Wot I Think: Age of Empires Online

By Brendan Caldwell on August 26th, 2011 at 11:54 am.


A long, long time ago last Wednesday, I got a message from Jim. I enjoy Jim’s messages because they come with the promise of coin. [We call this the "the editor called me" intro in the business. War, eh? What's it good for. Don't RTS names sound the same? Is the adventure dead? Is the PC Dead? Etc. - Ed] And he is not one to waste his breath, like a lot of people. He simply asked, “Age of Empires Online: review?” I wrote him back 15,000 words on ‘How much I would like to review Age of Empires Online.’ He replied: “Sounds good.” And now here we are. I will now tell you what I thought about the game. Because that is how these things go.

- On the first mistake Age of Empires Online makes

The first mistake Age of Empires Online makes is that they did not allow me to play as the Celts. They say the Celts are coming out at Christmas, which is when Celts usually do come out in the natural world, but this is not good enough. By Christmas the freeze will come and I will be long dead, as I am living in an under-insulated shanty house in Brixton, where criminals get a +1 to cold resistance for every young bespectacled journalist they destroy. Anyway. As it was I had to make do with the Greeks.

- On the Civilisation of the Greeks

The Greeks are pleasant enough as it turns out. As with all mmomentous mmorish mmonline games you begin with nought but a loincloth standing alone in your tiny ‘Capital’ city. It’s useful to think of this city as a hub from which you launch quests by clicking on perpetually startled people sporting giant !s. Otherwise, consider it a pretty inventory and skills menu in which you can build hedgerows.

The early quests act as your tutorial and by level 8 or 9 you begin to see the pattern emerge. You know the one. The little extended spiral pattern that has you repeating the same quests over and over again until you realise that it’s not a spiral pattern at all but a perfectly circular one, endlessly repeating, designed to look like a spiral.

All the while the Greek city grows and you earn new technologies and units. Some of these, like the spit-basic spearmen or the Advisor Hall which grants you bonuses by appointing various advisors to your capital city, are earned by doing specific quests. Others, like stables and cavalry, you get by progressing through your technology tree which sensibly replaces the skill trees of other MMOs. You clamber up this technology tree with the help of Tech Points, earned every time you level up.


- On the implementation of many points-based systems of earning to which the world owes nothing and is made a poorer place in which to live.

Points. Numbers. Points. These are the spinal cord of any MMO and many games besides. Age of Empires Online is in love with points. Tech Points get you tech, Empire Points buy you advisors among other shenanigans, Crete points you can only spend in shops in Crete, Sparta points you earn in PvP combat. And so fucking on, and so fucking forth. Then there’s Coin to think about too – and not the coin Jim’s emails dangle in front of you like a juicy, ripe carton of Tropicana hanging fresh off the branch. No. This is the staid, Judas-coin from mission after mission of murdering innocent Villagers just because they’re dressed in red.

Coin and all these various points buy you gear that can be equipped to your units and buildings from the Gear Hall in your capital city. This gear works is familiar MMO fare – helms that offer damage resistance to your infantry units, copper-tipped arrows that increase the damage of your archers or guard towers, and cetera. Consumable items can also be bought and are slightly more exciting because you get to use them in the middle of a quest to summon bandit lunatics and cows to your town centre. Most emergencies can be solved with either of these things. Except of course the emergency of having to communicate with other human beings.

- On the presence of other human beings in my RTS game, you bastards

This article has not yet actually dealt with the mmost mmimportant mmbit of Age of Empires Online. That being the Online bit. I am sorry. I will now address this concern. Age of the Imperialist Pigdogs Online is only an MMO in that it incorporates a lot of the aforementioned points-based ridiculousity found in games like World of Warcraft and The Rest. But these beasts usually offer a vast world to explore and individuals to greet and recognise, while AoE Online has very little of this. There’s no feeling of geography or personality in the people you encounter. This isn’t so much a fault of the developers as such – it’s more an inherent and unavoidable flaw in the MMORTS subgenre. Let me explain.


The only true interaction with other players comes during co-op or PvP. In these instances you are both extracted to another map, where you separately build your base, separately train your troops and do your separate thang. In co-op you end up competing anyway for resources and for the treasure chests containing loot scattered around the map. Please note that taking all the loot on one mission and then scarpering, thus leaving your partner in the lurch against a superior foe is a most callous act. And moreover I should warn you that it is considered Bad Form. And also, in certain circles, a Dick Move. Like including Unnecessary Capitalisation In Journalistic Articles. Or like using the last of the HP sauce on your baked potato when you know your housemate is about to make a STONKING BACON SARNIE WHY THE FUCK DID YOU USE ALL MY HP SAUCE KATE YOU UTTER SHITEHAWK.

The rest of the time you each tend to your own Capital cities, only ever visiting one another if you want to buy something from one of their shops. It’s hard to get a sense of one individual friend or enemy when everyone is this isolated and disconnected from each other. The chat channel? The chat channel means nothing but aggravation and acronyms. Find ye not solace in the chat channel, for there be demons within. In any case it doesn’t wholly cure the feeling of distance between players in AoE Online.

What might have cured this would be a map. Not a map of the Mediterranean, like the admittedly lovely one that charts your individual quests, but a strategic map of all players, encouraging you to be friendly or hostile to people depending on their geographical location relative to your capital.


Of course, that suggests going down the persistently operating MMORTS route, where you have to constantly check in to make sure people aren’t moving in on you. And the last thing we want is Age of Empires to become Tribal Wars. Because that would make the moon fall out of the sky. That would make newborn babies cry blood and vanish. My world and the worlds of countless others: destroyed.

So there really is no solution. Keep other human beings out of my RTS. Thank you.

- On Games for Windows Live and the nefarious but ultimately avoidable method of payment known to people in suits who are sexually attracted to money as ‘microtransactions’ but known to the rest of humanity as the farming of your wallet because that’s what it does okay it farms your wallet right and proper.

AoE Online is a freemium game. That means you can play for as long as you like slowly building up momentum for free, or you can throw money at it to get better stuff. In fact, the advisors and most of the gear that I’ve already talked about aren’t usable unless you at least buy the civilisation’s premium pack (find a full list of differences between free and premium all up in heah).

This I can accept. The theory of free-to-play as a business model is fine to me. The practice is lamentable. It’s lamentable because most games that follow the model constantly pester you with reminders, pop-ups, sneers and shiny locked boxes with “oooooo mysterious!” painted on them in crimson block capitals. All of which are designed to sell you the game.


AoE Online does all of this, which is fine if you’re undecided. But if you’re sure you don’t want to buy then it’s a lot like going for a test drive and having the used car salesman come along with you for the ride and talk constantly about how disgustingly shit your life is without this amazing ‘vintage’ Rover let me tell you sir you won’t regret it.

As for prices, a premium pack will set you back 1840 points in Microsoft’s play money (ugh) which is about sixteen of your Queen-faced pounds. Not much compared to the Season One pass, which comes to, like, £80.

Did you just swear in disbelief? Because I did. Oh, that reminds me. You can turn the game’s profanity filter off in the options, which is something we can all appreciate.

- On Age of Empires Online

It’s good. It’s really quite good. [Like the tennis - Jim] It’s AoE II: Age of Kings with cartoony graphics and a focus on multiplayer but with slower tech advancement and a few acceptable MMO clichés thrown in. This makes it a good game and entirely playable – nae, enjoyable – by someone such as yerself. In any case, it’s free-to-play, so I don’t even know why you’re reading this rather than giving it a swift one-two. So yes, it’s good – but it isn’t the huge, sprawling, world of the MMORTS game for which so many of us yearn. The one that hangs in the ether, as yet unmade, with populous maps and (true) human diplomacy and interaction, but also with wars that are manageable, that don’t make you an anxious wreck from having to check in every half-hour.

I guess that’s what I thought about the game and that’s all I can really say to you. Age of Empires Online is good. But it isn’t Utopia.

In Utopia, there are Celts.

And there are no fucking used car salesmen.

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57 Comments »

  1. Sunjammer says:

    I’m both enjoying it and swearing at it. It’s a grindy RTS, for one, with little momentum. It just drags itself along as you accrue more points and upgrade your junk.

    And the pathfinding is absolutely atrocious.

    But the music and art direction somehow make me want to spend inordinate amounts of time with it. Argh. Stupid free-to-play.

    • SLeigher says:

      The game itself is great but the grinding just killed it for me during the beta. Has it improved to any extent? or is it still several hours in you find yourself finally being able to go to the 2nd age.

    • Trillby says:

      Nah, you get to the 2nd age lickety-split. But that is where I left it too, because the slow pace and the lamentable level design (kill 8 towers; collect 500 wood; build 10 spearmen), and also the total lack of any compelling narrative put me off. At least in the traditional WoW clone, you quickly build a sort of relationship with your character – here, you are simply following orders ad infinitum.

      Starcraft 2 multiplayer has the decency to admit being soulless, and lets you get on with the bashing and smashing of 15 year old generals.

      EDIT: Oh, and I forgot to mention that to make GFWL work, I had to fiddle with my registry settings and can only log in when I connect to my university through a VPN client.

  2. Rii says:

    And not ten minutes ago I was thinking “Huh, I wonder where RPS is on Age of Empires Online?”. Creepy.

  3. Zogtee says:

    Bah, if this was a regular old game, I would play it, because the lovely art calls out to me. But I just can’t be arsed with GFWL, MMOG-STUFF, micromonies, and shite. Bugger off.

  4. Inigo says:

    acceptable MMO clichés

    Hello, boys and girls.
    Your words for today are “Oxymoron”, “Paradox”, “Contradiction” and “Scrote”.
    Now let’s all see what Sock Puppet Steve is up to in his brightly coloured Den of Iniquity!

  5. Jumwa says:

    I was just saying last night my partner and I could use a new MMO to siphon from us our enthusiasm for life outside the home. Perhaps this is it?

    Unlikely, but as said in the article, why not give it a go.

    Oh right, GFWL. Hmm. Well, still. I’ll mention it to her and see where we stand afterwards.

    • Inigo says:

      my partner and I could use a new MMO to siphon from us our enthusiasm for life outside the home.

      In the old days before computers, people had to make do with BDSM roleplay instead.

      Jus’ sayin’.

    • Jumwa says:

      You ever think that this mixed with a bad case of exhibitionism is our problem? I thought not.

    • Inigo says:

      You ever think that this mixed with a bad case of exhibitionism is our problem?

      Buy a tent then install a harness and cut leg holes. Your move, pilgrim.

    • Jumwa says:

      Well I am an expert at pitching tents. Heyo!

      Here all week.

    • imirk says:

      You and every 14 year old …

  6. Frosty840 says:

    Please note that taking all the loot on one mission and then scarpering, thus leaving your partner in the lurch against a superior foe is a most callous act. And moreover I should warn you that it is considered Bad Form. And also, in certain circles, a Dick Move.

    So not actually co-op in any way that matters, then? I shall avoid until they prevent such dickery from ruining my gaming. Parcel out collective loot at the end of a match, I says.

  7. footmunch says:

    HP sauce on a bacon sandwich? You are beneath contempt, sir.

    • Bob_Bobson says:

      What!? HP sauce goes awesomely well on a bacon sarnie. Indeed I’d hesitate to offer a guest in my house a bacon sandwich unless I knew I could offer HP alongside it, in the same way as I wouldn’t offer one if I had no bread. Footmunch, you are beyond understanding.

      But I sympathise with the theoretical jacket potato eater. If flavours are thin on the ground a jacket potato could do with the lift more than the bacon. Bacon can stand alone in a pinch, but a spud wants something to accompany it and HP does the job pretty well.

    • Starky says:

      Must be southern… (or foreign).

      The only proper way to eat a bacon sarny is with a generous dollop of brown sauce (HP preferably, but any will do) – If you are a ketchup user then you are the worst and lowest of human filth!

    • Noseybonk says:

      Bacon and Brown Sauce crisps, for the lazy

    • Tams80 says:

      @ Bob_Bobson
      I would immediately walk out of your house if you did not offer me HP brown sauce with a bacon sarnie (though any brown sauce would do).

      As for jacket potatoes? Surely some lightly salted Lurpak would have been a better choice?

  8. MrMud says:

    I spent 4-5 hours waiting for this game to get even remotely challenging, that never happened so I stopped playing.

    • UncleLou says:

      This. It desperately needs the announced skirmish mode, because the campaigns are just a waste of time for anyone who has ever played an RTS before.

  9. deadstoned says:

    GFWL? Burn it with fire!

    On a serious note though however, I found that the game felt like it was trying too hard to be a mumorpugger and the main game felt un-balanced and not really AOE. I wish MS would treat their copyrighted materials with more respect :( . As I’ll probably be dead before someone competent gets a go.

  10. Josh04 says:

    No mention of what must be the most glorious DLC since Horse Armour?!

    http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-GB/Product/Bountiful-Bushes-Empire-Extras/00000000-0000-400e-80cf-00014d530fa3

    10 entirely different shrubs! And you can place each one as many times as you want!

    • Inigo says:

      The truly disturbing thing is not that this DLC exists, but that people will have already bought it.

    • CMaster says:

      I predict shrub swastikas across AoE online.

    • MrMud says:

      Its similar to skins in league of legends.
      Its a way for people who really like the game to support the developer.

      And having the game be monetized by buying cosmetic stuff is far better than pay2win.

    • Koozer says:

      You mean like having to buy premium packs to get all the content for one race?

  11. Sidorovich says:

    The presentation is great, the pricing policy is pants. Sixteen quid just unlocks the epic/rare loot and a special unit (plus an advisor hall that’s already been mentioned, that can bestow bonuses on your troops to seriously unbalance PvP vs non-paying players).

    Knock it down to a fiver and then perhaps we’ll talk.

  12. Premium User Badge yandexx says:

    Gah, they don’t have hotkeys for building stuff!
    And those that they have are hidden really deep in the options.

    So after Starcraft II I feel like a disabled person in AoEO.

  13. Out Reach says:

    If the £80 “get everything now” Thing cost £30-40 like a brand new game, then sure. you are buying the game. But that’s just… WUT :|

  14. McDan says:

    Yay Brendy! Ah well I may give this a try in the future maybe, but it’s a shame to bear all that stuff about it.

  15. ReV_VAdAUL says:

    An interesting review style, I like it.

    Also one problem I’ve had with AoE Online is that it loves to drop back to the main menu if my internet does the slightest hiccup. Now sure I’m on wifi but I manage to play LOTRO for long periods without dropping back to the menu at all.

  16. Man Raised by Puffins says:

    A most tittersome article, thank you “Brendy”.

    Can we keep this one, Uncle RPS? Pleeease (for the correct effect, imagine the “Pleeease” delivered in John’s keening screech).

  17. Dachannien says:

    Years ago, Sony Online Entertainment attempted to make a MMORTS called Sovereign.

    They canned the project after a couple of years because it wasn’t very fun, and it wasn’t very fun because MMO water and RTS oil don’t mix very well.

  18. weaselsoup says:

    Why would you go for a test drive if you were sure you didn’t want to buy a car?

  19. Premium User Badge AtkinsSJ says:

    I tried this a couple of days ago. That is, ‘tried’ as in ‘attempted’.

    I downloaded it from the AE Online site, it spent forever updating, I finally got to enter it… and Games For Windows Live! “Hello, please enter your registration key.” Eh?

    A quick Google, and apparently said registration key is found in the GFW client, under downloads… yet, what is this? I see no AOE Online here! (Not even after The Mighty Reboot, Solver of Most Problems.)

    And so it is that I cannot be bothered to try installing it all over again.

    Enjoyed the article anyway. :)

  20. Wezz6400 says:

    This game is the definition of pay to win. A PvP of a free player and a paying player is always gonna end in favour of the paying one. In fact, I would go as far as to say without paying you get little more than a demo. This is not how F2P should be done. I’d have expected a bit more attention on that from RPS to be quite honest.

    Also, the pricing is through the roof. Why would I want to pay 100 euros for 6 months of a simple game like this if I can buy close to three AAA games or a trunk full of indie games for the same amount of money? The price/value ratio is nothing short of terrible here. I’ll take my money elsewhere thank you very much.

    • ashereize says:

      I blame it being advertised as a free to play game. It’s a demo. A time-unlimited demo. I bought it and from that point onward everyone else who has bought is equal. You can not use your ££/$$ to level, gear up, buy tech points (talent points to mmo type ppl) and so on. However there is a ‘booster pack’ which is more like DLC in that it gives u an island with a single repeatable quest, and a ‘defend-against-the-horde’ style gameplay with tokens and gear to grind for. IF they churn out these boosters every month, -then- you can call it pay2win. Until that happens is simply pay 2 play or live in demo land. More cash to spare doesn’t equal higher advantage in pvp. There is however the typical Time-spent vs skill. Someone who has levelled to lvl 40 will beat a lvl 5. Go figure.

  21. Zarunil says:

    I didn’t get to try this because GFWL kept giving me error messages. Fuck GFWL.

    • Jake says:

      Yeah I have the same problem. It wants me to insert the disk for GFWL to continue.

  22. Flint says:

    Utter shitehawk is my new favourite insult and I promise to use it as much as possible.

  23. Alaric says:

    GFWL = no sale. Aside from that it looks good and I’d love to try it, which I can’t, so I’m bitter and cynical.

  24. DazedByTheHaze says:

    Wanted to try it but… I don’t pull my pants down in front of MS and let them insert items with pointy edges into my backdoor just to play the game. Really, why in hell would I wanna let that happen? I don’t think MS could even produce a game EVA that would make that happen. Or a version of GFWL that would glide in easly for that matter. Bah what did I just wrote!? Sorry I just feel fucked every time I come in contact with GFWL. Meh….

  25. Froibo says:

    You failed to mentioned that you cannot play against another player without at least buying the cheapest premium package, which isn’t exactly cheap for a “micro-transaction” game. As far as I am aware in any other free-to-play game they do not restrict the actual game types from you.

  26. Werthead says:

    “Age of Empires Online is good. But it isn’t Utopia. ”

    I took this as a reference to excellent 1992 Gremlin Graphics strategy game UTOPIA, and was thus briefly confused.

  27. Bret says:

    For a second, I thought I read “Village” Rover, and wondered at the Prisoner reference.

    That was all.

  28. Owen says:

    I’m definitely interested in this.
    I definitely won’t even try it due to it ‘coming down with’ GFWL. Get well soon AOEO.

  29. malkav11 says:

    I’d be interested, but the pricing model is insane, and I have no particular desire to play the crippled version.

  30. thebigJ_A says:

    What’s a sarnie? What’s HP sauce? Why do I have a craving for a food I’ve never heard of before?

    • Tams80 says:

      Google/Bing/whatever it. Actually, maybe don’t. Your craving will only get worse.

  31. bitkari says:

    This is a very good game.

    Don’t be put off by the payment system or delivery mechanism, just go and play it.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      No. No, no, no!

      Games like this can go to the gaming abyss.

  32. Tams80 says:

    I played the beta, so my opinion may not be up to date.

    I found the art style great (the donkey carts!), though I do prefer the ‘normal’ AOE art style, but it is still great. I also liked the upgradablity of units with items (though I do hope this adds to the units, not as a means to eventually get the units to how they were supposed to be) and also the usable items. The home city was also better than AOE III’s. Then of course I liked the standard AOE gameplay.

    That said, that was all I really liked. The first missions were really slow and take forever. Great for someone new to the genre, but awful for anyone else. The selection of civilizations was poor (three were shown back then, but the selection still is poor). This is one of the main reasons I played AOE. The pathfinding was bad and the online element was all but inaccessible (thought this was the beta; still comes up as ‘Project S’). The prices though are the worst. I think they speak for themselves.

    Overall, it may be worth a try, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up.

  33. Atic Atac says:

    I really liked the first 2 hours of this game….then it started to sink in that I would basically be going through what can only be described as a 15-20 hour grinding tutorial before anything really interesting happened. Terrible persistence game design..the worst I’ve ever seen. I was quite sad to have to pass on this because I frankly just don’t have time to spend on a game like this until the good stuff happens.

    • Tams80 says:

      It could really do with an option to skip the first few hours.

  34. tryansc says:

    I literally created an account on this website, which I don’t ever even use- just to tell you how shitty your review was. It was like 3 pages of you babbling nonsense and trying to sound funny and quirky, all while telling us virtually nothing about the game and spewing stupid shit left and right. Is this why you’re not a real journalist?