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Age of Empires Online Review

by on August 16, 2011
 

Game: Age of Empires Online

Developer: Gas Powered Games

Publisher: Microsoft Studios

Available on: Windows PC

It was almost a year ago to the day at Gamescom 2010, that Microsoft Studios announced that their classic Real Time Strategy franchise Age of Empires would be stepping into the online age with Age of Empires Online. The announcement, complete with trailer revealed that the new “online age” would reboot the series with a free to play model and introduce a host of gaming features, normally associated with massively multi-player online games.

Persistent online worlds, crafting, trading and co-op. Age of Empires Online is certainly ambitious. But does that ambition flourishes or falter in this new age?

STORY: Something that RTS games have done for a long time now is implement story to drag players from battle to battle. Historically cut scenes have been used to portray said story, in-game, pre-rendered or in Command & Conquer’s case, live action scenes have been used to build a believable world around isolated battles and skirmishes. It is here where AoE Online takes its first step towards the MMO side of the coin. Cut-scenes and elaborate mission briefings are out, World of Warcraft style quest briefings are in.

Quest text in the place of cut-scenes may seem like a step backwards, especially when considering that current MMO’s are implementing more and more cinematic moments all the time. Quests and the text they come with do actually feel at home in the new online age. Non-playable characters from around the world map offer quests which build their own story and link to others. You certainly won’t be playing for the story, but you will come to appreciate it as it strings you along whilst building your civilization.

GRAPHICS: It is fair to say that AoE Online is not the most graphically powerful game. Unit models are understandably low on polygons with the expectation of tens of combatants, workers, and buildings on-screen at the same time. Whilst on one hand you can certainly defend the less than spectacular models, on the other, you can point to StarCraft II’s excellently detailed units and wonder why AoE has fallen short. Some models just look a little odd, and perhaps out of place in the vibrant environments. A few quests on the Egyptian side involve taking control of Prince Sesostris, a special, one-of-a-kind unit. The prince is larger than your average combatant and works a little like a hero unit. Whilst tall and powerful, Sesostris is not pretty, and the larger model only provides further evidence that unit models lack detail. The Prince’s head looks more square than round and left me wondering why the unique unit had not been afforded more care and attention.

For what it lacks in graphical power, AoE Online makes up for in visual style. The cartoony visuals are colourful and vibrant. The various environments have some pop, and scream “Explore Me!”, whilst building models and other various three dimensional doodads are pleasing to look at, and even the water whilst basic, has its own unique look. Comical animations compliment the art style rather well. Fish jump out of water to indicate fishing locations, whilst workshops indicate what they are making; the skinner’s shop has animal hides popping up on work benches whilst the logger’s shop shows a cute little axe chopping wood.

Some MMO players say that they play for the fun of the game, the social aspect and not the loot or gear. These players have one thing in common, they are all lying. As you collect and equip new gear you get some visual recognition with units donning their new wares. The better looks are of course reserved for the rare and epic quality items. Nothing instills more fear into an opponent than an army fully equipped with epic gear charging towards them, even if that army is somewhat cute and cartoony.

SOUND: AoE Online keeps things simple in the sound department. Background music is a constant, maintaining an even pace, whilst units, quest givers and buildings all have unique sounds to provide some pleasant feedback. In your capital city, quest givers speak in English with a few different phrases, whilst units in battle adopt their local tongue to acknowledge an order. Egyptians appear to be speaking Arabic and to be quite honest I don’t know if they are accepting my orders with joy or cursing at me.

There is no annoying “Your base is under attack!” sound which is perhaps a double edged sword. On one hand it could do with a quick alert, on the other you can do without the constant whining in our ears.

GAMEPLAY: At the beginning of the review I explained that AoE Online is a an MMO RTS, and that is true but there is a slightly smaller third element at play here which blurs the line between genres even further. That third element is…Farmville! Hardcore RTS gamers are probably not the biggest fans of the Facebook game but even they will come to appreciate the way in which it has been implemented. Crafting is a staple of any good MMO and every craftsmen requires materials. Materials are primarily gathered from workshops which range from wood shops to cloth shops. No manual farming is required, materials can be selected from shops and will automatically be dispensed over time. Common materials such as copper ingots take 15 minutes to prepare whilst rarer resources can take much longer. When you log off, your city does not. Workshops will continue to produce even when players walk away from the keyboard. Work shops will only create 100 of a material before stopping production. Gathering materials into your inventory restarts the farming process and is of course a nice little trick by the developers to keep players logging in to check up on their city and reap what they have sown.

Crafting restores the status quo with a typical system which includes seven crafts, two of which can be used at any one time. The different crafts range from archery to religion and can be used to create armor, weapons, and consumables to name just three. Some of the best items can be obtained from the crafting system, and if you are playing with friends then you will do well to choose a range of crafts between yourselves so that benefits can be shared.

Other, perhaps bigger MMO elements include gaining XP, leveling up, and building your empire. You start off with a small city, just a few buildings and quests available as the game introduces mechanics both MMO and RTS, step-by-step. Buildings come in the form of blueprints and have a number of uses. Warehouses act like bags offering increased inventory space, gear halls manage your civilization’s equipment, whilst the palace is used to configure talent trees. Tens of buildings can be added to player cities with a number of different shops available and even non-functional structures that can be placed for looks alone. All buildings can be moved around the city landscape which appears to be randomised so that player cities are almost guaranteed to differ from one another. It all adds up to create a good amount of customisation, something that other MMO’s have struggled to implement.

Questing in AoE Online is pretty good. Quest lines build on a story and mix things up just enough to keep players interested. The last Age of Empires game was released over five years ago and it is clear that Gas Powered have designed the latest game to teach a new audience and perhaps remind an old one. Early on, once tutorial quests have been completed, challenge type quests are introduced. The goal of these quests is to simply improve your play. Sure, anyone can build a base but can they do it within a certain time frame? These quests are repeated over and over with time allowance reduced with each success. These quests are obviously repetitive and somewhat boring for players well versed in Real Time Strategy but it is good to see that developers are educating players early on, equipping them with essential skills.

Once players get into the meat of the game they will find that quests are both numerous and various. Objectives can range from all out attack to timed defense, with a hint of camel racing thrown in for good measure.

Anyone that has played a massively multi-player online game will tell you that once you have picked a zone clean of its quests the game will move you onto the next location. The same can be said for AoE Online.  New territories offer new major cities, and these cities often contain a number of new shop items unique to that region. The cities themselves act in some ways like an MMO faction, with quest completion often rewarding tokens specific to that faction which can be used to acquire new gear, recipes and consumables.

Age of Empires Online is of course an online game and includes a host of features that allow and encourage players to interact. The chat box is the main link to other players on your server, the general channel is always abuzz with chatter. Players can be found discussing quests, gear, and the latest updates. Player cities can be visited and interacted with, giving players the chance to show off what they have accomplished. If you find someone with a common goal then you may hook up for some co-op action to double the fun. Player vs Player is another (albeit more hostile) interaction which can be made to test one’s metal. The city of Sparta plays host to PvP offering an arena where both 1v1 and 2v2 match-ups can take place. For now at least, there is disappointingly no sign of an auction house. One-to-one trading is the only way to facilitate an exchange between players at this time, there is a mail system in place but its primary purpose is sending items between friends.

The whole thing is tied together by Games for Windows LIVE, and when you add a friend, you add them to your LIVE list which is most commonly found on the Xbox. The upside is that most of your friends will already be on your list – the downside is that any one added inside the game will know that all you do is play FIFA!

Whilst AoE Online does offer a number of ways to interact with other players, it certainly does not force you to be social. An internet connection is required to play but nonetheless the whole experience can be quite solitary. Missions offer co-op but never require it, chat boxes can be closed and other player cities ignored. It is not a play style that I would choose but it is available.

Massively multiplayer features and Farmville style gathering are good elements but they can perhaps be considered secondary. At its core, Age of Empires Online is still a Real Time Strategy game and will live or die by the quality of the RTS gameplay. Fans of the series will be glad to hear that the best RTS elements have been preserved for this new age. The gathering system is still complex with a wide range of resources and options to gain them available. I struggled at first to remember what I needed to gather to build certain buildings and units, but soon found myself optimizing build orders to create lean mean armies.

For the most part AoE Online is mostly a macro game where building a big base and maintaining a strong economy is key. Micro elements are, however, present throughout. Some quests only afford you a handful of units that must survive, whilst consumables offer the chance to buff friendlies and debuff enemies.

From a competitive stand point there are a wide range of units which can be used to formulate and counter strategies. Gear does of course play a big role, a little extra health on units can be the difference between success and failure. It is a little early to tell but it seems like dedicated players will be able to reach a point where their armies are maxed out, allowing for battle to take place on more even ground, though this is not to say that customization will be dead. Advisers will have a big part to play as they offer tangible passive buffs or a new type of unit. There are quite a few Advisers that can be collected and equipped, and good players will no doubt play to advisers’ strengths and tailor strategy around them. RTS veterans should find some common ground between other games in the genre, Age of Empires Online offers a similar yet unique gameplay experience.

FREE 2 PLAY: What is free and why should you pay? Free players gain access to most of the same content as paying ones but miss out on some seemingly little things which are required to complete the experience.

  • Rare and Epic Gear: Every player loves gaining new gear but the blue and purple items are only open to those with a premium civilization.
  • Advisors: These guys offer some great buffs and units but the better ones won’t join you for free!
  • Ranked PvP: Only paying customers will be able to pit their skills against the best in the game and claim glory over the global rankings.
  • Storage: Inventory space is always important and whist free players have 2 warehouse slots, premium players get 5.
  • Workshops: The more workshops you have, the more materials you can harvest. Free players are limited to one of each whilst premium players can double up.
  • Tourism: Premium players can gain coins from visiting players that buy goods from their shop.

Upgrading to a premium civilization costs around £12.99 if you purchase from a third party retailer, the Games for Windows LIVE store is advertising the two civilizations at £14.99 each. The first of many booster packs is available now, The Defense of Crete costs just £4.99 and is also included in the special launch offer which comes equipped with both current premium civilizations and costs £29.99. All premium content can of course be purchased with Microsoft points so those without credit cards are not left out.

LONGEVITY: How long is a piece of string? Age of Empires Online is certainly not short, especially when you consider that you can level from 1-40 without paying a penny. At launch, the game offers two playable civilizations, the Greeks and the Egyptians, offering roughly 40 hours of content each. In reality there is probably only 60 hours of fresh quest content as both civilizations share content from around the level 20 mark. 60 hours is not too bad and that’s before you factor in repeatable daily missions and Player vs Player.

New content has been planned and will come in the form of booster packs, the first of which has been launched alongside the main game. The Defense of Crete booster pack offers a customisable horde mode which pits your army against on-coming waves of enemies. The mode can be played alone or via co-op and can be trialed for free by visiting Crete in-game.

VERDICT: There is no doubt that Age of Empires Online is a solid game. No one feature stands out as being spectacular alone, but together they combine to create something unique, yet something that most PC Gamers will already be comfortable with. When it comes to Age of Empires Online, there is nothing to lose but time. You can play the whole game for nothing but you will likely go premium sooner rather than later.

8outof10

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