Microsoft has released a new Age of Empires game for PC entitled Age of Empires Online. Robot Entertainment, the guys who used to be from Ensemble Studios, and made the other AoE games, started work on this game, but near the end it switched over to Gas Powered Games. This game also has a free to play model, along with a paid model, and is constantly online. Will all these changes to this game hurt it, or does it only help it be a stronger game? I participated in the BETA, bought the premium features and have leveled up one civilization to the max level, and have clocked in over 130 hours so far.
Let me start this review by saying I have NEVER played an AoE game before, but I am an RTS fan. Yes, I guess that does not make me a die hard RTS fan, but I played all of Blizzard’s RTS games, and even really enjoyed Ensemble’s last game ever, Halo Wars on the Xbox. I have also played MMO’s for a good amount of time, which I will not get into here. Why do I mention MMO’s, well imagine an RTS, with a constant chat box and other players to interact with, from trading/selling to playing PVP or co-op. I am a fan of both of these genre’s, so I had to try out this game for myself to see how well they work together.
The game itself is free to download and play, and yes you can even get achievements in the free version, since this is a GFWL enabled game. The game itself plays like any Real Time Strategy game. You have villagers who gather resources, which enable you to build armies, to defend yourself, and beat the other player, or computer. You have different types of troops at your disposal depending on what tactic you wish to use, and what empire you are playing. I spent most of my time playing the Greeks, so I will mostly be discussing them. As a Greek you can build infantry, archers, horseback and siege. Each type of unit also has a few different sub-types of units, but these can only be trained as you level up. Inside each game your main base has 4 ages, as you level up the ages, which require resources, you gain access to higher level units. But once again, these units have to be unlocked in your hometown first.
The home town is a base, where you travel to in between missions. In this town, you never get attacked, nor attack, but you gain access to new missions and new items. As you level up, you earn blueprints to be able to decorate and make your hometown more useful, with even more stores and quests, that others in the game can also visit. Your hometown is also where you can equip gear, that is used in-game. Each unit, and building, has equipment slots. These items range from uncommon to epic varieties, and award different stats from more HP, to faster build times. These items can really change the swing of a PVP game, and are what cause this game to be endless. You can always find better gear, by spending more time, and in-game currency. The gear drops from chests, which can be found in-game on maps, by completing missions, or by purchasing in stores. I spent a good amount of time farming epic quests, once I was level 40, to try and get some better gear. They have also announced that Legendary items will be coming to the game, which will even be better then the current epics.
Inside your hometown, you can also craft gear, which you can then use, or sell to other players. These items are crafted from recipes, which also drop from chests, or can be purchased from stores, or traded from other players. The gear you create requires raw materials. These raw materials are made in your capital city depending on what raw material shops you have. If you do not have the correct shops, you will have to trade, or buy the materials from other players. These raw material shops continue to make raw materials, even when you are not in-game.
On the PvP side, there are a few options. There is ranked and unranked, and as of now 1v1 and 2v2. They are working on adding skirmish and 3v3, but it is not available as of the time of this review. To play against a friend though, one person will need the premium content, so they can pick their opponent or teammate. If you just queue up, you may not get into the same game, or on the same team. You also need the premium content to be able to play ranked matches. So, if you are a freemium player you will only be able to do unranked PvP, and only with your friend, if you got lucky, or your friend has a premium account.
So now you may be wondering what you don’t get if you are a freemium player, and choose not to pay money for the game. As a free player, you are still able to level up to 40, and play PvP. But you are also restricted. The best gear you can equip is common, and the best recipes you can learn are common as well. Also, you only get 2 storage containers, instead of 5. You can also not use any recipes above common, and lastly you are limited to the amount of raw material shops you can have. This does put you at a disadvantage in PVP, and also in how much money you make, but hey, you payed $0!
Personally I would recommend trying out the civilizations, and playing one of them. Getting one to 40, and getting all epic gear and recipes will take a long time. It is well worth the 1600 MSP ($20) for this kind of game. It is more advanced then any XBLA title out there for 1200 MSP ($15). You can start for free, and switch to premium at anytime, and keep all your progress. I switched at level 9. I would recommend this game to anyone who is a fan of RTS’s and MMO’s, since it is the most wonderful mix of both of these worlds to hit the market ever.
You can find AoE Online at a local retailer, but it will only be the greek premium package. If you want to play the free versions first, and want to try the Egyptians, the game can be found at http://www.ageofempiresonline.com/