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Age of Empires Online hands-on preview

A few of us at GR are huge RTS nerds, and a few of us are MMO nerds, and yes, there is some crossover. We’re of the firm belief that any genre could be made into an MMO, and we’re dismayed that nearly every MMO out there is an RPG. We’ve pondered how it could be possible to make an MMORTS, and it hasn’t been easy to imagine a persistent world populated by players all fighting each other for world domination – especially since there’s the huge hurdle of how to deal with a player’s base when they’re not logged in. Age of Empires Online tackles this problem by not actually tackling it at all, and the result is a game that tenuously connects itself to the MMO moniker. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all – it’s just different from what we expected from an MMORTS, but then that’s because we favor multiplayer over single-player in RTS games.

See, AoEO (you can totally sing that acronym) is almost entirely single-player and co-op instance-focused and does not really exist in a massive, persistent world of players interacting with each other. It does bring in every other element from MMOs, however, like a persistent “character,” quest givers, loot, crafting, a trade-based economy, and PvP arenas. The difference from a typical MMO is that everything is discrete, separated by a world map that you simply navigate by fast-traveling to locations that then begin a standard RTS map.

Your persistent “character” is your capital city, a place that looks like a typical base in an RTS match, except your buildings are permanent and you won’t get attacked there. So it’s kind of like a SimCity, but you don’t have to worry about how you place stuff or whether the people are happy – you simply purchase and place buildings to increase your options, and you can also play with purely cosmetic structures like bushes and statues to make a visually pleasing home town. There are also quest-givers inside your capital city, so clicking on one allows you to choose quests to take on. Some quests are tied to a specific location and can be tackled by “beating” a map, while others are continuing quests that can be accomplished alongside main quests. For instance, a supplementary quest might be to kill ten elite units, but you can fulfill this goal while taking on any other type of quest, since elite units might show up anywhere.

So AoEO essentially takes a standard RTS campaign and reworks the interface into a city you can develop, and allows you to choose missions in your own order instead of a linear progression. It also provides loot and other rewards for completing missions and allows you to build up a meta tech tree outside of the standard one you’ll progress through in a single mission. For those who have played StarCraft II, this RPG-ish element will be familiar. However, what’s quite new in AoEO is that you can trade with other players, visit each other’s capital cities to purchase goods (if you build a shop in your capital and another player buys from it, you reap profits), and join up to tackle co-op missions.

So far we have seen two playable races: the Greeks, and the newly revealed Egyptians. We played as Egypt because we like their aesthetic better, but of course they also have access to different units and tech, and because of their different starting region, they spend time doing quests in North Africa instead of Europe, at least initially. Speaking of aesthetics, we’re not sure how we feel about the new look for Age of Empires. The Age series has always gone for a more realistic look compared to say, Warcraft or Command & Conquer, and while Age of Empires III already started to go to a more stylized look, AoEO takes it to a whole new level. Clearly the cartoonish art style serves two purposes: it allows for crisp graphics while not being too taxing on a PC, and it allows the game to age without looking dated so quickly. We’re fans of Warcraft’s cartoonish look, but we must say that AoEO’s look goes a bit too hard into the Disney end of cartoon for our tastes. Again, though, we’re still not sure how we feel about it, as the look could grow on us (and it’s certainly vibrant and colorful).

The actual core gameplay will not be alien to any RTS player, and especially not to AoE veterans. Once you begin a mission, the MMO aspects fall to the wayside and you’re building workers, harvesting familiar resources, building appropriate buildings to unlock higher tech levels, and scouting through the fog of war. Egypt reminds us of Age of Mythologies with its priestesses who can empower buildings to produce faster, and watching workers gather bright red berries from bushes takes us back to the good old days. Nothing seems to have changed if you’re a newbie to the game, but there are two factors that will have an interesting effect on missions as you become more advanced.

One is the metagame, where you go up your overarching tech tree and equip units with items that will give them bonuses. So how you play a mission, if you’re playing smartly, will depend on what strengths you have invested in at your capital city. The other cool factor is the availability of consumables, which are limited items you have during missions that can be spent for temporary bonuses. So in a pinch you can select your melee fighters and use an item that heals them instantly, potentially turning a loss into a victory. These two elements alone could make the missions have considerable depth beyond regular RTS gameplay.

Now, it’s possible that when you read MMO before, your brain started thinking about a subscription fee or microtransactions. Age of Empires Online isn’t doing either of these. It will be digitally distributed and free to play. The catch is that not all features will be available to those who play for free. Things like custom PvP matches, the highest level of the tech tree, and a bunch of other options will become only available after purchasing an upgrade to a premium account. Later on, there are also plans for booster packs of additional content, but you won’t be paying for extra items or in-game money. We don’t yet know how much the premium content will cost.

Any time a developer goes for an MMO and doesn’t try to copy World of Warcraft we’re all for it. For the hardcore multiplayer RTS people out there, Age of Empires Online might not be for you, since the majority of its content focuses on battling AI and socializing with other players. However, the truth is that most RTS players are actually interested in single-player experiences, so AoEO has the potential to fulfill a completely untapped market by drawing those players into the compulsive loot collecting and character progression that makes MMOs so popular. We’re still hoping there will be some type of content added that ensures a deep multiplayer experience.

Jan 26, 2011

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