It was unfortunate when Microsoft decided to close Ensemble Studios, the creators of Halo RTS Halo Wars and the generally lauded RTS franchise Age of Empires. But we all guessed the latter, at least, would live on without Ensemble's touch. It was a solid bet, as Microsoft has just announced Age of Empires Online, an exciting new free-to-play strategy game that will try to merge a lot of social elements with Empires' traditional strategy and building mechanics.
In the press release announcing Age of Empires Online, Microsoft describes the game's world as a steadily "growing" one that can be shared "with friends and friendly rivals around the globe." Players will start with their own civilizations that will eventually grow to empires, both on and offline, but as their fledgling societies turn into pillars of humanity, players will be tasked with quests that involve "epic tales, quirky characters, adventure" and strategy. Players will also be expected to trade, play with buds in co-op challenges, and accumulate experience points for...something.
Age of Empires Online is a Games for Windows Live-exclusive joint that is being created by Robot Entertainment, a Dallas-based studio founded by Ensemble co-founder Tony Goodman. According to the games' official site, Age of Empires Online hits in 2011 as a digital-only title and is set to go into closed beta rather soon. You can sign up for that now, in fact, if you so desire.