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The Casualization of a Classic - An Opinion on Age Of Empires Online

Updated Tue, May 24, 2011 by Stow

The Age of Empires series is taking the fight online and introducing a slew of new elements, most of which we've touched on in our recent preview.  A persistent city, a talent system that enables or disables certain units or upgrades, and a whole bunch of elements resembling other recent online offerings such as League of Legends have been introduced and what’s the end result?

An RTS that you’ll have to play 20 hours or more in order to actually unlock enough to be competitve or even diverse.

Why is this a badly designed game from a casual perspective?

Let’s first talk about what you start out with.  After doing a few basic missions you can use basic economy units and structures, and one ground unit, the Spearman.  Slowly you’ll unlock units as your main city levels up with progressively more difficult quests.  I say progressively more difficult, but the actual difficulty is absolutely negligible.  I am a veteran to AoE and RTS games in general, so I expect a breeze, but the computer doesn’t attack, responds to scouts with villagers chasing units across the map to melee them, and is pretty much broken.  When your objective is to harvest 1000 gold or whatever, that’s great…  if you enjoy playing SimCity with your empire.  I don’t’ even remember feeling remotely threatened until City Level 20 or so, and that’s a long ways away for new players!

The Main City resembles little more than a Facebook game.  Hell if you're not killing deer and building Hoplites on the battlefield, the whole game feels like it should be on Facebook.

But what’s the fun in playing SimCity when you don’t even have all of the available zones to place in your town?   You’ll build research buildings and not even have critical research upgrades available to you in-game unless you spend points in your City Tech Tree.  This 'unlocking' carries over to your entire empire.  Everything from economic upgrades to unit upgrades to the damn units themselves has to be rationed and purchased in the tech tree.  To make matters worse, if you want to specialize at all, it begins to cost even more.  So early on you'll be extremely limited, and that will carry on for some time.  Your first 5-10 hours of gameplay will be a super simplistic economy fest of just making villagers and producing enough resources to a) finish the mission outright or b) mass produce enough basic units to steamroll the opponent.

Even the objectives are downright silly.  “Defend your Ally” amounts to just building a few towers and walls and going for a walk while the enemy fruitlessly throws units at them, until you’re well into your teens and start using/coming up against siege units.  Hell, you can even tower rush your opponent to death before they can pose a threat to you or your ally.  A lot of the economic missions are seemingly random maps with numeric goals.  There’s no incentive to go out of your way to find treasure camps either, since you can do it after the mission is completed at your leisure before you exit to the world map.

And why won’t the serious RTS player care for it?

Balancing an RTS is incredibly difficult.  Take say, a marine from Starcraft, that has 40 HP and shoots for 6 damage.  Now you can expect a certain level of offense and durability from said unit with these numbers.  Since AoE Online has an equipment/item system that enables you to modify units greatly, how can you expect to balance a unit when anyone at max level can equip them with gear that can increase their overall effectiveness 200% if they so desire?  Add in the fact that you can’t see your opponent’s gear or tech tree choices before the match and you’ll see a lot of all-in style strategies revolving around decked out units that are powerful to the point of defeating their counters unless they are similarly geared.    This is no fun to play with, nor is it fun to play against, and having this random element of items is going to kill the competitive spirit of the game.  While rushing and various other types of 'cheese' strategies have been around since the dawn of the genre, there are counters.  

The unlocking aspect is also downright poisonous to a competitive community.  While Microsoft has announced that a ‘pro premium civilization’ can be purchased with near full access to anything, why should anyone have to slog through the single player aspect if they just want to kick some ass?  Not having access to crucial units or upgrades to said units can cost you a match if an enemy is using a strategy you're unprepared for, and I don't mean in game.  You have to prepare for this stuff before you see it, and it's depressing until you're level 40 which is the maximum.

As E-Sports continues to gain momentum, this game will be left in the dust for one simple reason—It’s boring to watch.   Since you start with a super-tower in your Town Center (even with no garrison!) rushing is a fool’s errand and you have to wait until at least the second age in order to make a worthwhile attack.  With the graphical elements of gear being very slight, it’ll also be hard for the viewer to tell how the situation or battle will actually play out.  Spectators will have a hard time knowing when to cheer for a comeback when they don't know if it's possible!

Perhaps I’m giving too harsh of a take on a game that the NDA was just lifted on, but there’s little to get excited about in the new Age of Empires.  Nothing it does is remotely interesting or new to the series, and the graphics are arguably a step back.  Could this game turn it around and gain a worthy single player, while losing the grind to actually being able to fight strategically in multiplayer? 

I’ll be keeping my eye on this one, but you should be wary that you might be disappointed.  This is a franchise reboot to introduce new players , that might totally turn off those of us that have followed Age of Empires since the 90’s.

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