Another day, another free-to-play social MMO/RTS. They’re all the rage right now, and popping up so frequently it’s usually not worth trying to keep track of them.
But this one is different, as it’s from a franchise that was near and dear to my heart, and many others’, growing up, Age of Empires. They’re trying to move into the digital age with Age of Empires Online, a free downloadable title with a new art style and all the microtrasactions it can muster.
After its recent launch, I’ve been playing with it this week for a good amount of time, enough to write a quasi review of the new title where I’ll reach a verdict on whether or not it’s worth the time investment. And if you’ve ever played Age of Empires, you’ll know what kind of investment that can be.
The game lets you pick from two races, the Greeks and the Egyptians, with more presumably to come later on. You start with a regular civilization, but can upgrade to a “premium” one if you so choose. More on that rather tiresome concept to come.
Picking my Spartans due to my love for a certain Gerard Butler film, I was planted in a home base with a few buildings. Here you’re assigned quests, you buy items, you research upgrades and build more buildings that allow you to do all those things in greater detail and scope. Once you actually acquire a mission, you’re sent off to an entirely new map and tasked with completing certain objectives, all of which revolve around killing or building things, and usually some combination of the two.
Let’s start with what you’ll see most readily. This isn’t a terribly polished title. The new art style has gone uber cartoonish, almost in the vein of Team Fortress. That could be fun if the graphics were sharp, but your individual units look barely better than they did over ten years ago. I assume the change was to make the title appear more lighthearted and kid friendly, which is odd for a game that has you hunting down and murdering unsuspecting villagers on a regular basis.
Cartoon murder time!
The kid friendly issue comes up again during the difficulty curve, which so far, many hours in, is non-existent. Certain units are a better match during a battle than others, but the strategy for almost every map is merely amassing resources and pouring them into a giant ball of units, and throwing them at the other forces, which you will almost assuredly wipe out in a try or two. They may send a few skirmishing parties to your base every so often, but not once in 20 or so missions did I feel like there was even the most remote chance I was going to lose.
If you’ve played an RTS with any degree of difficulty, AOE Online seems ancient. While my fingers are flying through hotkeys and unit groups in Starcraft 2, none of those things appear to exist in AOE, and combined with some extremely clunky controls, the game feels like a few solid steps backward from even the classic title I remember playing eleven years ago.
The game is both simple and complicated at the same time, so I’m not sure who they’re trying to target. I’ve described a strategy that beats almost every mission, yet the upgrade and store system at home base is thoroughly confusing, with a zillion more options than you know what to do with. Fortunately, none of these things really seem to matter, so you needn’t spend much time worrying about them.
But then Age of Empires Online goes down a dark path. Microtransactions are not an inherent evil. There are many good ways to keep a game afloat using them. I would cite League of Legends as an example which has a system that allows players to buy upgrades or bonuses using real money, but all the offerings are also available if you’ve spent enough time playing the game for free. Items exclusively available for cash are purely cosmetic, and don’t affect the gameplay experience at all.
The only resource you can’t mine is Microsoft Points.
This is the furthest thing from the case in AOE Online. So much of the game is hidden behind a paywall, the product feels like a mere demo. Early on, the game gives you the chance to play with units available if you purchase a “premium” civilization for 1600 Microsoft Points. They’re units you will never see otherwise, and they are simply GODLY, tearing down buildings with ease that would take my entire army ten minutes to raze. But it doesn’t stop there. Upgrades you’ll find can only be used by a premium civilization. A survival mode is kept off limits. Your town’s building limit is capped until you start paying. Huge chunks have been cleaved out of this game in order to goad people into paying for it. I understand it has to support itself somehow, but AOE Online is a prime example of the very worst way to do so. It reminds me of a game that used to be mocked for impersonating AOE, Evony (Come play, my lord!) but now they’re doing almost the same thing.
The microtransaction model is strange to debate. True, if they had charged $15 up front, I might not have played it at all. At least they’ve gotten me in the door by making it free, however from what I saw, I didn’t think it was worth sticking around or paying to get more. Unbalanced pay to play units and a dumbed down version of a classic title are the primary flaws keeping me away, and I wish some developers would stop trying to make the quick buck, and put actual work into a full retail title that actually moved the series forward in a significant way.
I’d keep talking, but it will cost you 500 Unreality points to continue.
2 out of 5 stars