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Playing Age of Empires Online is like greeting an old friends for the first time in years, but instead of returning your friendly fist-bump, your pal socks you in the gut. Don't get us wrong: AOEO isn't a bad game, and somewhere benearth its mountain of MMO-influenced bling, the AOE of yore forms the online version's steel-sharp strategic center. Problem is, this isn't so much an instance of old meeting new as it is old and new getting thrown haphazardly into a blender. As a result, some of the game works, and some of it really, really doesn't.
Truthfully, AOEO is two games in one. There's the classic Age of Empires RTS that in the innocent days of your youth taught you how to wage bloody, ruthless war, and there's, well, World of Warcraft. AOEO's main hub is a persistent city that gains experience points, has its own talent tree, and is capable of equipping your troops with stat-boosting gear. Meanwhile, crafting takes a questionable page from Farmville's vile book, requiring you to manually micromanage resources after a certain number of real-life hours pass.
But what about the part where you click miniature men and order them to raise their tiny toothpick swords in your name? Well, that's separate from your city. See, hub cities are littered with quest-givers who hand out specific tasks to be completed within RTS matches. Sometimes, you'll be asked to simply command and conquer your way through a regular battle. Other times, though, you might find yourself embroiled in a neck-and-neck camel race. Unfortunately, quests repeat themselves a bit too much, and—despite AOEO's candy-coated veneer—get really damn hard as you progress. Co-op makes that particular pill a bit less bitter, buy you'll definitely run into an "Are you kidding me?" moment or two.
The upside: When the tug of war between AOEO's two components reaches a happy medium, it's pure, addictive bliss. Customizing your talent tree and unlocking new units is utterly compulsive—even if the early goings are a bit too bare-bones. The carrot-on-a-stick usage here is masterful; it always feels like you're just a quest or two away from unlocking some cool new thing. However, this also throws multiplayer balance way out of whack. We don't consider ourselves strategic geniuses, but we lost a good many matches because our units were simply worse.
On top of that, AOEO's free-to-play nature is a seriously double-edged sword. On one hand, the game's free, but starter civilizations miss out on many units, items, and craftables, not to mention a chunk of the talent tree. Premium civilizations, meanwhile, weight in at $20, and booster pakcs will run you between $5 and $10. Or there's the season pass, which tips the scales at a whopping $100 for six-months' worth of content. Also of note: This is a Games for Windows Live title. By and large, Microsoft's reviled service keeps to itself, but if your internet connection hiccups, say bye-bye to your mid-match progress. No saves, no resume options—nothing. You're simply banished to the login screen, no ifs, ands, or buts.
It's a shame, too, because AOEO really has a lot going for it. It's insidiously addictive, jam-packed with content, and—this really can't be stated enough—an Age of Empires game through-and-through. In the end, that's what it all comes down to. As a game, AOEO's mostly great. The army of annoyances surrounding it, though? Not so much.
Core game is old-school RTS gameplay at its finest; addictive MMO-ish bits; tons of content.
Horrific lack of multiplayer balance; gimped free mode; unit pathfinding issues; dropped Internet connections erase progress.