Review by remanemporor

"A game with a good core, but lots and lots of baggage"

Age of Empires has been a pillar of the RTS genre since its first release back in 1997. Its parent company, Ensemble Studios, built up an enormous franchise, spanning 3 games, several expansions, and many spin-offs. After Ensemble closed, however, things were looking grim for the series. Microsoft still held the rights to any sequels, and many fans were worried that MS would pawn it off to a second-rate developer. But out of the Ensemble's ashes came its successor: Robot Entertainment. Together with Gas Powered Games, the two studios created the next iteration of the Age of Empires Series. But it would not be AoE 4 as many were anticipating. Instead, it would create AoE Online, an amalgamation of the setting of the first Age of Empires with the gameplay of the second. Attempting to capitalize on the newly emerging casual market, the game features cartoony graphics and an overarching "home city" that players can customize, and gives benefits to the actual RTS battles.

First you must pick your civilization. As of now, only the Greeks and Egyptians have been released. Both are fairly similar in terms of units and buildings, but the biggest difference is that the Egyptians have more units that are generally weaker than the Greeks, and are more focused on temples.

The Overarching Metagame

This section basically describes everything in the game that is not an RTS battle. This is the overarching "capital city", items system, and quest map that loosely pastes the missions together.

The first area you will arrive in after you select your civilization is your home city. It is here where you acquire your first quests, purchase and apply items to your troops and buildings, unlock new features on the tech tree, craft items from raw resources, send mail to friends, and start a PvP match with players in your party. It is the hub of your activities in the game, and you will be visiting it quite often.

The questing system is pretty straightforward. You get a quest from someone, go out into the world map, and go do it (usually in the form of a typical RTS battle). When you have completed it, you return for your reward, which usually contains at least some experience points and gold. XP is used for leveling up your entire civilization (there are a total of 40 levels), and each level you gain gives you some points to spend on your tech tree, as well as giving you access to better items. Gold is used to buy things at stores, ranging from arrows to equip your archers with, to new buildings for your capital city. Other rewards can include treasure chests that contain a random piece of loot, "points" that can be used in certain cities for powerful items, and sometimes you can even get a very powerful piece armor or weapon to arm your units with.

Items are a big part of Age of Empires Online. Some give extra damage, some give extra health, and some give odd stats like line-of-sight bonuses, or protection from ranged attacks. Advisors give you added help, by decreasing the cost of farms, or allowing you to train units. Items are a cool way to customize your units, but they do have one significant snag. All of the items come in 4 different varieties: common, uncommon, rare, and epic. Non-paying players cannot use rare and epic items, so they will always be at a disadvantage when facing someone who pays for the game (known as a "premium" member). Also, only players with premium accounts are allowed to use advisors. This means that some units, like the Greek Somatophylax will be permanently out of reach for those without premium.

Initially, much of the game will be unavailable to you. To unlock it, you must spend tech points at your capital city to gain the ability to use things such as buildings, units, and upgrades. It is another feature that adds customization to the game, but like items, it too comes with its own problems. For starters, much of the early levels will come down to derping around with basic tier units. Things such as awesome Hippikons and Ballistae are hidden behind high level barriers. You'll have to earn the right to use those awesome things you see in YouTube videos. In addition, all of the "star techs", things that give permanent, global boosts are unavailable to free loaders.

Crafting is fairly basic. You get a crafting school, stick some resources in, and something processed comes out. Unfortunately, there are TONS of crafting materials, and any one item wants only 2 or 3 types of them. This adds up to a lot of wasted inventory space, and for players without premium accounts who can only have 2 warehouses, this can be problematic.

After you have completed a few quests in your capital city, you are thrown out into the rest of the world. There are many different towns you can go to, and each of them have their own form of "points" that can be used in one certain city, and ONLY that city (for example, Sparta points can only be used in Sparta). You can also visit another players city to see if they have a certain item for sale that you desire. That is about the extent of the MMO portion of this MMORTS. If you wanted something with a persistent world that you battled your neighbors in, this is not that game.

But for some reason this game brings a detrimental amount of baggage with the online element. You are constantly reminded that this is indeed a game associated with Microsoft, and you are forced to use the ever infamous Games for Windows Live. You also must be connected to the internet AT ALL TIMES. Even a flicker of your connection immediately throws you out of the current game. This applies to single player games too (and it really, REALLY shouldn't). I have a fairly good connection (one that can play Starcraft 2 with no lag), but I was surprised to see that occasionally it would drop for a few seconds here and there. Even though I can play other games without lag, I have been ejected from this game more than 10 times simply because it only takes a picosecond without internet for AoE Online to throw a tantrum. Even if you think you have a good connection, there is a very real possibility that you don't. There is no grace period. There is no option to reconnect. There is no mercy.

Overall, this overarching metagame brings just as many flaws as it does bonuses. Customization seems good at first, but you'll soon find it only becomes cool when you are at a sufficiently high level to use it. Until then, the inability to use some basic things such as stables, archers, and siege weapons without dumping research points into them seems... smothering. Combine this with the very limited MMO portion of the MMORTS, and a completely stupid internet connection rule, and this entire area gets a 3/10 (Bad)

Campaign RTS Battles

The meat of any RTS game is... the real time strategy of course! Once you have received your quest, you will go to a map that plays like any old AoE game. You gather resources (food, wood, stone, and gold in this game), construct buildings, create your army, and steamroll from one end of the map to the other.

Gathering resources is fairly easy. Simply get a citizen and click on a resource and they will harvest it. There are also some special ways to get the goods. You can build farms for food, and send caravans between a market and a town center to generate gold. This game differs from Age of Empires 3 in the fact that your citizens have to drag resources to a warehouse now, so strategically placing them becomes a priority. You still get population from building houses, but now you have to build 3 extra city centers to reach your max population limit of 200 (houses only get you to 140 as long as you have 1 city center). Finally, the game still has ages (4 of them) that you'll need to advance through to get those higher tech units.

Armies are familiar to anyone who has played an RTS game. You have traditional strengths and weaknesses (spear beats horse, horse beats archer) as well as siege units. There are sea units that can battle each other for naval supremacy, and bombard the coast to give an important edge. Even with its cartoony style, AoE Online basically plays like any other RTS out on the market. Strategy is still important, and it is pretty dang fun towards the end when you are killing off your hopeless enemies.

So it's fun toward the end... but what about the beginning or middle of missions? To their credit, the developers did a great job differentiating the objectives. In some, you must recover some huts. In another, you might have to save some refugees. Finally, you might have to simply destroy your enemy. The problem arises that each mission (with a few camel racing exceptions) starts out almost exactly the same. Make citizens gather food, advance to age 2, build troops to avoid being rushed, build more citizens, advance to age 3, advance to age 4, build army, upgrade army, destroy enemy. No matter the objective, in a huge majority of the campaign battles, this is how the game plays out. Sometimes you do it with sea units, other times you don't destroy the enemy (because you are assigned to defend), but still, almost every game plays like the last with a frustrating sense of deja vu. There simply is no reason to make an early attack when your enemies have pre-created cities, complete with walls, guard towers, and fortresses.

Problems don't stop there unfortunately. Unit pathing is particularly inept, and units are apt to get stuck in trees or buildings. Caravans seem woefully unprepared for use in the game, as they will faceplant into another caravan going the opposite direction. It is often prudent to build at least 2 markets simply to avoid the inefficiency created by poor pathing. Also, using the attack-move feature (a staple in any RTS game) is quite tricky. Sometimes your men will all stop to attack a redoubtable farm while being pelted by arrows, while other times you can witness in horror as your entire legion of spearmen chases after a single citizen, leaving your archers undefended and exposed to marauding cavalry. Yet another problem is the lack of formations. In specific, there is nothing that tells your units to spread out to avoid area-of-affect damage. Many players will find themselves bewildered when they realize the ubiquity of units with aoe damage towards the end of the game. In more than one instance I have been defeated simply because my soldiers were unable to spread out to aptly counter a horde of rampaging elephants.

Also, artificial intelligence, never great in any RTS admittedly, is a great load of garbage. More than a few times I saw enemy villagers come precariously close to my base to collect some food, apparently oblivious to the fact that it had plenty of berry patches next to its base, and not comprehending that my fortress RIGHT NEXT TO THEM was slicing through their unarmored flesh with alarming efficacy. It can show occasional bursts of insight when it harasses your villagers with a raiding party, but this is only possible through ample cheating. Not only does it have a significant resource bonus, but the AI also gets a chance for each of its units to become "elite", granting them substantially increased attack and defense.

As some form of redemption, you can opt to do some of the quests with an ally through co-op mode. There aren't any more enemies for your newfound numerical advantage, but simply getting a good co-op partner is quite difficult. You can wait for hours in matchmaking for someone to join, and then find out they are someone 20 levels below you. They then proceed to simply steal all of your resources while creating exceptionally weak units that can only be described as being worse than cannon fodder.

And the text based chronicles that make up the plot line aren't exactly going to get nominated for being an epic story that keeps us on the edges of our seats...but this is an RTS game, so who really cares?

Altogether, the campaign can be described as having a plethora of problems throughout, but at least being fun and tactical towards the end of a match. At the moment, there seems to be a decided lack of missions for those in the 35-40 level range, so grinding quests seems to be the only way to get through the last part of the game. This gets a 5/10 (Below Average)

Multiplayer RTS Battles

I scoffed when I heard that this game aspired to competitive play. But like any game today (especially one catering to the online community), there must be a way to assert our hegemony over our anonymous adversaries by the manipulation of various avatars that inevitably lead to the destruction of our enemy's empires (that sentence sounded incredulously idiotic).

Wisecracking alliteration aside, multiplayer battles start out like any campaign match. You have a handful of citizens that you must use to gather resources, advance through the ages, build an army, and crush all resistance. It is very simple, and could be fun, if not for its critical flaws.

The time it takes to find a matchmade game can be very long, but once you actually find one your woes are not over. The likelihood that they have different tiers of equipment or they are a different level is demoralizingly high. Simply finding a fair match seems almost impossible. Stomps simply aren't fun forever, especially when you're on the receiving end. Once the majority of players get to the end of the game and are able to compete with one another, we could see this game shine. However, this will make it almost impossible for anyone under the max level to compete at all. Also, if you're a non-paying member, matchmaking takes this into account when it places you against premium members. Essentially, you will be rated lower than them to compensate for your lack of items, but because there are so few people playing right now, you are likely to get thrown into the fray with whomever is playing, regardless of whether it is at all fair or not.

Essentially, PvP could be good sometime in the distant future. It certainly isn't right now. 3/10 (Bad)

Economic Style

Everyone knew this was coming. Perhaps the most controversial issue that people have with this game is how they have to pay for it. In the age where League of Legend's pricing model has been proven to work (to a level that surprised many), gaming companies have been charging in to the fray to capture a new microtransaction market. Age of Empires Online is not technically following this trend (it leans more towards macrotransaction) but it does keep one key feature of the new era: the ability to pay for exactly what you want, and nothing more.

Because of this, Microsoft has been "forced" to increase the price of its game to compensate for everyone not exactly jumping on the bandwagon for 5 dollar Bountiful Bushes. But let me make one thing very clear before I start complaining: THE $100 SEASON PASS IS NOT THE STANDARD PURCHASE! It has been truly discombobulating to watch so many people complain over something that is obviously not intended as the typical transaction. It is only for people who really like the game, and want all that fluffy decorative crap.

The area I take issue with is the cost of single civilizations. Sure, if you're only paying $20 dollars for one premium civilization then you're making a killing. But if you end up wanting to play both the Egyptians and the Greeks (and whoever else may come out) then you'll discover that their campaigns are fairly similar in the beginning, and almost exactly the same towards the end. Combine this with similar units and buildings whose main difference is a measly sprite change, and you may feel a bit ripped off.

But the biggest infraction this game violates is with just how much it wants you to buy premium. I mean it REALLY wants $20, and it does some dirty things to get you to do so. Do you want these awesome purple epic items that you legitimately won off of the corpses of your enemies? Well guess what. YOU CAN'T HAVE THEM! Unless, of course, you were to make a small donation of 20 dollars. Have you been eyeing those advisors? With a small sum of 20 dollars they can all be yours. Until then, Symatophylax Commander Steve shall be locked up behind an iron padlock. You don't want Symatophylax Steve to be locked up, do you? You're a good person! Just $20 please. Advisors. Rare and Epic Items. Ranked PvP. Additional crafting schools, warehouses, and workshops. All tantalizingly laid out in front of you, but just out of reach. The issue is with just how the game acts about it.

Some people have stated that "even though some players don't have access to the best items, it isn't pay-to-win, it is one huge trial that you can play indefinitely." There is some truth to this statement, because you can technically get all the way to level 40 without paying a single Microsoft Point, but in the end AoE Online is crippled unless you buy premium. And as for the argument that it is a trial, not a P2W, I counter by citing that this game has been specifically promoted as "play for free". If you plan to not draw out some money, it may seem fine at first, but towards the end, you'll discover that you are playing a ghost of a game.

I've also heard that Microsoft has screwed up currency exchange rates. For example, what costs $100 in America would cost the equivalent of $138 in Sweden. If you live in a non American country, you may want to be wary of being ripped off by improper prices.

So yes you can pay for what you want, but it will cost quite a bit. And yes you can play for free, but this game does its best to make you feel quite guilty for doing so. 3/10 (Bad)

Conclusion

To sum it all up, this is a game with a good core (end gameplay) that is detracted by intrusive and unnecessary online features, bad PvP, and borderline ridiculous begging for you to buy premium. My suggested action would be this: don't put money into this game for now unless you really, REALLY like it. It's not going anywhere, and it could pull off what League of Legends did, and dramatically improve as time goes on. Save your funds until it is clear what this game will do. End of Nations will be released sometime relatively soon, and it promises to be the largest budget MMORTS to date. With that behemoth in the picture, little critters such as AoE Online could easily die off. With a lack of skirmish mode (among other things), it remains to be seen if this game can do a complete 180 and rise from the ashes, or if it is doomed to be the end of an era. Either way, it isn't going anywhere, so be conservative and enjoy (if you can) the free to play content for now.

Pros:
-Fun late game
-Some customization elements can be entertaining
-Pay for what you want
-Potential to become good... at some uncertain point in the distant future

Cons:
-Bad PvP system
-MUST have an internet connection at all times
-Monotonous campaign as you progress
-Customization options can become smothering early on
-Games for Windows Live
-Most missions start the same
-Really wants your money
-No skirmish, formations, quests from levels 35-40
-Potential to die off (playerbase has already been decreasing)

Final Score: 4/10 (Poor)


Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 09/06/11, Updated 09/14/11

Game Release: Age of Empires Online (US, 08/16/11)


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