With an epic name and the addition of the word “online”, the return of Age of Empires (AoE) certainly brings with it many expectations and raises just as many questions. With original developer Ensemble Studios being shut down shortly after the release of the passable Halo Wars, would this new game developed originally by newcomers Robot Entertainment (made up of Ensemble veterans) and then polished off by genre experts Gas Powered Games live up to the series well known gameplay and depth?
Would the introduction of MMO elements and a free to play with premium content model push the series into an entirely new and somewhat disappointing direction? Will Silver Age units still make short work of an army of spearmen? The short answer is, “kind of”, and in the case of spearmen, “most definitely”. But the end result, although flawed, is quite a bit of fun whilst still retaining that classic AoE feel.
In the original Age of Empires, at a very basic level, players took control of a single nation to battle it out in historical scenarios as they advanced their civilization through the series’ trademark “ages” - which played out as in-game upgrade tiers. This mission, chapter, or level approach is common in almost all games in the real-time strategy (RTS) genre and are usually tied around a specific narrative - which in the case of AoE and its sequels, were loosely based around historical events.
In Age of Empires: Online, as you would find in most well known MMOs, there are countless quests to accept and complete, items to craft, and chests to open - with even green and blue coloured equipment to, well, equip your troops with. So on face value it would seem that the series has evolved or most likely been changed to suit the more social driven and persistently online, PC gaming experience.
Back in the series heyday, that being the late 90’s, a time when Titanic made moviegoers weep at the loss of three hours of their time and the Spice Girls were an actual thing that existed in the music world, the CD-ROM was king, and RTS games were still very much a spritely story driven affair. So even though you’ll be taking on numerous quests to complete you’ll quickly realise that they play out in a similar fashion to the original game released back in 1997, and these “quests” are essentially campaign missions, tutorial, and scenario levels given a new fancy MMO name. The more things change, the more things stay the same, or so the quote goes - much like the Twilight movies being essentially Titanic remade with a Leo-light vampire and a Billy Zane-junior werewolf.
So when translating or better yet, resurrecting, an established RTS series like Age of Empires in the guise of an online experience that looks and feels like an MMO, the overall structure of the gameplay itself stays pretty much the same. Here your capital city (taking a cue from AoE III) serves as the hub from which you can do all the aforementioned MMO stuff, as well as decorate and expand it with houses, gardens, shops, and crafting schools.
In addition to unlocking new features and items, there is also the hope of showing off your pimped-out capital city to friends and other players who can visit and partake in shopping and sit back in awe at the way in which your buildings and gardens line up all pretty and nice like.
Ahem, so the actual meat of the game plays very much the same as you’d expect from the series, with resource gathering playing a large part in the early stages of each level (or “quest”), with construction, defense and raising and army to follow. Battles play out in a very similar rock-paper scissors fashion that the series is known for with the goal in most cases being to destroy an opposing force, or defend this thing or that person. The gameplay is definitely polished, with no sacrifices being made to either the depth of technological options available or the micromanagement present.
There are some annoying issues like not being properly alerted by the UI when one of your expansions or armies are being attacked, but overall the core AoE gameplay remains in-tact with even some minor improvements being made where needed. But taking the series online with a quest-based approach has resulted in a definite sense of “grinding”. Yeah, that old chestnut.
Unfortunately, the quest approach leaves very little room for narrative or a sense of campaign progression, something that a good single player RTS game needs to have in order to excel. If the game featured an offline campaign with a narrative you would naturally expect some tutorial style missions directly tied to the story, with new units, features, and abilities all introduced with each new mission.
With a quest based approach, where completing each mission provides experience points used to advance your overall civilization and unlock new units as well as rewards in the form of gold to spend in shops and materials to use in crafting, the progression follows a standard MMO pace - meaning it’s incredibly slow with only incremental advancement. This naturally opens the door to dozens of hours of gameplay, but the cost is repetition with no real objective other than to creep your way to Level 20 and unlock the ability to finally build that super unit that had been grayed out for what felt like an eternity.
Now this would be less of a problem if the co-op system implemented was as polished as the single-player aspect, as tackling most quests with a human partner does wonders for lessening the overall feel of the “grind” - something which most MMOs ensure is the most robust aspect of the game.
The co-op as presented here allows a second player to simply help out in a quest, with no shared rewards outside of experience points, no viewable mission objectives for the second player and in some maps even being treated as an afterthought by being placed completely unprotected and out in the open. This is not to say that tackling a quest in co-op is a waste of time, it simply feels undercooked and coasts completely on the strengths of the core AoE gameplay.
Taking a page out of modern online co-op modes, is a premium (i.e. pay up) “booster pack” called Defense of Crete that lets up to two players build up their defenses and armies and try to survive wave after wave of increasingly powerful enemy units. This mode works great in co-op and even features its own fully customizable settings and city to visit where rewards can be used to purchase elite items in-game
Clearly a lot of thought went into the design and structure of this game mode, which unfortunately leads to quite possibly the biggest stumbling block of the overall game, in that although it’s billed as “free to play”, the game is severely hampered without the premium content.
Micro transactions are arguably where PC gaming is heading, but Age of Empires: Online seems to have forgotten completely about the word “micro” resulting in a Season One pass, which provides all current available content costing over $120.
That’s not to say that playing the game freely won’t provide hours of gameplay it simply means that certain units will be unavailable, as would other abilities, items, space to store items, and other features that become essential in the game’s PvP mode.
When you surround a robust RTS core with crunchy MMO shell, there’s bound to be some balancing issues when your opponent could have their spearmen equipped with purple items that increase their attack damage considerably. Competitive battles in an RTS usually result in a balanced experience that relies on skill as obtained through experience. In an MMO, although skill plays a part, items equipped by each player, their current level and unlocked abilities usually plays a much larger role. In keeping with the chocolate bar metaphor, even apart from these issues, and the hefty price tag associated with the premium content, once you bite past the tasty yet somewhat odd MMO shell there’s still a delicious RTS core to savour. Mmm, Age of Empires.