My thoughts on Age of Empires Online

So, Here’s my 2 cents on Age of Empires Online.

Find it here: http://www.ageofempiresonline.com/

Way back in the day before I realized that Real Time Strategy games were pretty much the ultimate competitive activity, and I was in Middle School, I played a game called Age of Empires 2. It was awesome. To be honest, I don’t remember very much about it, but I do remember liking it. More recently, I happened upon Age of Empires Online. Being nostalgically interested in the Age of Empires brand, and always looking for a good MMORTS, I decided to give it a try.

First off, I love that it’s free. Free to Play games are great: I love not having to put $50 or $60 down just to see if I will enjoy something. If implemented correctly (see League of Legends and many MMOs out there, I’m sure you all know more of them than I do) you can get a pretty big (if constantly fluctuating) player base, who are just as dedicated as the player base of a game with an up-front cost.

Also, I’d like to make a distinction here. In my opinion this game is not an MMORTS. It doesn’t have a shared environment where people play. You can team with other players, but it’s small scale. I’d call AoEO a traditional RTS with an online component. It’s about as “online” as Dawn of War 2, where you can co-op the campaign.

So, with that being said, my initial recommendation is: check it out. Why not? At the worst you’ve only wasted time. At best, you might get some enjoyment out of it. It’s a win-win situation. There are some “howevers” here, though. I’ll get to those in a minute.

Back to my positive impressions: The game looks nice. It’s got this comforting, sort of cartoony, WarCraft 3 feel that I find both visually appealing and approachable. It doesn’t “cross the line” into childish like some games tend to these days (see: BattleForge, and Rise of Immortals) in in my opinion has more character than games like Heroes of Newerth that feel very generic. I think they struck a delicate balance, and managed to pull it off well.

Gameplay is pretty good too: they economy is somewhat complex, but players of StarCraft will not find it too much of a jump. There are 4 resources, up from StarCraft’s 2, and managing economy takes a decent percentage of game time, in multiplayer. Units are fun to use, and fans of SC2 will appreciate the ability to harass and the opportunity to micro some units (mostly cavalry which is fast enough to meaningfully micro).

The multiplayer is paced fairly well (it apparently gets better at high character levels when stat bonuses make mining deliver more resources, and damage bonuses start to outstrip HP bonuses, making decisive battles quicker). Scouting and countering is very important, too, which gives this game the basic building blocks for high level competitive play.

Into the Single Player Experience:

Single player AoEO is currently tied to the multiplayer with iron (well, digital) bonds. Players gain access to their tech tree in both multiplayer and single player by gaining levels, which is currently most easily accomplished through the single player campaign. I say “currently” because Microsoft and Gas Powered Games have announced plans to decouple multiplayer and single player, which will have a number of benefits, and some unfortunate side effects (again, more on that later).

In the single player, and the game in general, your “character” is your capital city. It’s your face to the other players, and the hub where you control your tech tree, adviser cards, unit gear, crafting, materials generation, and more. The city is a pretty cool mechanic if you’re into that sort of thing. You can find or purchase decorative buildings, engage in city planning (though right now you can’t put in roads or duplicate in-quest production structures), craft gear for your units, etc.

Crafting in AoEO is similar to WoW – you gather materials, decide what you want, and a couple seconds later you get it. Although it’s not really a separate skill: what you can craft is based solely upon your level. As in WoW, you are restricted to 2 crafting schools. It’s an interesting part of the game: every unit type (i.e. spearmen) can equip 4 pieces of gear: a weapon, armor, utility, and more rare “totem” type item. Obviously, these items affect damage, HP, resistances, and specials (such as slow, conversion resistance, crit chance, or production time modification). With every unit and buliding able to equip gear, gathering and collecting gear is pretty time consuming. Fortunately, questing keeps you pretty much level appropriate, at least with your most-used units and buildings.

Questing is pretty much what you’d expect from an MMO type game – there’s a story, but it takes backseat to the action. There are hundreds of hours of quests, repeatables, challenges, etc. The missions are pretty varied but not quite up to the production values of the Wings of Liberty campaign: there’s nothing quite as exciting as a map that is slowly being consumed by fire, or that has a day/night cycle that changes the entire gameplay mechanic.

All of My Howevers:

I do have a couple of “howevers,” however. First off, the community is small. There are 4 US servers, and during peak hours you’ll find about 600 players on each (unless things have changed recently). For a recently released game, this isn’t great. Especially a recently released free game.

Also, PvP is currently level-based, and includes gear bonuses. This means that higher level players have access to more of the tech tree than lower level players, and also that their units are up to about %500 better. Seriously. Some gear builds can make one person’s Spearmen (for instance) have more than 3x the HP of his opponent’s, even in mirror matches, even with the same amount of time put into gearing.

The unlockable tech tree, and gear, are interesting ideas, but they make the game very hard to balance, especially with 2v2 being the current match maximum.

Some people have issue with the “free to play” model: they don’t like having to pay more than $60 for the entire game (each faction is $20, and then new DLC is between $5 for decorative items and $10 for new game modes). Me, I like it! I bought 1 faction, the Egyptians, and I’m good to go. If I want, I can buy Horde mode (it’s called Defense of Crete) for $10 and then I’ve spent $30 on my enjoyment, where with a retail game, I’d have to pay $50 or $60 even for content I won’t be using. So, I don’t have a problem with this. The game certainly isn’t “pay to win” as some people have said. You pay for convenience, and for 1 tier of the tech tree, high quality items, and for ranked PvP. So, if you want to compete, you have to pay anyway. It’s not like the advantages paid players get effect ranked, because *all* ranked matches are between paid players. There are also a lot of matches out there on the YouTubes showing that free players are more than capable of defeating their paid opponents in Custom games.

The Bottom Line:

  • This is a fun game! Try it out. Pay if you want.
  • The game needs some love. The dev team is working, but player dissatisfaction with the competitive scene has been high.
  • Eventually, ranked matches will be gear free and playable with full tech tree. In a way, this is good: the game will be easier to balance. In a way, too, this is bad: why play this when it’s just a more poorly balanced take on SC2 (in a way – there are significant differences)

End rant,
wayward

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2 Comments on “My thoughts on Age of Empires Online

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