It can't be easy, stepping into somebody else's shoes. For many PC gamers, especially the strategy fans, the Age of Empires series was one of those iconic PC Gaming franchises. It was fun, it was engaging, and it left a lasting impression on us all. With the closure of Ensemble Studios - the original developers, it seemed for a while that there wasn't going to be any more... and then Age of Empires: Online was announced.
Defence of Crete is one of the premium content packs they have lined up
With its changed art style, new developers (twice fold, considering Robot Entertainment mysteriously left the project) and it's pure focus on online play, it's understandable old-school fans are nervous. The main fear is that it's just going to be a Facebook-game with no soul, and to be fair the art style doesn't do much to dissuade that, but once you get into the game and start playing around with it, you'll soon realise that is not the case. Chris Taylor wants Age of Empires: Online to be the answer to the question "what next for RTS?" and who knows, maybe it will be.
Age of Empires: Online takes the core single-player experience, with expanded PvP, and tries to apply the more long-lasting MMO formula to it. Instead of an 'avatar', you have a whole civilisation. This levels up as you get experience points, and as you up in the levels, you unlock new techs, new abilities, and you can grow and expand it to help you out in other areas of the game. With the range of options available, it's possible to tailor your civilisation so that even two of the same would be unique. You level up by mainly doing single player missions - which can vary from resource collection to wiping out enemies, to other more 'unique' scenarios that you will have seen in the AoE games of old.
The first few levels can be a bit slow, because they're mainly tutorial focused, which is understandable. Anyone who wishes to skip this phase can actually purchase 'Pro' civilisations that start at Level 20 and have all the perks and associated features, and you can go on from there. At the moment other forms of gameplay include Co-op, Trading and PvP. At the moment there is basic PvP in the beta but that's getting completely revamped with the introduction of the 'Sparta' game area. There will be 1v1 and 2v2 matches, along with ranked matches and ladders come launch.
Most of this is vanity, but level up hire enough and you can make your Civilisation city look as grand as Rome herself
Co-op is a rather simple affair of simply forming a party and doing missions together - some are specifically highlighted as being co-op missions, and some aren't... at the moment it looks like this isn't really going to be any fun until you get out of the first ten levels or so, as even the co-op missions don't really need a second person. GPG have plans however for content packs that would be good for co-op - the Defence of Crete for example. This is one of their content packs that's basically an RTS version of 'Hoard' mode, where you need to defend your base for as long as possible. It's highly customizable - you can set the number of waves and difficulty, and it can also be done co-operatively.
Trading is both a simple and complex affair. Age of Empires: Online has loot - items which you equip to units and buildings to help augment their stats in missions, but it also has production resources that help you build civilisation buildings. There are also miscellaneous things like advisors and special items as well, blueprints etc... all of which can be traded through the in-game economy. Again the beta version is a little basic at the moment, but there are plans to revamp that as well. There's also different kinds of currency like gold, different kind of points... not sure at the moment if you'll be able to trade in all currencies or just gold. So there's many kind of items with a variety of uses, but trading itself at the moment is a simple exchange affair.
It's hard to make a judgement call at this point - the beta is enjoyable enough, in fact we're rather enjoying how much it feels like old school Age of Empires, and the added online infrastructure is proving interesting to explore. A lot is still missing though, or due for a revamp, or even marked for separate packs that you have to purchase. With both free and premium options available, we get the feeling that this isn't going to be that enjoyable playing for free, at least not in the long term. People who are able to play should find plenty to keep them occupied though, and the beauty of the business model means they only buy what content interests them.
YOU. SHALL NOT. PASS!
There's clearly a lot of potential in this game, but strangely it's potential that will only be seen once the game has been launched. We're not sure how many Civs will be available at the beginning, but the Greek and the Egyptians are definitely there, and there will also be a 'Pro' Civilization available very soon after launch as well. In addition to the handful of content packs they've already got lined up, there should be plenty to get started. There's no news on pricing or release dates yet, but there is an announcement regarding that information coming May 31st.
Most Anticipated Feature:Just returning to the old-school Age of Empires II gameplay.