Age Of Empires Online resembles a growing civilization. It’s filled with a mix of promise and problems, and has ambitious goals. Only time will tell how successful it will be, but it seems to have the potential to become something great.
The re-launch of the classic real-time strategy series is a strange hybrid between RTS and MMO. Each player controls a city of either Greeks or Egyptians, with more civilizations due out this fall. Your main city and other cities scattered throughout the world map offer quests, which play out like classic Age Of Empires missions. Objectives range from saving a city from siege using a limited number of units, to rescuing a potential ally’s family by building an army and killing all the units holding them captive. Completing quests rewards you with experience points, leveling up your capital city, which in turn grants you tech points you can use to unlock new units and structures, or improve existing ones. You can also be rewarded with gear, which you assign to improve the looks and stats of all your units of a certain type.
Many quests allow cooperative play, but it’s an odd experience. The player who makes the group plays the level much like they would if they were doing it solo. The second player starts off controlling a subsidiary gathering base, where they must build up the structures and forces to help their ally. If there are any special units associated with the mission, only the primary player gets them. At the same time, the second player is left unmolested even if part of the challenge is meant to be that your base is regularly under attack. The result is that teaming up makes any quest easier, though getting two big forces together can cause serious lag.
PvP is the most disappointing aspect of the game. Paying players can compete against anyone they’re in a group with. Everyone else is forced to deal with the matching system, which connects players of approximate level but has no way of grouping by skill or gear and there’s no map customization.
Like any good freemium game, Age of Empires Online offers plenty to do without paying, but is constantly encouraging you to upgrade. The best gear can only be used by premium civilizations, and paying players also get access to more quests and rated PvP. Microsoft is promising a constant stream of new content available for additional fees. Whether those upgrades are worth it will largely depend on how the community develops. Age Of Empires Online offers a strong foundation, but no civilization thrives alone.