Version tested: PC
It's a grand name, isn't it? You can almost imagine the baritone voice and the Baz Luhrmann camera pullback: "This... was an AGE OF EMPIRES." And Age of Empires is a grand series. Since its earliest days, it's been a real-time strategy game with familiar mechanics but its own way of playing: I vividly remember playing AOE II after being weaned on Command & Conquer and having to learn the alien concept of defence.
Microsoft, being an evil corporation etc., shuttered AOE's original developers Ensemble after the so-so Halo Wars, leading to fears the series had been canned - or worse, farmed out to a jobber. And Age of Empires Online is certainly a departure for the series. In this free-to-play RTS with MMO-lite elements, story-driven campaigns are out, while questing and crafting are in.
We'll come to the structure, but the game itself is like bumping into an old friend you actually want to see: hardly surprising, given a hefty chunk of development is down to Robot Studios, formed from Ensemble's ashes, before AOE Online was taken to release by the excellent Gas Powered Games. Berry-gathering? Check. Rock-paper-scissor unit types? Check. Brown pants when you see a catapult? One second... check.
AOE Online starts slow, making you plough through several player levels and tutorial missions before you wave a stick in anger, but once it gets going is incredibly familiar. At the start of most missions you have a few villagers to gather resources and a scout unit: set the workers a-gathering, send off the scout and build more workers. Age up, build production structures, set an infrastructure rolling to support them, pump out an army and move in.
Simple enough, but Age of Empires is one of those games where things go wrong all the time. Out-of-the-way storehouses are essential but exquisitely vulnerable to raiding parties, while rushing to the silver age just as your opponent turns up with twenty spearmen is heart-breaking. At its core, the game has always been about hoarding: building an awesome base packed with defence that hides an ever-increasing and evolving army, sending little groups out on skirmishes, before one huge face-off to decide everything.
AOE Online has this blood, for good or ill. Building up your base efficiently and keeping the workers where they need to be is a complex task, and when controlling an army or two is added, it can be overwhelming.
It's not helped by the lack of an audio alert when your units are being attacked - it shows up on the minimap, but unless your eyes are glued to that, far too many times a raid will take out expansions before you even realise. While on the UI, how hard is it to put in an option for displaying hotkeys? I ended up printing them out. 2011 calling.
These things are irritants, but the bigger issue with AOE Online is that it has a lot of dead time. The start of every mission or match is the same: your base's automatic defences make proxy attacks and early rushes pointless, so the first few minutes are always the same old same old, executing builds without any interference.
The first minute of Geometry Wars had the same problem, but it at least didn't turn it into side missions. AOE Online is rammed with them and certain quest givers just want you to do the same basic tasks over and over again, like toddlers in togas. Calling them filler is an insult to Styrofoam.
These missions are a consequence of the 'Online' part, and Age of Empires Online struggles with it - though not un-manfully. The centre of online play, adapted from AOE III, is your capital city, a hub that hosts quests, shops, upgrades and various other buildings that impact your in-game army. The neatest touch is the advisor hall, a building in which you can place one advisor for each age who applies a constant in-game buff, like extra wood-chopping efficiency for villagers, or regenerative health for foot soldiers.
The idea of your online representative being the capital city is a great one, and well integrated with fellow players: you can visit a chum's city in an instant to buy special items and partake in friend-only quests. Knowing people will be looking at your layout is as strong an impetus as there will ever be for arranging shops and storehouses in neat lines that spell out LOL.
The other aspects of your capital city include an absolutely bog-standard crafting system and an assortment of places to buy things. Crafting is limited to two specialities (unless you're not paying to play, in which case there's one) and works in tandem with buildings that produce raw materials.
In an unwelcome lift from FarmVille and its ilk, the production cycles depend on your checking in to store items and restart the process. The lack of storage space is a pain: you're all too often having to re-arrange the suitcase and toss stuff out, and you get even fewer storehouses if you're a dirty freeloader.
You can certainly play Age of Empires Online without handing over any money, but the very best free-to-play games value their non-paying communities because their sheer mass and commitment support the top five per cent who pay for the thing. Age of Empires Online does not. In the long term, it's crippled for free players: no ranked player-versus-player, certain units unavailable, a stunted tech tree, limited crafting and limited storage. If you have no plans to spend money, look elsewhere, because AOE Online does not do the business model justice.
In fact, for paying players, it's even worse: £15 for each civilization (at the moment, Greek and Egyptian; the Greeks come in the £20 boxed version) or a whopping £80 for the season pass, which grants you all content released in a six-month period. If you want the new civilizations down the line, cough up. To play this game long-term will cost much, much more than its competition.
That said, if you just want to toe-dip in Age of Empires Online for free, it doesn't feel too trammelled. Playing against others online is still possible and you can acquire basic upgrades.
Those crafted items really make a difference in matches, especially against the same civilization. It's incredibly disheartening to get into a game and realise all your Greek opponent's spearmen are simply better than yours because they have a purple spear of doom that you can't craft for 10 levels and the health pants of plenty. It's surprising to see balance given such short shrift in a game that surely aspires to competitive play.
There are other things that need fixing. The pathfinding is terrible and will sometimes cost you the game. And one more thing for which there is no excuse: AOE Online not only requires Games for Windows Live (a service Microsoft should be ashamed of rather than promote) but a constant connection. Fair enough, but if your broadband flickers, the game automatically quits out to the title screen. It doesn't give your connection a few seconds' grace, or save any progress, it just quits, mid-mission. It's an insult to players to make a game that requires a constant online connection but has no way of dealing with a temporary dropout. Solutions exist, and they're not rocket science; StarCraft II, for example, gives a 60-second countdown for the connection to re-establish.
It breaks my heart to give Age of Empires Online a less than brilliant score. If you'd told my teenage self that, one day, AOE would have this much content and you could play it online against actual people for free, my spotty head would have exploded. It's as good as mechanically identical to previous entries in the series, and although its new structure spreads it a little thin, there's still a fine strategy game underneath it all. But the context has changed.
Age of Empires, great as it was, doesn't quite stand up against the best in the RTS genre today - and Age of Empires Online doesn't improve on its mighty predecessors in any meaningful way in-game, while adding a lot of bumf around it of questionable value. It's still a grand name, of course, and in some ways a grand game - one trumpeted as 'Microsoft's triumphant return to the RTS genre!' So let's put it this way: it's certainly a return.
7 / 10