Disclaimer: please be aware that this is a report on a game in BETA. Therefore anything I say in the following report is likely to be wildly incorrect by time the game is released. If this is the case please do not stone, punch, knife or shoot me because of the misinformation I have fed you. Verbal abuse, however, is perfectly acceptable.
Age of the Empires (AoE), the well-loved RTS has moved into the MMO era with AoE Online. For me AoE represented the pinnacle of RTS. I am not ashamed to admit it but I have spent more time with the AoE series than possibly any other game out there. The game’s style of empire building struck a chord with me and I must admit it was with some trepidation that I approached the latest iteration. The apprehension I felt was due to two reasons. The first being this game is the first in the series not developed by franchise creators Ensemble studios. The second being the fact that the game promised to mix the RTS I love with MMO ideas which I generally hate.
Booting up the game, the first change was immediately apparent. The game has changed its look to a more cartoony style, similar to what we saw in Civilisation Revolution on the consoles. While I found this is a little jarring at first, the style grew on me and I felt it added quite a bit of personality to the game. The graphics were nice, though simple and the whole world had a lot of colour and vibrancy to it that is sadly missing from the gaming worlds we are used to seeing in this modern era.
The game itself started very simply. I was presented with a map with only one building and an old fellow with a cane. This spritely elderly chap was my chief advisor and primary quest giver and served as my guide as I made my way through the early missions. The first quest saw me leave my city and head out into the Greek country side for some typical early game RTS shenanigans. You know the type, build four farms, train 10 villagers etc. With the quest complete I was whisked back to my home base with a pile of shiny XP to spend.
This was where the MMO stuff began to kick in. If you think in traditional MMO terms, your home base in AoE Online is your Hero character. You can upgrade it with new buildings using XP and resources gathered in quests. In the first 12 hours of the game I managed to upgrade my civilisation three ages and reach a level 13 city. This basically worked as you would imagine. Each time I reached a new level I was given three technology points to spend on new units and buildings. Every five levels, I advanced an age, improving technologies and buildings as well as unlocking new units and unit upgrades.
Questing was basically the AoE I knew and loved. Building my base and crushing the opposition was the basis for just about every quest. Exploration played a larger part than I remembered as there were numerous treasures to be located in each quest. These treasures fell into three categories: building materials, special abilities (like improved damage for a short period) or unit upgrades (like a better spear for your pikemen). Apart from these upgrades I felt like it was the game of old and had no problems jumping right in.
At about level five I was granted a special building called the arena. Here I could engage in some traditional AoE multiplayer. From one vs one all the way up to an eight way battle royal for military supremacy, all of the options were there. Apart from these MP matches of old you also have another MMO addition, party questing. There were many quests in which I was given the option of teaming up with others to complete the task set. The game encouraged this social aspect by giving great XP rewards and some shiny new upgrades that weren’t available to those playing on their own.
Being a beta there were some issues though. I came across surprisingly few bugs, the most notable being a bug where all the text looked like it had been crushed in a garbage compactor, but there were some pacing issues with the game. Being an AoE fanboy I was disappointed that after 12 hours of playtime I still don’t have access to the age four and five units and buildings. Now I know this is part of the MMO stylings that the developers have put in the game but I fear it may alienate the old school fans like myself. I also noticed a lack of variation in the quests. The series always had a lot of variety in the mission structure but AoE Online seemed to be little more than the very basic build and destroy type RTS. Hopefully these two issues are fixed upon release.
When it comes out, AoE Online will actually be free to play, with only premium content costing money. From what I could tell from within the beta, the premium content will be special units and possibly other races to play with. It was unclear if these units will simply offer more variety or if they will be superior to what the cheap players get with the free version.
In all I feel there is a lot of potential here. As a person who hates MMO’s this may be the game that finally gets me enjoying the grind.