True gamers among us will likely have fond memories of the original Age of Empires game released by Microsoft Studios back in 1997, and it was a regular at many of my own LAN parties. The game itself was standard fare strategy / empire building but at the time it was quite innovative, helping to push forward the genre and shocking many of us with the fact that something good in gaming came out of Microsoft.
It also established Ensemble Studios, though they never amounted to much beyond the Age of Empires series. Suffice to say, Age of Empire: Online is the latest iteration in the series, and in a dramatic departure and possibility indicative of the future of gaming as a whole, follows a free-to-play model with premium upgrades and expansions.
Head over to Age Of Empires Online to download the installer. It’s Windows only and installs using the interface (which will also be added to your system – no doubt this is also a nice attempt by Microsoft to make people aware of their games distribution platform). Run the installer to let it download – it took me quite some time despite only being about 50MB. I think the slowness is due to its popularity at the time of writing. The download failed twice for me with random network errors, but luckily it resumed nicely when I relaunched the installer.
Once downloaded, there’s also going to be numerous patches to apply, so be prepared to wait just a little while longer!
When you first launch the game, you’ll need to sign in with an Windows Live profile or create a new one. If you have an Xbox you already use Live for, just use that.
Taking quite a departure from the graphical style of previous games, AoE:O has a luscious cartoony look to it, something which worked well for the original Warcraft with its big slobbering orcs and moronic peons. It reminds me of the iconic Settlers series more than ever now too. Does it work for Age of Empires?
Most certainly yes. These screenshots are all in-game by the way, not from cut scenes.
If you’re coming to the game having played AoE before, you may be a little confused once you enter the game. Don’t worry, the core mechanics hasn’t changed at all. It’s just that the initial city layout screen you see is more like a management screen or graphical menu. It’s here where the persistent element of the game comes in – your capital city – remains with you throughout the age of your empire.
As far as I can tell, you won’t be doing any actual fighting here. The buildings you can construct are upgrades and ‘plot items’ or simply decoration, but it’s mainly superficial. It’s also important to note that resources used here are quite separate from the regular game. Any objects you pick up and claim in your inventory are for use here. You also add ‘gear’ to your units from here – upgrades that enhance their performance and manage the technology tree.
The core game comes in the form of skirmishes and missions presented to you as quests from characters in the persistent world. Anyone familiar with the questing process of World of Warcraft will pick it up straight away. Click on a character, accept their quest, go and do the quest, come back, choose a reward and click complete. It took me a while to figure out how you actually get started on one of these quests though – you need to click the world map button in the bottom-left of your mini-map (top-right).
Then you choose the quest if you have a few, and travel to it. Then you’ll be presented with a familiar game interface where previous players will be able to pick everything simply.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with previous games, it’s a standard resource collection to begin with. Wood, stone, gold and food are your basic resources. Select one or more villagers, right click on the resource, and they’ll get to work until you tell them to stop or it runs out. Villagers also build, so feel free to pull them off when you want something new. For more villagers, your town hall will let you call more in if you have enough room to house them – more houses can be built of course. Eventually, you’ll want to build defences and an armoury, all of which become available later in the game.
One point of frustration for new players might be the concept of upgrading your town hall – this lets you build one set higher level of units and buildings. You’ll also need to have the building unlocked from your permanent capital HQ. So long as you play through all the missions you shouldn’t find it too hard to get into the game.
A quick note about gear. Once you get something you can upgrade from your capital city, just right click the item in your backpack and it intuitively brings up a screen where you can choose what units to place it with. As a free player, you can only equip common and uncommon items – you’ll need to purchase something if you want to equip rare items though. Many of the gear items present a visual change in-game as well as minor statistical upgrades to attack or defence.
There’s a lot here to keep you come back for more with just the basic, free version. Power players and fans will no doubt want to unlock some of the premium items too, but do give the game a chance.
Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any way to skip through the training missions – so if you are an experienced player then be prepared to grind a little before you’re out there in the multiplayer matches and doing difficult missions.
Has this reignited the old flames for you? It certainly has for me, and I may just be tempted to unlock some of that premium content! Could this be the future of gaming? Only time will tell whether this is a profitable model for a game of this calibre of not, but I suspect it may be. What do you think?