After taking Age of Empires Online for an initial spin, we briefly removed our strategizing caps and stroking (followed by an audible “Hmmm”) beards to give you our first impressions. The short version? We were pleased with the game's offering of tiny, clickable men and assorted elements lifted right out from underneath World of Warcraft's colossal nose. Now, though, our gushing fountain of praise has dried up a bit. What changed, you ask? Simple: time.
Above: I've got 1... 2... 3... 99 problems! Hah, isn't that - hwablarhgughwhyyyyyy
No doubt about it: Age of Empires Online makes a great first impression. For the low, low price of zero dollars, cents, arms, legs, or firstborn children, you get hours-upon-hours of RTS goodness with a chewy MMO metagame center. We're not kidding about that “center” bit, either. Your persistent city is a massive undertaking rooted in a multi-tiered talent tree, equippable gear, and so many quest-givers that you'll begin to see glowing exclamation points every time you blink. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. For some of the best goodies, you can throw advisors (one per Age) into the mix. Meanwhile, there's also crafting – Farmvillian real-time micromanagement tendencies and all – to consider, seeing as you can mold your materials into all manner of marvelously murderous implements.
And that's not even to say anything of the quests themselves, which gleefully give your favorite bits of the RTS genre's Stone Age a modern makeover. Put simply, if you've played a previous AOE game, you'll be right at home here. Four resources that – presumably through some dark science – come together to give your units life, multiple ages to progress through, and meticulous base-building are all present and accounted for. Really, the only thing that isn't a direct blast from the past is the candy-coated art style. Honestly, we didn't mind it, but if you like your bite-sized battles gritty and worthy of the occasional maniacal cackle, you might feel a bit out of place here.
Above: This, of course, ended with the world's largest group hug, followed by hours spent complimenting each other’s outfits
At first, then, AOEO's a dream come true. It was only after experiencing the wear and tear of long-term battle that we began to see some cracks in its armor. For one, quests start off slow, and – even once they build up steam – fail to really go anywhere interesting. For every one hilariously oddball camel race, there are ten same-y slow-paced battles that require more attrition than anything else.
Also dragging down the ground level experience is some seriously heinous pathfinding AI. Units require constant micromanagement or else they'll break formation, scatter to the winds, and wildly hack their way into an early grave. Let's say you've told your army to attack a specific unit. The second that unit dies, each individual member of your army will then turn their attention to, well, anything really. A couple might go chase down a random peasant while totally ignoring the three men with giant clubs who are pulverizing their kneecaps into a fine powder. Others might charge, say, a house rather than rattle their sabers at the tower that's transformed them into arrow pincushions. Modern RTS games have developed so that your units have a sense of priority. In AOEO, the second you give the leash the tiniest amount of slack, your units make a mad dash into Death's sweet, sweet embrace.
AOEO's MMO side, too, grates over time – especially in regard to PvP. Don't get us wrong: it's an excellent idea, and there are enough items, units, and buffs to unlock that you'll be chomping at the bit to chase that carrot on a stick for quite some time. Predictably, however, it leads to all kinds of multiplayer balance issues. Happily, potentially tide-turning one-and-done items aren't usable in PVP, but talent tree choices and equipped items carry over. The end result? A very mixed bag. We fought our share of matches on even footing, but we also marched to battle against opponents whose units simply steamrolled ours. A good piece of equipment, especially, can be a serious difference-maker, and sometimes there's simply no accounting for that.
Above: Our entire argument for why “Rise of the Planet of the Elephants” would have been a much better (albeit far shorter) movie
That, mind you, is operating under the assumption that you've purchased a premium civilization. If not, well, you might just want to stick to solo questing. Even then, though, AOEO practically taunts you with what you're missing, briefly dangling extra powerful units over your nose and then immediately yanking them away with an “Unlock this unit yourself with a premium civilization!” caveat. But that's hardly all you'll be flushing down ye olde toilet if your miserly ways get the better of you. Free players have no access to advisors, limited equipment and tech tree advancement, and less robust PvP options – among other things. On one hand, AOEO's bevy of quests makes the free route an excellent value, but if you plan on really digging in, premium's your only option.
We must add, however, that – in spite of current warts – we're incredibly interested in watching this game evolve. We imagine balance will be artfully woven into some beautiful shape (perhaps a tasteful ice swan) once a good many players reach the level cap, and we hope booster packs will give the quest designers a chance to retch violently and spew out some extra creative juices. At the end of the day, though, we can only report on the game as it is now, and we don't feel that all the pieces are in place just yet. Still, free is an attractive price for a quick peek, but if you're hoping to spend ages with an RTS, you could do a fair bit better than Age of Empires Online, at least in its current state.
Aug 19, 2011