Age of Empires: Online (AoE:O) has been out for a year. I was invited for the beta test and frankly the game initially put me off because there seemed to be so many hurdles to enjoy the actual game. I decided to jump back into AoE:O after it was released via Steam. The experience has been good, better than my experience nearly 10 years ago on Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings / The Conquerors.
Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings was probably my first real game besides Command and Conquer and Red Alert. I started off as an RTS player which fitted my interests because I love managing things and RTS games call for a good mix of macro and micro management. Age of Empires has always been a simple yet increasingly complex game when one uncovers the layers of optimizing economy and military. AoE:O returns to this tried and tested element and adds MMO characteristics to it.
Free to Play
One thing interesting about AoE:O is its similar approach to go completely online based similar to StarCraft 2. I believe the main reason for this is both to gain a larger player base via a free to play model and also cut down and eliminate piracy.
AoE:O is very generous with its F2P model. There are no micro transactions. You can play all the Single player ‘quests’ for free and hit max level without paying a cent. There are 3 types of paid content. Booster packs (2 avaiable) adds new game play options. Currently, you have Skirmish which is basically Random Maps and Defense of Crete which is a tower defense gameplay mode. These modes are worth 450 Empire Points which translates to roughly US$4.99. The second type of paid content is a premium version of the civilization you play. Costing 900 Empire Points (US$9.99) you unlock PVP mode, the full tech tree, crafting abilities and being able to use all types of gear. Also civilization based are ‘Pro’ civilizations. These are civilizations that can only be played after paying 900 points. Currently, there is only one of them. The final type of paid content is vanity gear that you can decorate your capital city / troops with.
There are 2 things going for AoE:O’s general F2P model. You get roughly 40-60 hours of content without paying a single cent. Empire Points can be earned in game over (a relatively long) time and if you are heavy player, you can get all ‘paid’ content for free.
Good Ol’ AoE
All elements of Age of Empires are kept in tact with AoE:O. The crazy micro management of the first few minutes, the rushing and harassing of the early ages and full expansion and full scale war at the end. The concept is completely similar. There are no real new units not seen before nor are there new building types. An old Age of Empires player will come in knowing exactly how to get off the ground. Even prices for troops and buildings are similar. Balance is good because balance was copied from the Age of Empires of yore.
There are basically 4 civilizations currently. Greeks, Celts and Egyptians are free to play. Persians remain the only pay-before-you-can-play civilization. One might compare this to the 12+ civilizations that came with AoE 1,2,3 but it must be noted that civiilzations in AoE 1,2,3 were basically re-skinned versions of each other. AoE:O goes a long way to make each civilization unique and the experiences are vastly different. You actually get more Single player content for free in AoE:O than that in AoE 1,2,3.
The AI difficulty in AoE:O seems to be ramped up significantly compared to former versions. This makes it especially fun for old players but could pose hefty challenges for new ones.
I never thought RTS games could go MMOish but AoE:O has done that and has appealed to my past MMO experiences.
The first step is of course, leveling. This gives the player a sense of progression as he starts the game. In past AoE, you basically got everything from the get go. You may call this an artificial handicap but it is great for new players and do not hinder old players much. The level cap is 40.
Like how you would gear a character in a RPG setting, AoE allows you to gear your buildings and troops. Gear simply increases stats and also include vanity items that changes looks. Gear becomes a big game changer in the end game where every little bit counts. There are the usual tiers of gear – uncommon, rare and epic.
Similar to potions, elixirs and flasks in MMORPGs, AoE:O has its own brand allowing time limited boosts or the summoning of mercenaries / resources.
Where there is gear, there is crafting. AoE:O allows you to specialize in 2 areas and you can create gear and consumables on the cheap.
There are also workshops that produce the materials required for crafting. These workshops produce over time even when you log off giving the game a strong sense of continuity.
There is a bigger end game besides Quests, Skirmishes and PVP matches. This is similar to C&C Tiberium’s Alliances. It is for max level players and there are 3 factions to choose from. You gain different benefits from joining different alliances and you fight for supremacy and dominance.
This is something akin to a public version of a mega guild. I’ve yet to hit level 40 but it does sound like a lot of fun.
Long story short, I love AoE:O. It has become my main game after stopping WoW and D3. The best part of AoE:O is that it strikes a good balance between fun and time consumption. However, there are some areas that need improvement.
Chat is spammed by gold sellers and there seems to be no filter on it. The community on AoE:O is excellent but these gold sellers are ruining chat.
There should be proper documentation on how the game works. The Empire Handbook on their official site is woefully inadequate. I remember the Age of Empires 2: AOK manual. It was detailed and useful (and really thick!). They could have done a better job explaining the MMO aspect of this game especially since it is brand new.
Games for Windows Live (GFWL) is still crap but Steam has redeemed this game. If you are going to pick up this game, do so via Steam. The Steam version has more features. Microsoft should just murder GFWL or merge it with the well executed XBOX Live.
AoE:O is a surprisingly good game with many game hours given out for free. I went ahead and got Skirmish mode and a premium Greek civilization. The Skirmish mode was free for me because I was given 500 Empire Points for being an early adopter of the game. Nevertheless, as you level up, Empire Points become pretty easy to earn.
This raises questions on how Gas Powered Games will turn a profit on this but it is great news for gamers. Not many free to play games are this generous. And this fun.