I just cracked open a copy of Age of Empires Online, with optional Premium Greek civilization, and played my way to the Golden Age. Age of Empires Online, released August 16th 2011, is the newest of a long line of “Age of” titles and the in-game chat was certainly vocal about comparing the latest edition to some of the previous classics in the franchise.
This title is, in many ways, quite reminiscent of most real time strategy games in that there is the harvesting of resources and the creation of small hordes of troupes which one sends in wave after wave of destruction upon one’s (ideally) ill-prepared and out-matched foes. However Microsoft has taken what would otherwise be just another Warcraft clone and tried to centre it on a massive multiplayer online community experience. In order to monetize this game they have also added an interesting take on the freemium model. You can play the game for free, but if you want advanced items for your civilization or more interesting stuff to build at your capital city, you must purchase a premium civilization pack for about twenty bucks. Some of AoEO’s more outspoken citizens found Microsoft’s foray into the freemium MMO model artificially restrictive but regardless, my bet is that this is a game model that will be adopted by more PC game studios carrying forward. It has certainly proven to be quite lucrative in the mobile game market and for Steam.
As a premium player, I had access to better itemization and troupe upgrades then my free-to-play compatriots. Also, the ability to collect advisor cards that supply passive buffs or elite troupe types. However free civilization players were still able to unlock most standard in-game civilization advancements and all standard troupe types. With or without rare and epic army buff items, a good player will still win in this game and in my very first experience with pvp, I was schooled by a talented free-to-player. The multiplayer aspect of this game is either in the form of cooperative or player verses player and both work just as expected for anyone familiar with the franchise. If you need help completing a difficult quest, ask a friend (or really anyone) for coop. If like you to kill your buddies at a LAN party but aren’t likely to play regionally at your local SlaughterCon, then chances are you will like to play AoEO pvp. If you like to pwn newbs, play Starcraft II. Also, seemingly in a shout out to Defense of the Ancients fans, Microsoft has already released an expansion pack for purchase called Defense of Crete where players fend off waves of plebs.
Having played for a few weeks, I can attest to the addictiveness of AoEO. I found myself repeating quests for loot or gold but in doing so I found one of the game’s potential flaws. Item saturation and inflation are difficult factors for any online community with collective currency to balance. AoEO has a large group of players that get item drops they cannot use. Free players end up accumulating large sums of gold and powerful items that they cannot do very much with other then horde and be tempted to upgrade their account. For Premium players like myself, the selling common and uncommon, or even more rare items to the in town vendor is quite commonplace. Repeatable quests end up putting lots of gold in all players’ pockets and could prove to exaggerate inflation even further. One tactic Microsoft has employed was making valuable end game gear available for faction points or as quest rewards. However mostly this has raised the value of advisor cards and other gear only available through random chest rewards. It will certainly be interesting to see how MS manages the evolving economy as it adds additional free and premium content.
Pros & Cons
+Quick to learn interface and good tutorial quests get a player enjoying the game early. All the hot keys that one would usually expect allow for advanced unit control and research.
+Advance premium itemization and advisors give premium players something to strive for in later levels.
+Addictive nature of all RTS is preserved and will likely keep any fan playing well into the early hours of their next long weekend.
-Nothing is really new in this game. Everything implemented is just a variation on the wealth of both its’ RTS and MMO origins. It is all implemented smoothly and effectively in most cases but lacks innovation.
-Lag. This is bound to be a problem for any online game if you don’t have the optimal balance of gear and network connectivity but that being said, my kit isn’t awful. I did experience some lag issues when playing in peak hours.
-Economy. As stated above, delicate imbalances in the economy could have repercussions to long-term replayability. Only time will tell, but watch for adjustment of lockout timers for some quests or treasure drop rates in future patches.
Rating out of ten:
*Thanks goes out to Microsoft Canada and Highroad for supplying this copy to review.