Not Exactly a Golden Age
NOTE: This review was originally posted on my blog, Cartridge Campus.
After a six-year hiatus and a changing of the guard, Age of Empires is back with a new look and a new focus. Gas Powered Games and Robot Entertainment have attempted to capture the the robust strategy and enthralling combat that their predecessors pioneered, while adding in new, online-specific additions. There's a lot to like in this gorgeous revival, but gigantic pay-walls and shoddy Player vs. Player content strive to ruin the whole experience.
- Easy to Learn...: Whether you're a greenhorn or an experienced real-time-strategist, you'll feel right at home in a manner of minutes. The game teaches you one concept at a time at a pace that's forgiving, yet wastes little of your time. The world would be a better place if this sort of standard was applied to the average AAA title.
- ...Hard to Master: When the training wheels come off, you'll be more than ready to take on the world. That's a good thing, because the world will certainly have it in for you. Every quest brings a new, unique scenario; you'll find yourself performing all sorts of tasks, from escorting villagers through treacherous roads to protecting a town from an onslaught of enemies. The A.I. is quick and merciless, breaking down all but the best defenses. You'll occasionally find yourself crawling to the finish by your teeth, and even when you do fail, it feels completely justified. Once you're on a roll, completing quests left and right, it's hard to stop.
- AAA Presentation: For a game targeted at the "Free to Play" crowd, the presentation of the game is practically unparalleled. The cartoonish art style is unique and easy on the eyes, even on the lowest graphical settings. The visual polish also extends to the user interface, placing every possible option and action in an easily digestible format. Developers, take notes; this is how you properly present your game.
- AOE Veterans Welcome: If you've played an Age of Empires game before, you'll feel right at home here. The same complexity and breadth of options you grew up with are still at your fingertips. You'll still be gathering resources, fortifying your base camps, and laying waste to your enemies with the right-click of the mouse. And yes, Loom still gives your villagers 50% more health. Even though the tutorials are more frequent and it's somewhat easier to manage your army, make no mistake; it's still built with you in mind. Nothing's standing between you and your game (except for one large issue, which we'll get into later).
- With a Dash of WoW: Gas Powered Games and Robot Entertainment have done the impossible; they've successfully merged MMO elements into an RTS. Missions are now presented as quests, with rewards of experience and items upon successful completion. As you level up, you'll get points to dump into a technology tree, which gives you benefits like stronger houses or new units to play with. The items also serve a purpose; equipment can be earned and assigned to units and buildings, giving your soldier or villager an extra edge in their activities.
Unfortunately, the MMO elements are also what leads us into our next section:
- Pay to Play: Once you've invested several hours into the game, you're getting into the swing of things. Fantastic weapons are finding their way into your inventory, enemies are trembling at your feet, and you're receiving blueprints to make your civilization a much stronger, lovelier place. Just when you think you've got it all, your luck turns south. Your inventory is too small to store all the items being thrown at you. The weapons you obtain from your epic conquests now come with locks, rendering them useless and taking up your valuable storage. Your enemies are even rougher and tougher than they were 5 minutes ago, and even your strongest defenses are failing miserably. That's when you discover the game's dark secret; all of your troubles could be rectified if you only spent $20 on your civilization. $20 isn't the worst, but it's also not "Free to Play". The "free" version starts feeling like a demo. And it gets worse...
- Highway Robbery: As you make your way to the store, $20 clutched firmly in your hand, you decide you might as well check out what else they have to offer while you're here. Oh, look, they have a sale on two civilization packs and extra missions for... $40? Maybe you should buy the season pass instead, so you really get a value! ...$100 DOLLARS? The point of a "Free to Play" game is to have micro transactions. Maybe Microsoft, Gas Powered Games and Robot Entertainment should get together, crowd around a dictionary and look up the definition of "micro". It means "small". $100 is not "small".
- Not Even Worth It: If the content justified the price, the $20 wouldn't be a monumental loss. Unfortunately, the only real bonus you get from dropping a Jackson on the game involves taking off all the restrictions. You get a bigger inventory, you can build more stuff, and you get those extra slots in the technology tree. Maybe it wouldn't feel like such a bad deal if the included PvP combat, the heart and soul of most RTS titles, worked properly, but even that falls flat. Network issues abound, from disconnects to serious latency problems. Even the matchmaking itself feels busted. You'll often find yourself grouped up against an opponent who can easily wipe the floor with you. Even though the game accurately keeps leaderboards, it doesn't put that knowledge to good use and set you up with a worthy opponent. It's flat-out disappointing, and it's almost enough to sour the entire game.
While the game certainly is captivating for the first few hours, Age of Empires Online eventually chokes all the fun out of the experience by charging ludicrous amounts of money for sub-par bonuses and content. The game bits more than live up to the legacy of the series; everything else seeks to cut up the pie and charge you heavily for each piece. It's a shame that such a beautiful, polished product has been put to waste. Spend your time (and your money) elsewhere.
Verdict: Skip It