Age of Empires Online

Free to slay.

There are no idle questions in game design. That's why off-handedly asking one of the developers of Age of Empires Online whether FarmVille has influenced the team at all is not a good idea. In fact, in answer to the query, the developer simply starts to look like he's suffering three separate strokes at once.

So, just to be clear, FarmVille has not influenced Age of Empires Online. The game hasn't been radically simplified and it doesn't worship the loading bar or the wall post. It won't be switching from a meaty RTS to a thin-client Facebook App in which you can buy your ex-girlfriend a cartoon pumpkin.

That said, the developers have clearly been keeping an eye on social gaming in general or rather, they've been keeping an eye on social gaming's expanded audience.

And that's why AEO is free to play (more on this in a minute), why it's decked out in bright cartoonish visuals and why newcomers are going to find that it explains itself in friendly little chunks.

The game teaches you the basics of resource gathering and city management quite thoroughly before throwing you into even the easiest of battles, and holds off on the hulking sprawl of its tech trees until you're inching upwards through the levelling system. It's friendly, then, but it still promises depth. It won't cost you anything if you don't want it to, but it's a full game rather than a sneaky clutter of busywork.

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I asked if they'd played Travian. They said no. I bet they have, though.

It's also a voguish blend of MMO and RTS - boy, if that won't rope in Johnny Casual, I just don't know what will - with each of your civilisations built around a capital city that you're encouraged to take ownership of.

You can fit it out as you see fit, levelling it up, filling it with useful buildings and customising it as if it was a WOW character albeit a WOW character with parkland and a brewery stuck in his midriff.

That's before you go setting off on instanced quests that play out in a far more familiar mixture of resource management, army amassing, and point and click warfare. Some of the tools you'll have at your disposal will be one-shot consumables for use on your units, while others will depend on how you've built things up back home.

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You'll need, um, Games for Windows Live to make it work.

Oh, yes, and those capital cities are persistent, too. This is important, as you can put up shops that will then sell unique items to other players while you're off sleeping or pretending to work on other things in life.

It's also worth noting that capitals are only positively persistent. Other players can buy things from you, but they can't attack your home; you won't come back from a hard day at the spark plug factory only to log on and see your civilisation in ruins. Topical, Gaddafi.

Both sides of the game upgrading your city and waging war around the surprisingly large world map are delivered with swaggering animation and art design. The latest Age of Empires is certainly cartoony, but it's not simplistic. Its 3D models are detailed and gently Cel-shaded, and they're both easy to read at a glance and perfect for scaling to different levels of hardware over the game's lifespan.

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