Updated Wed, May 18, 2011 by Ethec
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.
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.