earn rewards. There’s a tech tree for upgrading in-game units and structures with RPG-like multipliers. And you can build additional buildings around your city too. There’s no fighting or gathering food here; save that for later.
When given a quest I click Accept straight away, and skip reading the mission brief entirely, but that’s just me. Same goes for any other MMO. Click first, ask questions later. Then it’s straight to the map, and time to start the quest location. There’s no story mode as such, just quests, one after the other, getting more in depth as you progress. The quests become more difficult and more involved, including the AI. When you meet all the individual goals to complete a quest, you can keep playing the map if you so wish. Choosing to slaughter the remaining enemies for more XP, or scouting the map for treasure is perhaps too enticing.
Once in the game (finally), the real game starts to take shape. As a Real-Time-Strategy you send villagers off to gather food, wood, or other minerals. As you grow your stockpile you can build and place structures such as barracks to build offensive units. Select them all with the mouse, and send them off to attack the nearest opposing village, or perhaps come up with a better strategy than mine. Each civilization has its own style, and distinctive units.
Using the Free-To-Play model that’s ever so popular these days, Age of Empires Online will be free to download on release via Games for Windows, encouraging purchases in the game’s own online store, and paid expansions including the Egyptian and Greek civilisations. It looks like this is where the industry is headed. With kiwi-led Path of Exile, another Free-To-Play game, also in beta right now, we will only see more of this in the years to come.
Complete with some co-op quests, I think a lot of people are going to enjoy diving back into Age of Empires. And even for newbies, it has a low barrier of entry, although that might mean a lack of scenario customisation. Take or leave the MMO crust, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And that inside is delicious.