A release date doesn’t usually mean a great deal for a free-to-play game — as the launch is often just an extension of the beta period — but for Age of Empires Online it marks a huge influx of people. This makes all the difference for a game that lives or dies by its players.
I played many hours of AoEO during the pre-launch period, and I have to say I like Age of Empires Online quite a lot. It harkens back to Age of Empires II in gameplay, where villagers are your do-all unit, capable of building and repairing structures and harvesting the four resources of food, stone, wood and gold. Military units work on a rock/paper/scissors system — ranged beats infantry, infantry beats cavalry and cavalry beat ranged (though in truth it’s much more complicated than this and is done on a per-unit basis). The primary difference between AoEO and the decade-old Age of Empires II is the MMORPG elements. Quests take the form of individual missions, and reward you with gold, experience and even equipment.
Each civilization has a technology tree to fill as you level up. This, in combination with the equipment, allows for a great deal of customization and specialization. But to call it a free-to-play game is misleading. If you don’t buy one of the “booster packs” to unlock everything for your chosen civilization, you’re playing little more than an endless demo, with far more locked behind a pay-wall than freely available.
If you are like me and like to see how much fun you can have with a free-to-play game without ever spending a cent, then Age of Empires Online probably won’t suit your style. Sure, you may be able to level up and unlock a nice portion of your civilization’s technology tree, but without spending some dough you’ll keep running into walls — walls that only a the unstoppable siege weapon of Microsoft Points can break down. You can’t equip anything better than green-quality gear (no blues or purples), even though you can find high-quality items. Instead, they’ll just sit in your bag, taunting you with their impressively desirable stats until you upgrade or sell them. You also can’t build an advisor hall in your home city (which can give you very powerful bonuses) and you can’t have more than two bags of gear (compared to five if you open your wallet) – all extremely restrictive elements. There are also limits to the crafting process and many quests. No amount of playing will unlock these things, unlike games like League of Legends.
The cost of upgrading your civilization comes out to about $18 US and drastically changes the play experience for the better. I saw a sudden jump in the power of my units as I equipped the powerful weapons and armor that had collected free dust in my two free inventory bags. Additionally, advisors allowed me to pump out special units during quests which absolutely destroyed everything. This all carries over to the PvP component and presents a massive imbalance potential and can give paying players a very clear advantage over free players.
The pool of players has been tiny for the last couple of weeks. This makes PvP matchmaking a very hit and miss affair, by which I mean at level 6 I would consistently get matched against level 40 players. 40 is the level cap, by the way, and apparently a level at which it’s pretty easy to completely steamroll a level 6 player over and over again. So I couldn’t fairly test the multiplayer elements until now. Now that there are many more players and there’s a solid mix of premium and free players, I can put matchmaking through the ringer. Matchmaking uses TrueSkill, an algorithm intended to keep your win/loss ratios fairly even, so it should be interesting to see how it factors paying players into matchmaking against free players.
I’ll wrap up a full review sometime in the next week or two. If you’re absolutely dying to know whether Age of Empires Online is worth your time, I can confidently tell you that if you love the Age of Empire series and are open to buying a civilization, there is a lot to like. While it’s certainly not without flaws– unit pathfinding is very poor at times, and having to “travel” to your home city to inspect your gear and slap on new equipment can be cumbersome — but so far it’s a solid addition to the Age series.