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.