When I was given the opportunity to review the free-to-play version of this game early in August 2012 I was a bit wary of what it could turn out to be. Despite my reservations, and while it’s no secret that free to play games are ultimately designed to motivate the player into spending money, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Age of Empires Online stands out among the crowd in the way it motivates the player to do so.
This game delivers a free to play experience that leaves the player wanting more by giving them a good taste of what the game has to offer up front. Much like the person handing out free samples of Chinese food at the food court in many malls, Age of Empires Online delivers a sizable morsel to chew on before you make the choice of whether you want to sit down for dinner.
One of the first things that got my attention when I started playing this game was the overall visual presentation. The graphics are entertaining, lightweight in terms of processing requirements and maintain a measure of respectability despite a lack of fine details. When idle villagers are running around haphazardly with their hands high in the air and still others are sparring in old-English style boxing matches, one can’t help but take a moment or two away from their imperialistic ambitions in order to watch cartoons at play.
Yet these distractions were not enough to keep me from noticing that the military units received a lot of care in their design as well. The units and their animations were well drawn, using crisp lines and a color scheme that fit together in a way that made it reasonably easy to see what was happening and when.
The design of both the military and civilian units went well with the background graphics, giving an overall visual presentation that was clean, crisp, lively and able to get the player’s attention without overwhelming them.
Speaking of not being overwhelmed, I’d like to point out that even with 150 or more units on my screen moving as a pack, my lower end graphics card (ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4200 Series) was able to handle the processing load and lag never became a serious issue. This was another pleasant surprise; one which I am happy to say did a lot to eliminate the hardware requirements that have acted as a major barrier to my desire to try out many other games.
One last point worth mentioning about the graphics is that the detail level appears to actually adjust as you zoom in or out. It gives you the most detail when your viewpoint is closest in and the least detail vice-versa. This, in my opinion, is an act of sheer genius, as it really does a lot to create a visual experience that is both pleasing to the eyes and gentle on your GPU (graphical processing unit).
The audio experience doesn’t fall behind either. The background music is lively and will often change to fit your location as well as the pace of your current activities. The sound effects fit well with the events they are associated with and yet are tasteful enough to minimize the harshness often associated with combat-based games. The combination of the two is even better, given that the balance between the music and the sound effects is just right and does not distract from the gameplay as it has in other games I’ve played.
While the audio and visual presentation was enough to get my attention, the gameplay and intuitive control system did, even more, keep it. This game is just flat out fun to play and easy to learn. Whether you want to focus on rushing your opponent(s) early in the game, building structural defenses to protect against that kind of rush or becoming an economic powerhouse that enables you to overwhelm all challengers, you will spend less time learning the game and more time enjoying it thanks to the well thought out tutorial quests and relatively simple control system.
The only real problem I noticed with the control system was that selecting individual units or units of a specific type from within a large group is a little cumbersome. While it is possible to select all nearby units of a certain type by double-clicking on one of them, the game could be noticeably improved by making it easier to select specific types of units from within a large pack of mixed units.
With that having been said, whatever frustration may arise from difficulty in selecting units is reduced by the fact that military units moving as a pack will automatically shift their places in the group so that the brawler units are up front and the not-so-tough units are in the back. Not only does this make selecting units easier, but it saves a massive amount of a headache by removing a lot of what would otherwise be tedious grunt work.
Yet this is perhaps the best that can be said for the AI (artificial intelligence) of the units in the game, friendly or otherwise. One would hope that the AI would ramp up as the player progresses, but sadly this does not appear to be the case. While having enemies which are mostly unable to adapt to your strategy can be a good thing in the tutorial quests, it does not help to create the type of sustainable gaming experience that those who are familiar with RTS or MMO games have come to expect.
Seeing that at its’ core, Age of Empires Online is a combination of these two game genres, it is worth mentioning that it appears to have done a fairly good job of combining certain elements from both worlds. As evidence of this claim, I’d like to point out that the previously mentioned deficit of sustainable RTS gameplay is at least partially offset by the game’s MMO style mechanics.
These mechanics enable players to choose from multiple civilizations that have different strengths and weaknesses. They can further customize their strategies by gaining levels, which will add to their available units and structures, as well as by adding equipment, which can add bonuses to all that is under their command.
Customization such as this enables the player to tackle previous quests they may have had difficulty with by using new units, or by using strategies that were previously unavailable to them due to a lack of bonuses from equipment. It also allows them to revisit some previously finished quests that have been re-forged into their “elite” versions. While all this is fine and good, in the end, the MMO style mechanics will not be enough to prevent the more advanced players from developing a thirst for something more from the game.
Sadly that thirst will not be satisfied through the game’s storyline, or even through the many visual customization options that are available. At best the storyline is barely there, and in my opinion, there are better games to play if one is going to be strongly dedicated to working for visual customization. This is simply not a game that will manage to enthrall its audiences with stunning visuals or gripping character development, so if it is to have any serious longevity, there must be something else that keeps the player’s attention.
This is normally the point where the PvP (Player versus Player) aspect of RTS and MMO style games comes in, except that in the free version of Age of Empires Online, the PvP matchmaker appears to be rather inept at arranging even a quick 1v1 game, never mind the 2v2 or 4FFA (free for all) options. Even worse, while one is waiting 15 minutes or more for a match to get started they can do nothing else in the game. They must simply sit there and watch the matchmaking screen without even the slightest indication of the average wait time or any other way to know if or when the game will get started.
In the paid version, more PvP options are available, and judging by what I have read on the forums it appears to have the normal features one would expect in competitive gameplay, including long rants about imbalances between certain units, alliances, etc. Oddly enough, such rants are often a good indication that players care enough about the game they are playing to stick with it and try to help with the “fine-tuning” of the game.
While this is not proof that the paid PvP experience is without legitimate problems, one ought to be far more concerned with a game when large portions of the player base think that engaging in discussion about PvP balance is a complete waste of time and the game is beyond repair. Clearly, this is not the case with Age of Empires Online, so it stands to reason that there is something about the paid PvP experience that keeps players coming back for more.
If the player isn’t PvP oriented, they will still reach a point in the game where they encounter a double meaning of the phrase “the buck stops here”. They will find a large number of items in their inventory that they have accumulated in their previous quests that they must purchase a “premium civilization” in order to use. As the player progresses in levels and the quests become more difficult, the inability to use these items will become a genuine hindrance to their efforts.
To a minor extent, this can be overcome in some quests through the game’s co-op mode which enables multiple players to work together in trying to achieve the same goals. Unfortunately, this is at best delaying the inevitable. At some point, the rubber hits the road and the player will need to make a choice about paying for the game, continuing in mediocrity, or finding something else to do.
Before I come to a conclusion about the free to play version of Age of Empires Online, there is one pet peeve of mine worth mentioning. RTS games that do not have a save function generally frustrate me and despite everything good I have said about this one, it is no exception in that department. I highly value the ability to save my progress on a quest or mission so I can come back later to start where I had left off before. When life happens and it’s time to get off the computer, I’d like to not have to fret about getting disconnected due to inactivity and thus being forced to start a particular quest or mission all over again.