Review Date: September 10 2011
Developer: Gas Powered Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Genre: Real-time Strategy
The Age of Empires franchise helped to define the RTS genre, but when Ensemble Studios disbanded a few years ago it looked like Age of Empires 3 would be the end. Microsoft has, however, brought the brand back to life with AoE Online, developed by Gas Powered Games, and available as a F2P download through the Games for Windows Marketplace. The fully patched game currently weighs in at about 2.5 GB.
Earlier AoE games tended to push the envelope graphically, so the first thing that may strike you about AoEO is that it has an unmistakably cartoony art style that makes it look almost like it's aimed at kids. This might not appeal to everyone, but it actually comes together quite nicely and performs well even on older systems. There is a decent selection of video settings, including the option to run the game at high resolutions.
Although more civilizations are planned for AoEO, right now you have only two choices: the Egyptians and the Greeks. Each civilization has a unique appearance as well as certain distinct units and tech tree abilities. Once you've picked a civilization you are given a city which acts as a home base with an inventory, vendors, quest givers, and so on. You get to decorate and add buildings to your city as you progress, but it's not part of gameplay, which all takes place on separate maps.
AoEO plays out through a series of quests that unfold much like the single-player campaigns in other RTS games. The reward system resembles that of a MMORPG, handing out items, experience points, and upgrades when you successfully complete them. The quests, at least on the surface, are quite varied, offering everything from rescue missions to tower-defence-like scenarios, and some have time limits, which tends to increase their difficulty.
Note that difficulty is in part decided by whether or not you're willing to pay for the game. If you're playing for free, you'll soon find that you're accumulating quest rewards you can't equip. Without the good gear certain missions are significantly harder, so it's a big incentive to open your wallet.
As is often the case with RTS games, the AI is predictable and rarely diverges from a couple of core strategies. In some quests essentially just sits and waits for you to build up an army large enough roll through its base. It's also suseptible to cheap tricks like being trained around guard towers by a faster unit.
Many of AoEO's quests are playable with a friend in cooperative mode, and the city of Sparta serves as a center for PvP matches, so far this only including 1 versus 1 and 2 versus 2. Ranked matches are available to players who purchase a Premium Civ. Unlike most RTS games, AoEO currently lacks a skirmish mode, but they plan to add this capability later this year. That, along with improvements to matchmaking and larger matches would make the game a lot more appealing to PvP fans.
One way in which AoEO differs from traditional RTS games is that is has a large number of items that can be traded with other players, as well as an extensive crafting system. An auction would facilitate this tremendously, as trading through the game's buggy chat window is not ideal.
Oddly enough, F2P games often come down to how much the stuff they charge for costs, and how much it affects gameplay. After the first couple weeks, your limited inventory will be filling up with loot that you can't use, and you probably won't want to keep playing without a Premium Civ, currently priced at $19.99. If you want full access to the other Civ, that's another purchase, as with any future Civs that are released. They also sell new content in the form of Booster Packs for $9.99. You can get package deals at a discount, but even so it won't be long before you've spent as much or more than you would on a typical retail RTS game.
The Bottom Line
I went into Age of Empires Online with fairly low expectations, but was surprised to find a graphically rich game with a respectable collection of features and high production values. It still falls short of the standard RTS offering, particularly in terms of skirmishes, which are being patched in, and PvP, which could use more options and better matchmaking. When it comes to pricing, I have a lot of reservations about F2P games, and AoEO is no exception. A Premiun Civ is not a terrible way to spend $20, but it doesn't feel like a complete game, and you could likely get more RTS for your money on Steam, even when they're not having a sale. On the other hand, with more content and a few improvements, I could see the multiplayer in AoEO taking off, at which point the community itself may become an attraction well worth the price of admission.