Upon hearing about an Age of Empires Online I was most definitely skeptical about buying it. But now that it is free to play, there is no reason at all not to try it out. I will say that I found a little bit of a bug. If you try to get into the game you need to do so using your Windows Live ID. After doing this it asks you for an activation key. I just put in the same letter in every space and it accepted the key. It doesn’t require a real key… but it still requires the spaces to be filled out (how odd).
The Brief: Robot Entertainment
Ensemble Studios is responsible for making the hit game Age of Empires as well as creating the gaming engine used in the vast majority of 90s and 2000s RTS games. However after many years of success Microsoft finally decided to shut down Ensemble Studios. Their last game would be Age of Empires 3, of which the final expansion for it was done by a different studio. Upon closing the doors of Ensemble Studios, the founders decided to make their own studio separate from Microsoft, Robot Entertainment.
Upon creating this studio they announced they wanted to create a new intellectual property and expand. Robot Entertainment was contracted by Microsoft to do the beginning work on Age of Empires Online, an attempt at an MMORTS. About a year before it was finished they handed the project off to another studio. This seemed kind of odd. They once again announced that they wanted to work on their own projects. Age of Empires Online would go on to be a pretty massive flop and exists in the free to play market. Robot Entertainment would add a new cartoony style to Age of Empires Online that has not been seen in any AoE titles to this point. They also made sure to keep the feel of an Age of Empires game in tact before handing this IP off to someone else.
Robot Entertainment released their big title, Orcs Must Die. The game was selling for about $19.99 and often went on sale to the sub $5 marker. However the game was a massive success. They developed DLC for the game and just released a brand new game, Orcs Must Die 2. Robot Entertainment’s success is based on their pricing model. They sold Orcs Must Die relatively cheaply, but gave you a fairly short game. Then they sold the DLC and made up the full price of a game. This successful model will no doubt be used by many future developers.
The depth of this game is great and so to cover what Age of Empires Online is… will take some time.
The first tier of it is a single player game. You pick up quests from various figures of ancient society and they will give you rewards of gear, resources, or consumables. There is a full world that you can explore while picking up quests and you can even enter the city of friends.
After accepting a quest you will enter a second RTS style mode in which you have to complete objectives, much like a single player RTS game. You will have objectives that you have to complete. Upon finishing them you can continue exploring the map for loot drops or you can just head out and collect your quest rewards. These missions can be done as part of a co-op group of individually.
The second tier of the game is a PvP game. You will unlock units over time that you can use in PvP. You will be matched up with an opponent and only be allowed to use the units you unlock. The leveling system makes this frustrating. In one game I played I was against a Level 27 and I was a meager Level 5. I had total map control, I killed most of his workers, I stopped him from mining gold (beyond what was at his base) and I had enough of production to re-max within seconds. Despite all of this he still won. His superior level gave him better defensive structures which allowed him to turtle heavily and gain enough Age 4 units (I could only use Age 2 units) to right click on my base and destroy it.
The limitations in PvP draw you to do more of the single player stuff and less of the multiplayer stuff. For $20 per civilization you can purchase everything outright. As well there are other trappings. If you get a blue or epic piece of gear (which you equip to your units to make them better) you need to be a premium civilization to get it. If this is not frustrating enough you often will run into people draped purely in purple gear stomping you with inferior numbers and inferior play. To say this game is balanced is laugh worthy. It is balanced presuming everyone pays the $20 for their premium civilization… but honestly by this point it might be cheaper to just buy the game out right.
As far as gameplay goes the numbers of units are variant and the number of unit producing structures are high. The game has four Ages. Ages are tiers that unlock new units and new buildings. This is a way of making sure that people don’t just rush out some super powerful unit to win.
Tiers are also production minded. First tier units are not as powerful but cost less resources, higher tier units cost more resources. It is presumed your economy will go up as you advance through tiers by creating villagers. One structure produces melee centered units. One structure produced ranged units. One structure produces healer units. One structure produces artillery units. One structure produces cavalry. Each unit is balanced to beat another group of units. Some units (such as shield bearing ones) are designed to tank. Other units (such as Augurs) are designed to convert enemy units to your side. Choosing what balance you want in your army will be important.
Every match starts off with a scouting unit who can build watch posts. This is important because it means you will find each other very fast and be able to limit the enemy from any sneaky cheesie activities seen in other RTS games.
Another RTS element that is important involves your Town Center also being a turret. This makes it so that players are less likely to all in rush each other and the game can be brought to massive battles in the end. This solves a classic problem of RTS games where some people who are really good at unit control win within minutes of the match starting. Beyond this there is a leveling system mentioned already. With this you do quests and you gain experience and bonus items for the quest.
As well every unit you kill and every structure has a set XP gain for it. As you level up you can fill out a talent tree. The talent tree offers bonuses to certain units, resource gathering, or buildings. This once again makes firm the concept that if someone is higher level it will be harder to overcome them.
At end game you randomly choose one of three alliances. Each alliance gives you a specific bonus. Everything you do will gain alliance points. Alliance points are used towards a large scale battle. The winner of the battle gains EP (Empire Points). EP is used to purchase quest packs and premium civilizations. It takes about 30 hours of play to earn a premium civilization.
- Classic RTS
- Strong Tutorial
- Great Pathing
I think a lot of newer RTS games coming out (A Game of Thrones: Genesis as an example) are trying to mix up the RTS genre by adding in a lot of newer systems that complicate the game and make them less fun. Age of Empires Online is a classic RTS game in which you are responsible for building a macro economy and creating armies. No one will look at this game and find anything complex or hard to understand. The game’s caster units have automatic spells that they cast, lowering the complexity further. When you start the game you are put into a forced introduction that will teach you slowly about all of the units, buildings, and abilities and slowly bring you to the point where you will become a master in the game.
As you go through the tutorial it is explaining the entire game, including managing your upgrades. This was a pleasant process that kept me addicted and wanting to continue the tutorial.
A weakness in a lot of RTS games is bad pathing. Even Starcraft 2 has a problems with pathing that are constantly being patched. AoE Online has insanely good pathing. The units will line up according to unit type and are not clumsy about it. Melee are out front, healers are in the middle, ranged are in the back. Units will generally not block each other. This means you’ll spend less time trying to organize arcs and more time controlling back weakened units.
- Buy to Win Model
- Level Dependent
- Bad Mix
The weaknesses of the game have little or nothing to do with the quality of the game but instead how they intend to make profit. If you decide to spend $20 to buy a premium civilization (of which there are six) the game will be fine. However if you choose to play for free it will be a struggle. Premium civilizations get some insane bonuses. The gear they wear is actually better. They are allowed to do more quests and events and thus level up faster. They start at a higher level. The game is sort of designed so that you slog so long before you are forced into buying a premium civilization.
The leveling system in PvP is really brutal. It does not matter how hard you play, if you are too many levels below someone, you lose. Gear also has a big outcome on the match. Simply put a civilization that can make artillery can just turtle up and win through pure artillery. A good online game is going to connect people together and build friendships.
There is a sort of design disconnect between what the game is. Robot Entertainment started this game off as a social RTS game. When Microsoft gave this project to another developer it started taking shape as an MMO RTS. But after this flopped it went back to just being a social RTS game with it now having free to play trappings.
The problem with this MMORTS format is the attempt to have “Player versus Environment” RTS and “Player versus Player” RTS. In any MMO people are morel likely to do Player versus Environment than Player versus Player. Blizzard reported that less than 5% of its population plays in their PvP elements as of Wrath of the Lich King.
This creates a problem for a genre (RTS) that is largely designed around playing against people. By having 95% of your player base engaged in PvE content (of which there is tones) it means that you will have insanely long queue times in your PvP environment. This is not good considering that the RTS community by and large like to play online against people.
When Age of Empires 1 was out comp stomp was common because… well there really wasn’t much of an Internet floating around. Now comp stomp is largely gone. In fact the only real ‘comp stomp’ part of SC2 is in their User Maps Settings (Arcade) games.
It’s not the game of the year and it is not even the game of the moment. It is an average RTS game that really does nothing amazing. I would say the game is slightly better than Command and Conquer Red Alert 3 but not as good as Starcraft 2. Having said that do not treat this as a free game. If you want to enjoy your time, pay the $20 and buy a premium civilization. If you are looking to slog your way through a grind, then free to play might be for you.
The Steam started pack is priced at $20 and is a worthwhile buy.