Age of Empires Hands-On Preview
Age of Empires Online revisits the classic PC franchise with online persistence and a completely new presentation. How does the new caricatured, connected, and casual-friendly version of the game play, especially to hardcore RTS fans? Find out in our Age of Empires Online Preview.
Age of Empires I and II were my StarCraft. Maybe it didn’t have the eSports clicks-per-minute potential, maybe the sequels lost a lot of their former glory in the mid-aughts, but if you found cigar-huffing spacemen ridiculous and insectoid swarms unappealing, AoE might have been your RTS of choice.
So if you, like me, spent a sizeable chunk of your formative years playing the Age of Empires games, with all of their flawlessly pseudo-historical RTS gameplay and inexplicable sound effects and voiceovers (I can still hear the priest’s “lululu”, indicating that one of my units was about to be converted, and it still gives me the chills), then you’ve probably glanced at Age of Empires Online. Glanced and, perhaps, shook your head, figuring that the graphics showed the joint effort of The Robot Entertainment and Gas Powered Games to be a cuddly, casual, kid-targeted take on one of our most beloved franchises.
It’s a phase some of my favorite franchises seem to be going through lately. The vaunted Civilization series went through its Civilization Revolution thing, and now Age of Empires gets a caricatured continuation. In its previous iterations, Age of Empires was one of the most photo-realistic RTS games, dodging the bright-palette of Starcraft and the Command and Conquer and Sudden Attack series in favor of the browns and greens familiar to turn-based strategy players. Deer carcasses and human corpses lay in pools of bright red, and the violent gameplay had a gritty yet surprisingly historical bent, especially if we exclude priests and that whole detour into Age of Mythology.
In Age of Empires Online, however, a bright palette and cartoony representations of units return in force. The art style isn’t outright silly, but if you enjoyed the Anno series, culminating in Dawn of Discovery, you’ll notice certain similarities. I don’t want to minimize the effort put into these graphics – they’re well crafted. Yet, at first glance, they’re not Age of Empires. At least, that’s was my first impression. That said, if grognards like me can get past the cartoonish art, we’d find that Age of Empires Online is absolutely an AoE game at heart, complete with the expertly paced gameplay and enjoyable complexity of its forbearers.
The Eternal City - Adding Online Persistence to an RTS Classic
Age of Empires Online utilizes the same sort of hub and instance / interactive lobby style familiar to players of Dungeons & Dragons Online, and the occasional online shooter (APB, for example). Your player city is never actually involved in combat, but it doubles as your avatar, your quest springboard, PvP lobby, crafting hall, and your trophy case all in one.
When logging into the game for the first time, you’ll pick a civilization and name your city. Of the civs, only Greek was available for beta, but Egyptian is slated to follow at launch, with potential for another. Each civ has unique units - for Greece, this meant powerful infantry and ranged cavalry units. Especially powerful units are available to premium players through the Advisor’s Hall, a premium only building where players collect NPCs like Jason, who in turn allow players to build powerful, resource-intensive units. These units are skillfully woven into the occasional quest to show off their power and, no doubt, help propel players to premium status.
Quests, Loot, Crafting, and Levels
When I had my fill of the city’s eye candy, it was time to try a quest or twenty. Rather than the old campaign – mission progression. Age of Empires Quests came complete with light-hearted names, e.g. “Homer Run,” and brilliantly steps players through increasingly complex unit types and maps. Some even allowed co-op teams of up to two players.
AoEO uses the same Age-based mechanic from the rest of the series – you have to spend resources to move from the bronze age to the iron age (AoEO skips the stone age, and limits the progression for newer players), etc. but are rewarded with more powerful units. AoEO actually breaks down that time-tested scheme further, walking me through basic melee units such as spearmen, clubmen, and (later) , then archery and cavalry units, then (with certain advances made in the tech tree back at my city) sea units and defensive structures.
[protip]On early maps where sea transport isn’t required, you can often win easily with an early rush using a few basic melee units and a horde of villagers. Scout early to see if you can catch your enemy flat-footed and worry about treasure hordes later.[/protip]
The difficulty increased noticeably at level 5, when the enemy began striking back and I was forced to use my accumulated knowledge to mount amphibious assaults and push the population cap to 60+ by building houses. Researching guard towers and wall upgrades made my settlements much more defensible, especially in the handful of PvP matches I tried.
Quests mean loot, and loot takes many forms in Age of Empires Online. Every map has optional objectives – treasures – where players have to wrest a randomized box of loot from its neutral captors. It’s a fun, extra bit of persistence added as a reward for spending a little extra time to explore maps, and the resources you earn enable crafting and building options you wouldn’t normally have without spending substantial coin. Randomized loot chests and equipment pieces are awarded to players by completing the game’s scores of quests, as are gold coin and “Empire Points” – a currency used to purchase higher end crafting recipes and buildings.
Every unit and some buildings can be upgraded through equipment. At city level 6, players can begin crafting pieces like copper siding for ships and a cotton peplon tunic for archers and villagers, but players can also earn these items by questing.
Only two of the available 8 crafting schools can be active at any time, but there’s no penalty to switching. I chose archery and infantry, keeping my options open for construction and religion when Golden Age units became available at level 10, and was quickly able to craft new weapons for my melee units and new cloth armor for my archers with a minimum of lowbie materials like animal hides, pine planks, and copper ingots. Some of these materials are manufactured by special buildings in the player city: a sawmill produces wood and a quarry produces stone, for example. These buildings must be emptied into your warehouse, Farmville style, about once per day or production will shut down.
Back in my player city, peevishly named Agora, I found that all the buildings required for core gameplay come as quest rewards as I leveled, but optional buildings – such as warehouses to increase inventory capacity and crafting recipe shops – require resources and moderately expensive blueprints to build. You can also move existing buildings around and spend coin on decorations like vases and fountains if you so choose.
The leveling curve seems about on-par with the typical MMORPG – roughly five hours to level 5, 10 additional hours to city level 10, and so on. As my city leveled (with experience points gained by defeating enemies and completing quests), I earned points to spend in the tech tree. Tech tree options are split by Age: Iron Age became available at city level 5, Golden Age at city level 10, and Heroic Age at level 20.
Tech tree advances are divided into three categories – military, economy, and utility. Military and economy trees are just what you’d expect – economy is production units & abilities and sea units, and military is all about combat units. Utility includes upgrade buildings like the Armory and Academy, which allow in-match research of unit upgrades, as well as money making units and buildings such as the Market and Caravan, and defensive structures like the Guard Tower.
An Age-Defying Classic Returns?
Once I shook off the temporary fugue state brought on the game’s tweenage graphics, I found that Age of Empires Online is shaping up to be the kind of massively multiplayer translation of the Age of Empires I was hoping for. On the downside, the trade spam is unearthly, pointing to the fact that this game sorely needs an auctionhouse (and should have one by launch, if the deactivated bazaar in my player city is any indication), and some of the maps tend to devolve into unwinnable battles of attrition against a cheaty computer, but the fun, challenge, and gameplay depth are certainly full of promise. I look forward to progressing through the levels during beta and checking out the Egyptian civ as Age of Empires Online heads toward release later this year.