Kimberley Ellis
24 Sep, 2011

Age of Empires Online Review

PC Review | Walking like an Egyptian isn't all that it's cracked up to be.
Fans of PC real-time strategy gaming will be quite familiar with the offerings of the Age of Empires series, a franchise that has sold over 20 million copies since its first iteration way back when in 1997. With a few years passing since the last title in the series, many wonder if there is anything left in this old franchise, particularly since Age of Empires Online moves the series into a free-to-play online model which dabbles with elements of the MMO genre of gaming. While it does have some merit, ultimately Age of Empires Online iS a lite version of the original title which will leave many gamers sadly nostalgic for the franchise's glory days.

For those uneducated in the series, Age of Empires is a conventional real-time strategy title with a historical slant which focuses on the player developing their fledgling nation as they play through a historical scenarios, with the crux of the game being to upgrade your nation from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. While the games didn't prove to be the most historically accurate, the combination of gathering resources, upgrading your units and conquering your neighbours made it an enjoyable time sink for casual and hardcore RTS players alike.

While the series has offered up a number of civilisations for you to play as over the years, Age of Empires Online focuses solely on the ancient Greeks and the Egyptians. Thankfully, the differences between the two civilisations is more than merely cosmetic. The Greeks prove to be mighty skilled warriors on the battlefield, while the Egyptians adept crafting skills make building your city a cheap endeavour.

We work hard for the money.

We work hard for the money.

There are essentially two sides to playing Age of Empires Online: The first being your capital city, which is a hub where where you will spend time trading materials and leveling up your city through experience that you have earned through questing; in order to kit out your army with the latest in deadly accessories in order to give them the edge in battle. The level of your city dictates what types of soldiers, ships and other implements are available to you. Essentially, as you level up you will accrue tech points, which can be used to improve elements of your empire such as economy and combat, which in turn affects which buildings you'll have access to and which units you'll have when you enter combat. Materials you collect during missions (or buy in stores) go toward the construction of new building types - provided that you hold the blueprint needed to build them.

The second side of the gameplay experience is the mission element, which is where the meat of the classic Age of Empires experience resides. Some missions are as straightforward as taking out an opposing army, while others stray into the domain of the absurd, such as camel racing. Most missions can be tackled either alone or cooperatively, and offer a choice in difficultly, with the most difficult quests obviously netting the shinier spoils. While there is a decent amount of hand holding in the early going to entice the casual gamer, later missions do prove to contain a decent challenge for even the most seasoned of gamer.

On face value seems like the core Age of Empires experience, is there, but the more that you play you soon realise that much has been changed to suit the more social driven online PC gaming experience; making the title more akin to that of an MMO, or dare I say it...a Facebook game.

One of the biggest negative MMO aspects that the title contains is the feel of the levelling 'grind'. This is combated somewhat with the inclusion of co-op play, but the lack of polish of the co-op mechanics make it a bitter pill to swallow. The co-op presented in Age of Empires Online allows a second player to tag along and help out in a mission, much like traditional MMO questing. The greatest flaw of this is that there are no shared rewards outside of experience points for players to share, which may influence players to eschew the co-op experience. Another flaw of the game is that there are no viewable mission objectives for the second player to view, meaning that unless you are treading familiar territory, you'll be flying blind. While there are a number of flaws with the title's co-op experience, tackling a mission in co-op is not a waste of time - it just feels underdone in comparison to the game's single-player element and is happy to ride the coat tails of the strong core Age of Empires gameplay.

One segment of the co-op experience that we did enjoy is the premium 'booster pack' titled Defense of Crete which allows two players to build up their defenses and troops as they are battered with wave after wave of increasingly powerful enemy units. This mode works great in co-op and after a couple of playthroughs you can see that a lot of thought went into the design and structure of this game mode. It's also here that the greatest flaw of the title is exposed. For a game that boasts being 'free to play', the title is simply a bare bones affair without the premium content. Further adding insult to injury is the fact that a Season One pass (which provides all of the premium content which is currently available) will set you back over $100 - hardly a micro transaction!

Run away from the micro transactions.

Run away from the micro transactions.

That’s not to say that playing the game on the cheap won’t provide you with hours of gameplay, but the longer you play you will begin to notice the various holes where premium units, abilities, items and the like reside and for the price they are selling for it'll make you wonder why the game just wasn't sold at retail outlets in the first place.

Also shifting this time around is the different style of visuals. Gone are the realistic looking nations of Age of Empires titles past, instead the focus shifting to a cartoon-like appearance that is so bright on the colour spectrum that you'd think a unicorn threw up a rainbow directly on your monitor. Your units sport bright colors and exaggerate their movements in an attempt to look humorous which all adds to the family-friendly feel that this title seems to be going for.

Environments also show off a wide range of colours, with animations like jumping fish and lush green forests ramping up the cutesy meter to make the title more visually appealing to gamers of all ages.

The title's sound is still the same as its forefathers, with music consisting of original orchestral pieces while the sound effects remain as crisp as ever, with the clanging of swords sounding as clean as ever.

While there are a lot of positive elements to Age of Empires Online which see it retain the core strategy mechanics from its predecessors, you can't help but shake the feeling that there is a decent amount of content hidden away from you, making it feel like a lite version of titles past. Though this can be fixed by shelling out your hard earned dollars, the fact that you'll be spending more money on content than you do purchasing a new release game will make it a difficult pill to swallow. Those wanting to invest in some cheap Age of Empires gaming would do better to scrounge around the bargain bin of a local retailer. On the other hand, those casual gamers looking for a subtle entry to the genre could do worse than checking out the free wares that Age of Empires Online has to offer.
The Score
While there are a lot of positive elements to Age of Empires Online which see it retain the series' core strategy mechanics, you can't help but shake the feeling that there is a decent amount of content hidden away from you.
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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2 years ago
I'm actually really enjoying this game. Playing as greeks, I'm up to level 28. I understand your problems with the game though. You really do need a premium civ to fully enjoy the game. Plus, it's a bit buggy at the moment, and some of the quests are a bit repetitive and bland.

However, I really enjoy the gameplay. It reminds me of AOE2, just with lush, cartoon graphics. Apparently, there's some major patches coming out in the near future that will fix many peoples problems with the game, plus skirmish hall, extra civs, etc are being added later, so it looks like it's only going to get better.

My personal score for it would probably be an 8, with the potential to go higher with patches/coming content.
2 years ago
Hey Squid where you hear about some patch fixes for this game. I cant get anywhere with the support in preventing a black screen and a shutdown due to overheating. Apparently my computers running to fast for the game. What kills me is windows live which is the access to play the game was told not to help anyone with any problems with this game because its for me. When in fact its not. So Microsoft is actually ripping us off. Anyway like I said where you hear about a patch im curious because I wanna follow up on it..
2 years ago
I meant free
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