Following three successful outings, the Age of Empires series long ago established itself as a thoroughbred stallion in the RTS stables. The latest offering, Age of Empires Online, tries to take the features offered by some very successful MMOs and integrate them with the gameplay of old. It’s the first game in the series to be developed by Gas Powered Games, but has fiddling with a tried and tested formula hurt the game rather than enhanced it? Read on to see whether it’s worth battling with the infuriatingly obtuse Games for Windows Live to march your Empire into the online age.
Aesthetics – 8
If you’ve played any previous entries in the series, you’re going to be in for a bit of a shock in terms of style. Gone are the realistic environments and militaries, instead they’ve been replaced by a cartoony, cel-shaded look. The troops have become heavily stylised with oversized muscles and little chicken legs; it’s not an Age of Empires experience you’ll have encountered before, and this will turn some people off. Personally, I found the game on the whole to be so different from the others in the franchise that it didn’t bother me too much. The animations are slick and again very in-keeping with the style of the game, whether it’s an archer attacking or a villager fishing. It may not be what you were hoping for from your next Age of Empires fix, but the design is certainly coherent and doesn’t jar with itself.
Obviously if you’re new to the series, then you’re not going to be peeved about the loss of stunning realistic vistas and battlegrounds. Regardless of past experiences though, all players will encounter the same repetitive environments. The colour palette of the game never really changes, and so whether you’re looking at a palm tree or an oak…there’s very little difference. The same goes for whether you’re fighting on dirt or in a desert; it’s a subtle distinction, but one the game doesn’t really bother with aesthetically. As a result you feel like once you’ve seen one map, you’ve seen them all; no matter how vibrant they appear. Even the wildlife isn’t as varied as I was hoping, with lions and crocodiles appearing horribly often, with the odd wolf thrown in here and there.
Having said all that, special mention has to go to the gear of the game. In one of the cleanest examples of how MMO elements have been integrated, the gear you equip on your troops actually effects how they look in battle. I’ll delve deeper into gear in the gameplay section, but it’s an impressive and innovative move to offer such customisation. Your choice of unit appearance in most RTS games is limited to the colour of their tunic reflecting your team, and even that is often decided for you. It made me feel like my army was mine and that no matter what map I was playing on I was bringing the same people with me from my capital city, spreading my personal civilisation across the globe.
The game’s soundtrack does the job, but doesn’t really feel like anything special. Music reflects your location around the world and the battle cries and noises are all done well. One thing that did always make me perk up was the witty one-liners said by quest givers and merchants, which are often pretty hilarious. It’s a shame all of the quest dialogue which is in speech bubbles couldn’t have been read out as it’s pretty easy to miss otherwise. Overall though, the sound was inoffensive and did most of the rudimentary tasks expected of it, but it would have been nice for them to go that little bit further.
Gameplay – 7
Put simply, Age of Empires Online aims to infuse conventional RTS gameplay with MMO levelling, looting and questing. Building on the game’s MMO aspirations, it’s easier to think of the gameplay on offer as being separated into either PvE or PvP, though there is overlap through the capital city. In terms of what civilisations you can play, the Greeks and Egyptians are currently both on offer for free, though to access the best units and upgrade them fully you need to buy premium packs. The Persians aren’t playable at all without paying, and it looks like the soon-to-be-implemented Celts will be going the same way. Each civilisation does have mostly unique quests, though there is some overlap, but the fact that only three civilisations are currently available when Age of Empires III had eight certainly feels like a step backwards and harms the game’s longevity prospects.
In terms of the PvE section of the game then, it’s here that the MMO aspects are most clearly seen. You operate out of your capital city, doing quests, earning new buildings and slowly spreading your influence across the world. You do quests in order to gain experience and level up; doing so grants you a point to put in one of your three “technology trees”, to unlock new units or buff existing ones. These are essentially talent trees and are unique to each civilisation, but to access the final tier of each you need to have bought the premium packs. It’s a lot of fun at first, but as the time between levels starts to slow (it really hit me around level 9) then playing with the same small set of units again and again is a bit of a relentless grind. It’s certainly not a great feeling to be 31 levels off the level cap of 40 and already be bored by the options available to you. Things do get better, but you have to invest a huge chunk of time rinsing and repeating.
The quests themselves come in various flavours. There are repeatable quests every 12 hours, global quests which give you a bigger objective to work towards like killing 100 fishing boats, and also challenge quests that get progressively harder but with better rewards each time you do them. Challenge quests in particular were very refreshing, as they offer areas of the game that allow you to challenge your management skills rather than fighting ones. In one I had to train 20 spearmen in 10 minutes, then in eight minutes, then seven (which was tough), then six (which I did with three seconds to spare and then had to go have a lie down). There are co-op quests as well, but I found they made things into a chore more than enhanced my playtime, as if you don’t manually search for a partner you’re matched with someone randomly and the likelihood of you wanting the same quest is low.
In essence though, the tech tree and levelling makes the single player game feel like one long tutorial which gets very irritating. The quests vary, but whether you’re trying to defeat enemies, survive waves of attackers, engage in naval warfare or preserve special units, it starts to feel relentlessly repetitive. It takes far too long to get to the good game many will be looking for. The slow MMO style of levelling works well in MMOs themselves, spread out in a vast world with objectives, distractions and often varied themes but here the map is small and the objectives never quite different enough to justify spending up to half an hour doing the same dance: gather resources, build units, defend base, attack enemy, replace lost units, attack again…rinse and repeat until insane.
The other MMO aspects in the game are gear, looting and crafting. Whether you find gear in chests, get it as a quest reward or craft it yourself it adds another dynamic to gameplay and a further way to personalise your civilisation. One of the issues though is you can only use green-quality gear without the premium packs, meaning blue and purple weapons and armour can only be used by paying players. As some of the better items offer considerable boosts such as giving units the ability to slow others, it creates a real issue of balance if you don’t have the content and are playing against someone who does in PvP. It also seems to be responsible for the slowdown in levelling, as missions take a lot longer without the boosts of better gear or advisors. Ultimately, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the PvE side of the game has elements of Warcraft III, but has overcomplicated them. The result is a slow, drawn out levelling experience that frequently withholds too much and makes you wonder why when the series wasn’t broken they foolishly attempted to fix it.
PvP on the other hand is very much what you’d expect, though again aspects are unnecessarily complicated. Before I get into it, a word of warning; if you’re serious about PvP, you need the premium packs. There’s no way around that. You can’t access any of the ranked stuff without it and the one form of PvP that you can try out is pretty simplistic and really only suited to you whilst you’re levelling.
So, there are three main places/interfaces to initiate PvP. The Skirmish Hall is (temporarily) a free booster pack where you can organise fights against AI enemies. It allows you to bring in a friend and play co-op against up to four AI enemies, and unlocks all units for you whilst you do it. You can earn new advisors, vanity items and loot through the system which makes it pretty worthwhile. Your other F2P option is the Standard form of Sparta PvP, which is unranked and supports 1v1, 2v2 or 4-player FFA with the winner taking away the Sparta coin currency. The Champion mode of Sparta PvP requires a premium sub and allows you to compete on the global leaderboards with all units unlocked. The final option is the Arena, which also requires a sub, where you can make custom 1v1 or 2v2 matches with your friends where you bring in your gear and tech tree development from PvE.
Read more about AoEO's gameplay and much more on Page 2 of our official review!