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.
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.