I can finally talk about the game I’ve been playing for the past few weeks as the non-disclosure agreement has been lifted. It turns out that Age of Empires Online was the secretive project that Robot Entertainment had been working on, originally called Project Spartan.
Any fan of the series will immediately be able to tell where Age of Empires Online gets its pedigree from. Looking at gameplay and the historial period covered, Age of Empires Online seems to be a hybrid between the very first Age of Empires game released and Age of Mythology except with a few twists and many refinements.
You can also see heavy inspiration taken from Age of Empires III with the concept of a Capital city and plenty of gameplay additions from that release. However, whereas Age of Empires III was criticised for slowing down the gameplay, this has been rectified in Age of Empires Online. It almost feels as fast as the great classic, Age of Empires II.
So, what’s the idea behind Age of Empires Online? Whereas previous instalments in the series were games that you installed on your PC and played primarily in single player, you could only play multiplayer on a LAN network, or through the rather clunky Ensemble Studios Online servers where you needed a separate account and login (Or as we used to do with Age of Empires II, connect over the internet by typing in IP addresses). Age of Empires Online gets arounds this by trying to make the online as seemless and transparent as possible.
Sign in is through Games for Windows Live (Xbox Live) and once you’ve signed in, online is pervasive. You can invite friends to join your party just by typing in their gamertag and either play co-operative campaigns with them, or fight each other in online battles. You can go to the PvP arena and battle complete strangers for glory.
Your Capital city is always present, and remains online whilst you’re not playing. It’s worth mentioning that no one can attack your Capital city, but they can visit it to purchase items from your shop and to trade with you. You can upgrade your Capital city and purchase additional upgrades for your civilisation. This is the key difference with this game, and previous instalments in the series: you no longer have access to all upgrades for your civilisation. Instead, you need to level-up and purchase your upgrades.
The game is chock-full of upgrades: everything from military units, armour, weapons, to buildings, technologies and materials are purchasable, upgradeable and customisable. The series that defined real-time strategy has turned to role-playing game.
The game has a cartoony art style that defines and separates it from its more realistic looking predecessors. There’s no need to panic though. I can assure you that the rock solid Age of Empires gameplay that we all know and love is present and correct.
I’ll post more thoughts on Age of Empires Online after I’ve played it some more, but for now my first impressions are very favourable: another Age of Empires classic, updated for the modern, social, online environment.