Age of Empires Online review: Casual conquest

In reading online discussions surrounding Age of Empires Online, you'd think that the developers had taken to traveling the country with the express intent of running over kittens.

Clearly, players have taken issue with this latest in the Ensemble-created historical strategy franchise, which layers the series' core formula beneath a highly stylized coat of paint and free-to-play business model. However, much of the mechanics that made Age of Empires a household name remain, though now alongside new features designed explicitly to both ease new players into the experience as well as capture the attention of the coveted MMO crowd.
%Gallery-124916% Like in the franchise's earlier installments, Age of Empires Online is a real-time strategy game set against the backdrop of historically inspired conflicts among ancient empires. You are charged with leading and growing a fledgling empire through conquest as you deploy workers to harvest the game's four primary resources: wood, food, gold and stone.

As the leader or either the Greek or Egyptian civilization, play begins by creating and naming your home city and then venturing out to collect and then use these resources to construct barracks, towers and other buildings designed to build and support your armies. Meanwhile, homes and farms are needed to help sustain your workforce. A considerable amount of micromanagement is required as you skip back and forth between building an army and funneling resources toward defense and expansion in order to meet the goals of whatever quest you happen to be on.

As a freemium release, Age of Empires Online falls in line behind other recent online titles in hopes that players will dole out sacks of mad cash for premium content, such as future civilizations, after getting the first fix for free. Depending on your feelings about having games delivered piecemeal, your mileage here will likely vary. Even so, with two civilizations included up front many players will get their fix without ever being tempted to reach for their wallets at all.

There are essentially two sides to playing: The first, your capital city, is where you spend time trading gold and experience earned on quests to outfit your armies for battle. The city itself can gain levels, and has its own skill trees that dictate what types of soldiers, ships and other implements are available while expanding your empire. In addition, building materials collected on quests can also be used alongside blueprints to construct new buildings and items, turning what starts out as a modest burg into an imposing seat of power.

On the flip side are the quests themselves, which eschew the capital's MMO and sim influences for gameplay that feels much more like classic Age of Empires fare. Some quests are as straightforward as fighting an opposing army to the last man, while others stray further from RTS tradition, such as camel racing. Most missions can be tackled either alone or cooperatively, and offer a choice in difficultly with a harder setting netting richer rewards. But, I hear you ask, isn't this a more casual Age of Empires for a kinder, gentler generation? True, the battles do feel more streamlined, and there's a fair amount of hand holding early on, especially when compared to previous releases. Even so, as the game continues later missions have challenge to spare.

Just as there are two facets to Age of Empires Online's gameplay, the game also comes to market with not one, but two hulking elephants in the room, which any zookeeper will tell you is a whole lot of elephant. The game's MMO trappings are unmistakable, with collectable epic gear for armies, item crafting and PvP instances the most glaring examples of how that genre has changed the game. To date, real-time strategy developers have had a difficult time finding the MMO genre's elusive g-spot, leaving most of these marriages feeling tepid and unsatisfying. Age of Empires Online succeeds primarily because it's entirely possible to play the game without bothering with the bulk of the game's MMO flair.

The same can't be said for the game's Hanna Barbera-inspired visuals. Even my wife, who, mind you, spends more hours than she or I would care to admit absorbed in casual games, stopped by my office while I played just to say how awful she thought the graphics were. Just a heads up developers -- she's your target audience.

As expected, being anchored to an online-only platform also comes with its own share of issues as well, including stability and dropped connections that, when they occur, will cut a game short and leave you staring at the login screen without so much as a hiccup.

All things considered, Age of Empires Online is an interesting experiment, one whose existence likely says less about the series or strategy games than it does about the evolution of a market that continues to search for a new and wider audience in an uncertain financial climate. There's still fun to be had here, though given the choice series fans and strategy purists will likely boot up a previous title, such as the genre-defining Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings instead.

Nevertheless, you can still relax -- your kittens are safe.

This review is based on a review code of Age of Empires Online provided by Microsoft. Age of Empires Online is available today as a microtransaction-supported free download, and can be downloaded on the game's official site.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.