Review: Age of Empires Online

Doing my last post got me interested in Age of Empires again, so I finally decided to give Age of Empires Online a try. The game was actually released more than a year ago, but I resisted trying it out because I don’t like games that try to lure you in for free then make you pay for more. This is still slightly true, but the system has been tweaked a little bit so you can now actually play completely for free. But I get ahead of myself; on to the review!

First of all, the game is available by direct download (a whopping 5GB), which seems simple, but there are some problems with the client in which you are sometimes asked for a product key (which it doesn’t give you). I don’t really know how I managed to fix the problem, but I’m sure Googling the problem would find you a solution.

When you finally get the game started, the first thing you notice is the new artwork. The austere emotionless sprites of yesteryear have been replaced with happy cartoonish characters. This has turned some veterans off the game, as it gives the game a rather cheap feel. This is a pity, as the deep strategic gameplay is still there. Although it looks a little dumbed-down for the new market, it actually has all of the features that made the Age of Empires franchise famous.

Pretty much everything else has gone though. The story-based campaign has been replaced with an RPG-like quest system in which you work on leveling up your Capital City. The game has taken (as you probably guessed by the name) a very social turn. You can finish quests in co-op mode, or play PvP with your friends. The only problem arises if you, like me, don’t have any friends who play Age of Empires, then you’ll probably never get to test your wits without some tribal leader telling to to find deer herds or kill some caravans.

I say probably never because there is a way to play random map games. Unfortunately, it costs 450 Empire Points to unlock, which is near impossible to earn without making purchases. Around where I’m at (Level 5) there is a quest where you can play a demo random map game every 12 hours, which is painful because you can see a whole bunch of settings and maps that you can’t use until you get your EP. This is obviously a serious drawback to the game, as Random Map games have been the bread and butter of all previous Age of Empires games.

So if you’re looking for a good strategy game to play, have lots of friends who do too, and have lots of time to build up your Capital Cities, then Age of Empires Online is perfect for you. But if you are looking to get straight into the action with a customisable match against a computer, or follow a deep story-based campaign, then stick to one of the older Age of Empires games. They are not free, and have less updated graphics, but they playable without feeling like part of a business idea.

What are your thoughts on this game? Would you like Microsoft to make more games like it, or go back to the old format? Tell us in the comments!