Despite its cartoon look and smiling warmongers -- not to mention its free-to-play gameplay model -- Age of Empires Online is undeniably an Age of Empires game. The new direction doesn't much change the series' core gameplay, as this real-time strategy title is still all about resource management, with a pretty steep learning curve. This is not Age of Empires "Lite."

So, imagine my pleasant surprise when, below the coat of cute and colorful paint, I found a deep gameplay experience that quickly summoned my dormant nostalgia for Age of Empires 2 and 3. I jumped right into the Egyptian faction's first mission -- a skirmish in which I had to rid the map of the opposing Greeks -- without issue, despite never having played AoE Online before.
During my preview session, design lead Ian Vogel described the Egyptian faction as a civilization dominated by its strong religious foundation. The Priestess, one of the Egyptians' unique units, has the power to bless, providing health regeneration buffs to other units and increasing resource generation of certain structures, like the Town Center.

Its cutesy art style and inviting free-to-play model scream "casual," but looks can be deceiving.

"It's not that she just gives you a static resource bonus; she's not just a stack modifier," Vogel pointed out. "As you go through the game, you can use her to improve your building speeds -- how fast you build and train units -- but down the road, as you level up, you can use her to confuse and cause chaos to your enemies." Of course, you can't have a Priestess without a religious domicile for her to call home.

The Temple of Ra is the the unique house of worship that propels the Egyptians into their next age of advancement, the series' classic technological and cultural milestones that dictate the progress of your empire. What differentiates the Egyptians' Temple of Ra from the Greek institutions is that it works to advance the civilization to the next age without hindrance. With the temple built, the Egyptians "can keep generating resources and villagers, and keep their economy going forward," Vogel explained.

This ease of advancement is balanced by the fact that the Egyptian units -- while faster and cheaper to build -- are "a bit weaker" than their Greek counterparts. The Egyptian faction starts with axe men for base infantry and lightweight, spear-wielding troops that are strong against cavalry, as well as "slingers," the slender, ranged troops that attack from afar with rock slingshots. As the civilization progresses, it unlocks more skilled units like camel riders, siege towers and marine vessels.

Unit equipment also factors into the gameplay strategy. Upgrades can be researched through certain buildings, but the best equipment modifiers come from special gear unlocked through gameplay or purchased at stores in users' capitol cities. This is where the divide between free- and paid-play becomes evident: Players of the base free-to-play game can only purchase uncommon and lower value items, while those who pony up for the Premium Civilization Packs (one for each side) will get access to "rare and epic" loot.

Following the conclusion of the first Egyptian mission -- and my cold and calculated extermination of the Greeks -- it was apparent to me that Age of Empires Online is, surprisingly, a "core" game. On the surface, its cutesy art style and inviting free-to-play model scream "casual," but as the Trojan Horse teaches us, looks can be deceiving. Where I was expecting "FarmVille meets Age of Empires," I instead found a balanced, proven RTS formula that AoE fans are sure to enjoy.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.