Age of Empires Online pre-review report

We're not ready for a full verdict yet, but here's what we think so far

We came, we saw, we conquered. And then we needlessly slaughtered our remaining foes while the game's disturbingly cheerful victory music played in the background. Yes, we've been plotting and planning our way through Age of Empires Online, but we're waiting to do a live test before we sign off on a final review. Until then, though, we've got some quick impressions to hold you over.

First things first: Despite the more-colorful-than-box-of-Crayolas art style, this is the Age of Empires you know and love. The four resource types, the variety of unit types, the, you know, ages – it's all here. And it's still as fun as ever. What's new, then, is the MMO-style meta-game wrapper that keeps you coming back over and over and over until, holy crap, when did we grow this spittle-encrusted beard? Oh well, though: decorative cows!

Your central civilization, you see, is persistent. When you're not duking it out with enemy armies, AOEO bears an almost uncanny resemblance to World of Warcraft – of all things. Stop us if you've heard this one before: characters are plagued by the existence of giant glowing exclamation points that constantly hover over their heads, and only you can save them. “Quests” – which take the form of actual Age of Empires matches – reward you with XP and equippable items that buff your armies and structures until you're pulling the strings on a force of Medieval Hulks.

Then there's the experience system, whose roots are inextricably intertwined with the game's robust, multi-tiered talent tree. Once again, it's all persistent, with experience accrued mid-match feeding into your over-arching experience bar. This is also where the addiction begins to take hold. Only one more level until we unlock that awesome new infantry unit, you say? Well, we were going to shave/see a doctor about this debilitating salivary gland issue, but we suppose we can spare another half hour or so. And so on and so on and so on.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg. There are also specific currency types for different cities (which house really cool army bonuses DAMN IT ARGH WANT), temporary items/units that can – when used properly – turn the tide of battle, and Farmville-style real-time farmable resources. You thought AOEO looked kiddy and simple? Nope. That was a trap. For rocket scientists.

OK, it's not as intimidating as it sounds. Actually, AOEO's learning curve is damn near sublime, using early quests to bring you up to speed on everything we just talked about in, oh, an hour tops. It's a lot to really absorb, but by the time we fought our first real large-scale skirmish, we drove our enemies before us and heard the lamentations of their decorative cows. On the downside, unit unlocking and a general difficulty increase take time. In other words, if you tumbled out of the womb with your tiny fingers reaching to meticulously hotkey everything in sight, you might grow a little impatient.

We're hoping to gain a full picture of how all this affects multiplayer after the game goes live. For now, though, it's worrisome. Obviously, different players at your level will have advanced their talent trees differently, and – without proper balance – that could make for some seriously lopsided battles. Again, we'll have a complete review soon.

Also unfortunate is the fact that this is a freemium game, which forces it to pull the occasional microtransaction-based bait-and-switch. Most egregiously, certain options – for instance, select items, talents, and advisors – are only available to “premium civilizations.” So you have to buy, say, Egypt or you can only advance so far.

Finally, Games for Windows Live – PC gaming's perennial scourge – is part of the package. However, it's largely unobtrusive, merely forming the back-end of the experience for the most part. Age of Empires Online is, you know, online, though, and a dropped connection results in the game booting you back to the start screen until the almighty internet gods smile upon you again. So long, quest progress. Any chance we could get that portion of our life back? No? Awww.

Overall, though, AOEO's proven to be an extremely robust offering based on what we've played so far. Oh, and let's not forget that it's free. Its RTS side may not do anything particularly new, but AOEO is an insidiously addictive take on a tried-and-true formula, and we definitely recommend at least giving it a shot.

Aug 16, 2011

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