Age of Empires Online Jams Some MMO Into Your RTS

While all the cool kids were playing Starcraft: Brood War, I... well, I joined them, as that game was pretty great. But I also had a soft spot in my heart for Age Of Empires II: Age of Kings. A brilliant successor to a brilliant real-time strategy game, it traded siege tanks and spaceships for trebuchets and the French, and made a lasting impression -- before all but disappearing after a few spin-offs and a sequel.

Age of Empires Online -- which was released today -- is shaping up to be a fine return to form. I never got around to participating in the beta so this is all very new. But it's also so familiar: it feels like Age of Empires, and that's a very good thing.

The game is free to play, with quite a bit of downloadable content waiting in the wings. And you'll need to install Games For Windows Live to play it. Live was already on my machine thanks to brief dalliances with Bulletstorm and Dawn of War II. But the application can be a sore point for many, being (to be blunt) an onerous piece of software. But hey, achievement points!

After downloading the client, and then downloading all sorts of files and assets and the like, you're in. It's the Age of Empire you (might) know and love, complete with technology trees, the eponymous Ages, and villagers spouting gibberish. This time around the game is painted with a casual-friendly brush, sporting a cartoonish art-style that's all rather lovely. And it's graphically impressive, too. Not exactly going to blow the pants off of some of the more technologically demanding titles out there, but everything is bright and lively, and watching my minions scuttle about doing their chores or chattering amongst themselves is quite a treat.

Age of Empires Online is first and foremost an RTS, but in spite of my brief time with it, the MMO bits are coming on strong. Gold exclamation marks denote quests, which (at the start) fall along the lines of killing some clubmen or collecting enough food to get a reward -- standard MMO stuff. The game is divided between your Capital City, and your Outposts. The capital city serves as a sort of hub -- you'll spend points to perform research here, as well as spending coin on supplies, or spending real-world coin on "booster packs" and downloadable content. Start a quest, and you'll be shunted off to an outpost, which plays like a traditional map: Gather resources, build units, fight -- standard fare.

Completing a quest grants you experience points, gold coins, and empire points. Experience points allow you to gain levels, which allows you to advance through the series' iconic Ages, unlocking more steps on the technology tree. Coins lets you buy consumable supplies like wood or grain from vendors in your city (or other players), for use on maps. Empire points are spent on unlocking new crafting recipes for your use in your capital city.

The control scheme is solid: it's a proper RTS, complete with waypoints, mappable hotkeys and kiting around baddies. There's a lot to like here, and you can't argue with the price.

Actually, there's likely quite a bit to argue about the price. The game offers up two civilizations to start -- the Greeks, and the Egyptians. The Celtic and Persian civilizations are slated to be available later this year, but there's no word on how much (if anything) it'll cost to get your hands on a bit of added variety.

And then there are the booster packs. Defense of Crete adds a sort of survival mode, where you (and a friend, if you'd like) square off against wave after wave of enemy forces, for glory and prizes. The Skirmish Hall pack (also slated for "this holiday") adds the option to create custom skirmishes -- sort of like a regular strategy game. Dropping $20 to upgrade your civilization to a "Premium Civilization" unlocks neat perks like... player-versus-player matches. Alright then.

As someone who as all the RTS-prowess of a wet sponge, being limited to peaceful trading and campaign missions is just fine with me. But a quick glance at the Games For Windows Live Marketplace shows that simply buying all of the available content, and ending up with most of a proper RTS, costs about as much as simply grabbing a copy of Starcraft 2. That's "real game" territory here, to say nothing of future booster packs. Dare I risk not having access to my civilization's latest gear because I don't want to keep opening up my wallet?

As it stands, there's a lot to like here. And RTS fans might not mind spending their hard-earned ducats for another shot at the Age of Empires series. I only hope that (good) free content keeps on coming, as that's the surest way to get cheapskates like me to rifle through the proverbial couch cushions.

Age of Empires Online is free to play -- and isn't saddled with a subscription fee. If you aren't too wary of Games for Windows Live, give it a shot -- doubly so, if you've never tried the series.

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