So there’s a range of options available. The problem is that whilst each civilisation has unique units, battles often feel very “samey”. With 1v1 or 2v2 being the max currently on offer, gone are the massive battles of old. Few of the PvP games allow you to bring over PvE elements, which makes you wonder if they’re just there to pad out the game, whilst the ones that do require at least 1 person to have a premium pack and thus access to epic gear meaning battles can be very unbalanced. The combat itself isn’t quite as deep as other RTS games have to offer, and the fact that each civilisation’s premium content is sold separately means you’ll probably want to stick to just one. Far from making you an expert, this is more likely to just make you bored.
It’s an interesting attempt, but ultimately the PvE and PvP gamestyles just feel very disconnected despite trying to operate from the same hub. The combat leaves a lot to be desired with combat being a rock, paper, scissors style of trumps whilst the lack of a support system as robust as Battle.net is really felt. The “Trueskill” matching system has come in for complaints from players and I personally don’t understand why when there’s a perfectly good level system on offer in the PvE game, this couldn’t have been adapted for a more transparent PvP experience.
Innovation – 6
The game has managed to integrate quests and gear into RTS gameplay, but not as well as I would have liked. It feels inferior to a game like Warcraft III, which had RPG elements in but, even worse, it just seems like a failed experiment that tried to merge the campaign and online modes of an RTS title under a new interface. The reduction in the number of civilisations on offer is a huge step back and vastly reduces the number of tactics you can embrace in PvP. Because each civilisation has one or two very strong units, it’s obvious what they’re going to build and you can adapt accordingly. I participated in one FFA game where everyone built swaths of War Elephants. It was amusing, but there was no finesse there. I’m glad that an RTS title has attempted to branch out and integrate elements from another genre, but after playing the game I really do feel it shows us what not to do. Anything that goes right has been done before, whilst what feels stilted tends to be either an original idea or a riff on one that was previously successful.
Polish – 6.5
Whilst I experienced no bugs at all in my time playing the game, there are two things that gave me cause for concern. Firstly, content isn’t released very often and the Celts have already been delayed from a December release to a March one. It doesn’t necessarily bode well for the state of the game if things are already falling behind schedule.
The main issue however that I’m wary of pinning on the game is lag. Playing on my own everything ran like a dream, but in both co-op and PvP my game slowed to a crawl, with the frame rate staying high but all units becoming either unresponsive or freezing mid-action for seconds at a time. I asked around and it seems it’s pretty common, which is simply unforgiveable in a game with any competitive elements. It needs to be solved as, at the moment, PvP feels drawn out and tedious rather than being fast-paced and frenetic. Whilst the lag vanished in games against the computer, poor pathing and AI meant that there wasn’t really a sense of challenge there either, sadly.
Longevity – 7
This is completely a matter of personal taste. If you’re happy to make a one off payment to get the premium pack for a civilisation you connect with, then the ranked PvP on offer will keep you coming back for more. It’d be nice for them to implement tournaments or some more structured PvP options to help this. I seriously doubt the PvE game will be bringing anyone back, though, as it’s addictive to a point but once the levelling starts to slow down it becomes a slog. Even the different campaigns probably won’t be enough to pull you back, as despite the civilisations having different quests, there’s only so many ways killing the enemy can be dressed up. Ultimately the cost of premium packs is the biggest blow to longevity, as there isn’t really enough variety to justify buying more than one, meaning it’s really a case of what’s going to hit you first; boredom or burnout.
Social – 7.5
Using the Live system means Xbox owners are going to be able to import friend’s lists which is a nice touch. Some great stuff has been lifted from MMOs to allow conversations with friends to continue regardless of whether you’re playing alone or not. Aside from friend’s lists, you can also whisper people, invite them to a party and set up PvP matches. There’s an ignore feature for people that are annoying you, and you can also trade with people, send them mail and visit their capitals to see what it looks like. LFG, Trade and General channels all operate well but my only gripe is that there is a horrendous amount of gold spam in the game. It’d be nice to see a “report” option in addition to the “ignore” button, as I’d prefer to solve the problem rather than just distance myself from it. Also, with all the loot and currency on offer in game, why an Auction House hasn’t been implemented I cannot begin to comprehend.
Value - 5
The PvE side of the game doesn’t offer enough to keep you hooked, and what premium content adds to it is minimal at best. It’s left to PvP then to justify any expenditure…and it can’t. With such high prices, the fact that the game offers worse combat, fewer civilisations and limited updates is pretty obscene. It’s $10 dollars for each civilisation, with no bundles on offer if you want to buy them all. If you treat the game as a F2P demo then it’s all good and definitely worth trying out, but there isn’t enough content or support here to justify the cost. I’d also argue that play doesn’t really vary that much between civilisations, so it’s extremely unlikely that anyone could justify paying $10 for a tiny bit more diversity. Ultimately though, it’s shackled by the heritage of both the series and the genre. The best game in the series, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings can be bought for far less whilst offering more content and variety, whilst Warcraft III has more support and structure at a more seductive price.
In the end, Age of Empires Online works well as a demo rather than a F2P game. There just doesn’t seem to have been enough thought about what each element from the MMO and RTS genres bring to the party. Instead, they’ve just been thrown together. Nowhere is this clearer than in the levelling system. Across games, levels show different things. In Warcraft III they showed PvP competence. In MMOs, they show either how close an individual is to accessing the all-important endgame, or they can sometimes simply arbitrarily mark out how far someone is on their journey. Here, they don’t really seem to do any of this. Rather they serve as a badge of dogged determination for continuing to play through a campaign in which addictive gameplay swiftly turns stale.
It’s worth trying, but perhaps more so if you’re an MMO aficionado. RTS players can certainly find more bang for their buck out there, and it’s almost unrecognisable as an instalment in the great series formally handled by Ensemble Studios. If you do decide to try it out, be prepared to grind your way through some uninspiring early levels in order to unlock the best stuff…regardless of whether you pay or not. I started off this review by saying the series was a “thoroughbred stallion in the RTS stables.” Unfortunately, having played the latest incarnation extensively, I can’t quite shake the feeling that Gas Powered Games has condemned this once noble steed to the glue factory. And that’s a real shame.