The latest Age of Empires game, released recently, isn’t on the same track as the classic iterations before it. Instead of being a normal PC game that comes in a box (oh yes, a box), Gas Powered Games instead opted to modernize the franchise with a free-to-play model that would be, hypothetically, driven by microtransactions much like other free-to-play MMOs like Allods Online, Lord of the Rings Online, and Runes of Magic, just to name a few.
Instead, AOE Online made itself into a strange mixture of standard pricing models and microtransaction nonsense, but the end result is pretty good.
I’ll elaborate. The game shipped with two factions that feature different units and tech trees, the Egyptians and the Greeks. You can choose either, or both, and play at no charge as much as you want. However, quite a bit of useful stuff is locked down as “premium content”. When I first saw that, I figured it was a ploy to nickel-and-dime me out of $0.99 each for items or units or what have you. Not so.
To completely unlock everything for one of the factions is $20. That is, you can essentially have a full RTS experience (and a decent one at that) for a bargain price in the days of $60 AAA titles, even on PC. Advanced players will likely opt to play both factions, but even then it’s only $40. Where AOE Online plans to make the big bucks is in further content. There’s already at least one more faction in development and almost certainly more to come.
In addition to more factions, mission packs are offered at modest prices as well, though these are not as critical to the game as the faction unlocks.
Yesterday, I sat down for a few hours to determine how the game would play out as a free game. The answer is that you can only play for a short time without coming up against some sort of pay-wall, be it quest rewards you can’t use or buildings or technologies inaccessible. Thus, trying to play the game for free isn’t viable. Of course, that’s pretty much a given, as the whole point of changing from a standard payment model to a microtransaction one is to ultimately charge the player more money than a one-time purchase, and to attract larger audiences. It works, too.
The game plays well enough, if you like the AOE style RTS. It’s a solid formula. Be aware, though, that AOE Online doesn’t try to be Starcraft. APM isn’t monitored (as far as I know) and you will certainly never become a paid athlete competing at this game online. That’s not the end goal for most of us, though, and if you want to play a fun RTS for a good price, AOE Online delivers.
The “Online” in the name adds some to the game, but a large chunk of the early parts is based in single-player or co-op. In fact, you don’t even get the ability to play in ranked PVP until level 25, which takes a considerable amount of playing to reach.
Gaining experience, gold, and material for building up your “capital city” are all achieved through playing the single-player missions, which so far have been entertaining enough, if not as well thought-out as the Starcraft II single-player by any means. It’s a bit of a grind in AOE online, but as MMO players the world over will tell you, that’s part of the fun.
Another way AOE Online positions itself closer to the traditional MMO is through loot. Let me tell you, I love a good loot system, and AOE Online has a fairly deep and useful system in place for finding and buying loot, which allows you to enhance your units in meaningful ways.
That’s not the only progressive system in place, however, because in addition to the obvious leveling and tech tree system you have a capital city to manage, in which you place buildings tha produce money and resources over real-time that allow you to purchase loot and upgrade your city further. It’s very meta, having essentially an AOE game going on top of your smaller AOE games, and I like it a lot.
The only place where AOE Online fails to delight is in sometimes clunky unit management and combat, but all in all it works pretty well. Honestly, if you’re looking for a $20 RTS that has a very decent value proposition to it, I would recommend at least giving the free parts a try.