A MMO for the RTS fan in all of us...
Posted 1 year ago By teamgf - Team GF
Since the free-to-play and freemium games became very trendy, we have seen developers try this formula with many different genres, including online shooters, MMORPGs, and even racers. However, before Age of Empires Online came out this month, the Real-Time Strategy (RTS) genre had been largely untouched by this new shift in the industry. This might be due to the fact that strategy games are, by nature, rather complicated, which is not exactly how you would like to describe your product if you were trying to sell it to a large audience. Hence, to fit this new market, AoE Online had to go through a simplification process. The result of this transformation is not necessarily bad, but chances are that it will not appeal strongly to the longstanding fans of the series.
The best way to describe the structure of the game is to compare it to a MMORPG, with your civilization being your character and traditional RTS scenarios or missions being the quests. After you have chosen your civilization (only the Greeks and the Egyptians are available at the moment), you complete different quests or PvP matches to obtain experience that allows you to level up your capital city. Leveling is essential: not only does it unlock new units and upgrades that you can then use during matches, but it also determines the age to which you can upgrade your civilization during a mission. Completing quests will also reward you with items that you can equip on each individual unit type or building to improve their effectiveness. After each mission, you return to your capital city to gather new quests, buy and equip items and spend technology points if you have earned any by levelling up. There is also a craft system that lets you create equipment pieces and consumables to use in-game.
This progression system does exactly what it is supposed to be doing: it sucks you in. You constantly find yourself wanting to unlock a new military unit or a new upgrade that will in turn help you complete even more missions. Since you can equip three or four items to each of your units or buildings, it also means that you have dozens and dozens of item slots to fill with increasingly better gear, so it is virtually impossible to reach a point where improvement is no longer possible.
While this whole RPG-style progression is very different from the other AoE games, the actual RTS gameplay is very similar to the first entry in the series. You start most of the scenarios with a town center, a scout and a few villagers, and then have to collect different types of resources while advancing your civilization from one age to another. Those who have played the first two Age of Empires titles will feel right at home. While those who are nostalgic for the series’ debut may see this similarity as a plus, veteran RTS players will certainly find that the game does not live up to modern standards in terms of gameplay depth and controls. Yes, most units are stronger against a certain type of opponent, but the controls and pathfinding are so deficient that as soon as an army contains more than a few soldiers, it becomes impossible to micromanage them in order to make sure that they are fighting the proper enemy.
Sometimes, those problems really bring the fun factor down. Since the interface is oversimplified, you often find yourself in a position where there is just no way to order your units to do exactly what you want them to do. A simple example: there is a “hold ground” button, but units in this stance will not attack, so if you want your archers to stand their ground and fire at enemies from this position, you can’t do it. Pathfinding is probably an even worse problem, with any sizeable army becoming very hard to operate. During our extensive testing of the game, we’ve seen countless soldiers getting killed by towers while our siege weapons were stuck somewhere in the middle of our army, unable to get to the buildings. During a quest it may not be such a large issue, but in a PvP game, it can easily make the difference between a victory and a defeat.
There are a few other elements that make “questing” not as interesting as it could be, with terrible computer AI on top of the list. Enemies seem to be unable to set up a coordinated attack against a player’s base, and their villagers wander the map mindlessly, happily trying to gather resources even if those resources happen to be in the range of your towers. Sadly, (or maybe hopefully, considering how bad the AI is at keeping its villagers alive) it seems like computer-controlled civilizations have an infinite amount of resources, so they will keep producing combat units regardless of your efforts to cut their income.
The poor and unaggressive AI makes the game way too easy, a problem that the developers have tried to compensate for by including an elite difficulty level for some of the quests. This elite mode, however, does not make the AI smarter nor more aggressive, it just makes your opponent’s units ridiculously stronger, which only ends up being frustrating, not tactically sound. It’s hard to believe that some people thought that it would be a good idea to have a mode in which a villager can kill a war elephant by itself.
There is a great variety of quests, but not all of them are exciting. There are many challenges that will ask you to collect resources or build a certain amount of farms before time runs out. Considering that there aren’t even any enemies on the map in those missions, one can imagine how they can quickly become tedious and dull.
By now, the reader might be wondering what exactly the Online part of the title is for and, in fact, the answer would be: not very much. When playing, there is always a chat box at the bottom, left of the center, which allows the players to look for trading partners or PvP opponents. In addition, most missions can be played cooperatively, a nice feature which brings an appreciated change of pace. Still, in the end, one may very well level up their civilization all the way to the cap without ever interacting with any other player.
Presentation-wise, AoE Online clearly took the mainstream road, with cartoony graphics and a minimalist approach to the soundtrack. Whether or not the players will appreciate the new visual style depends on individual tastes, but objectively the game looks pretty good, even on an average machine. Units are easy to distinguish from one another, and there are some nice humorous touches, such as the villagers carrying giant steaks when they’re collecting food from animals. The soundtrack consists of discrete music and shy sound effects. It fits the more casual feel of the game, but it does not really contribute to immersion.
Pay for what you want
Now with the burning question: how much do you have to pay to be able to enjoy the game? Players who do not pay anything will have access to a surprising amount of content. They can choose to play any of the civilizations and bring them up to half of the 40 levels available, have access to almost all of the quests and play unranked PvP. However, to fully enjoy their experience, players need to pay $20 to unlock a “premium civilization”, which unlocks all of the content for that civilization. A premium civilization grants access to the best gear and the final tiers of the upgrade tree, and allows the player to customize its city with a council of advisers that is only available to them. It also doubles the level cap and gives the option to play ranked matches.
If you think of Age of Empires Online as a “free” game, you may be disappointed that so much content is reserved for premium players. However, if you see it the other way, once you’ve bought a civilization for $20, you can fully enjoy it without paying anything more. Like the publisher Microsoft Game Studios rightfully claims, “the game will not microtransact you to death”. In addition to the two premium civilizations, you can currently purchase the launch bundle, which includes both civilizations and the Defense of Crete Booster Pack, a defend-yourself-from-waves-of-opponents game mode (it can also be purchased on its own for $10). Considering that you get at least 30 hours of gameplay per civilization, those prices are more than reasonable.
There are other items in the store, but their interest is... questionable. Statues, trees and other decorations for your capital are available at the exaggerated price of $5. It’s also possible to buy a six-months pass that gives you access to all of the content for the next six months for only... $100. This price tag is way too high, but at least it means that a lot of content will be released for the game in the coming months.
Age of Empires Online is by no mean a breakthrough in the RTS genre. Veteran players of games such as StarCraft, Supreme Commander or even Age of Empires III will most likely find that it lacks the depth of its bretheren. Still, in spite of its abysmal AI and other design flaws, AoE Online has a certain appeal, thanks to its interesting progression. For some players, the game will work just like a MMORPG: questing may not always be exciting, but the reward system will keep them coming back. The most hardcore players, however, will probably perceive it as a lackluster RTS with a sweet coating.
Review provided by Maxime Pelletier, via our French sister-site, Game-Focus.com
+ Lots of value for civilizations
+ Looks great even on old machines
- AI is truly terrible
- Bad pathfinding and poor controls can ruin the experience
- Game is too easy on normal and elite mode is frustrating
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Release Date : 2011/08/16
System : PC
Publisher : Microsoft Game Studios
Developer : Gas Powered Games
Category : MMO
ESRB : E10+
7.0 / 10
8.5 / 10
8.0 / 10
8.7 / 10