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Age of Empires Online is a real-time strategy online multiplayer game, developed by Microsoft Game Studios and Robot Entertainment. It is the fourth stand-alone game in the Age of Empires series, and is the first to have the cultures starting in the Stone Age, focusing mainly on the ancient periods. Unlike the other games in the series, which might have had some resemblance with past historical events, Age of Empires Online, through its nature, forfeits that and sets up the storylines in a fantastic ancient time.
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The 3D graphical engine is rather strange. It is completely built from scratch, and is not based on the engines used in other Age of Empires/Mythology games. The environment is rendered in a very cartoonish way, while unit details, even the way they move their hands and legs, and the way they wield weapons are very detailed. It is quite amusing sometimes to look at the detailed, random villager’s movements when they gather or when they stay still for a period of time.
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Sounds are a derivation of the usual Age of Empires theme. They usually change every time you move on to a new type of quests. For instance, a quest where you just have to gather resources will have slower, more peaceful music, while a quest where you have to stomp over your enemies will have a more adequate tune. Unit sounds are rather simplistic. Your scout will repeat the same sound over and over again, and the other units, both villagers and soldiers, will usually say things in their native language (Greek or Egyptian). If there is one thing Age of Empires never succeeded at, that is the sound effects.
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The interface is fairly easy to understand and use. Most buttons and units will have help tool tips displayed as you place your cursor over them. But as with almost all the graphics in this game, it looks very cartoonish and it may disturb some players. Add-ons are available, however, you will have to pay for these, depending on what these add-ons do. Prices range between £2.49 and £79.99. However, once you buy these add-ons, they will bind to your account, and you can download them for free any time you want and however many times you want.
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Prices and Packages
The game comes in two modes. A basic mode, which is free to download and play, and a premium upgrade, which unlocks further features and lifts the limitations of the basic mode. A player needs to upgrade each of his civilizations to unlock all of the features of the game.
The basic mode has the following restrictions:
- The most advanced technologies are not available.
- Ranked player vs player combat is not allowed.
- Limited to one crafting school active at any given time. You can, however, switch between them at any time you want.
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The game requires an Xbox Live account. This account is automatically created along with a Hotmail electronic mail account. The management page allows you to add or remove games, buy in-game gold and convert real-world currency to a special currency used to purchase items in various Xbox games, as well as Age of Empires Online. You can use this currency to upgrade your civilization at any time you wish, without having to worry about bank transactions.
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Age of Empires Online is a merger of real-time strategy games and massive multi-player role-playing. The player has a capital city, which serve as main trading hub for the empire. Players will advance in levels and their culture in ages by gaining experience through combat or completing quests. When first starting the game, the player is greeted by the “village elder”, who will give a few quests which will familiarize the player with the basic concepts of the game. The game was released with only two playable civilizations, the Greeks and the Egyptians. A recent patch added a third civilization, the Persians. This new civilization is a little different from the others. It can only be obtained from the marketplace, which means you have to pay for it. That it starts at level 20 is its only advantage over the free races.
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Instead of having one character which interacts with the world, the player can control entire armies, just like he would in a real-time strategy game. Players already familiar with this kind of games will find it very easy to complete the first quests, as the basics are the same. Left-click selects units, either through point select, dragging or double-click. Right-click will task the units to go to a specific place and do a specific activity, such as attacking or gathering. Most of the concepts of Age of Mythology and older Age of Empires games will be found here, such as powerful unit abilities similar to god powers, or villagers requiring drop off points to deliver resources. There are, however, problems with units' path-finding algorithm, which sometimes seems to fail badly. You can often see units picking the longest possible path, sometimes through enemy towns, to reach their destination.
Another problem is the A.I.'s aparent inability to disengage from battle. For example, you order your units to retreat, they start moving towards their instructed destination, and the moment they are attacked by the chasing army, they turn and attack back. Seems like these soldiers are very brave and hate running away.
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Several quest givers will be available in your city as you advance through the game. These quests will usually send you outside your city to perform various objectives in a RTS-like setting. Once the objectives have been completed, the player will use the quest map to get back to the capital city, where he will get the reward for completing the quests. A player can have more than one active quest at any given time, and can complete the quests in any sequence he desires. Some quests will have prerequisites; these prerequisites are usually technologies that should be researched before accepting the quests, technologies without which the quest would be very difficult or impossible to complete.
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Building Your Capital
The capital city is your main hub of operations, and represents the crown jewel of your empire. As you advance through experience levels and complete quests, you will earn gold coins, with which you can buy blue prints to construct various buildings for your city. These buildings can be just about anything: from mere decorations to military buildings and advanced workshops.
You can also get blueprints from quests or treasure chests, although these are mostly limited to the more important buildings, as a way of controlling the speed at which players gain these more powerful structures.
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Inventory, Treasures and Items
When sent on a quest outside of your main city, you will encounter treasures defended by fierce guardians. Defeating these guardians will allow you to claim the treasure chests, which can contain items or resources needed for crafting. Items can be equipped to grant bonuses to your units, buildings or villagers, such as reducing costs, increasing attack damage or boosting the gathering rate. You can keep the items in inventory to store them for later use. Usually, items can only be equipped in the capital city (there are exceptions), and it is recommended to do it before you move outside for quests.
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Technologies, Levels and Ages
When a certain experience threshold is reached, the player advances a level. With each level, new technology points are available to spend in the capital city. These technologies become available as the capital advances in age. The player will start in the Stone Age and will slowly advance through 4 different ages. Each age will provide the player with new technologies to invest into, such as unlocking upgrades for villagers, buildings and new military units. These new technologies will be available for research each time you go on a new quest (except for new units and buildings, obviously). You will not automatically gain them in every quest.
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As mentioned above, players will find treasure chests containing all sorts of materials as they complete quests. These materials, along with the normally gathered resources, can be used to craft items. Once you get the blueprints for the Craft Hall (and build it) you will be able to choose between several crafting schools. Each of these schools grants specific bonuses, and will focus on specific crafting, such as archery, engineering and others. Because the individual bonuses of each school are very powerful, you can only have up to two crafting schools active at a time in your city, so choose carefully.
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Players can visit each other’s cities and interact with merchants and specific quest givers. The capital cities remain functioning while the owner is offline; other players can still use your merchants at will, and you will continue to gather resources.
Several players can also party together to complete difficult quests and increase the experience rewards. In addition to completing quests, players can also interact through trading and participating in “wave defense” special missions.
The only counterintuitive feature about multiplayer is the way the game handles the friends list. Instead of simply being able to right-click on a player’s name and add him as friend, you need to send a card through the online Games for Windows Live platform, and the friend will have to respond positively to the invite. Not a bad concept, because players are no longer able to add friends at random without actually having their consent. Still, it is rather difficult to do it, and takes a lot of time to actually find how to add the friend, as there is no guide in game for this, not even in the empire handbook.
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Player vs. Player
The game offers two ‘player versus player’ (pvp) modes: Arena and the City of Sparta. Players can perform 1v1 or 2v2 battles against others. Free users can not initiate a pvp battle, but they can participate if invited or challenged by premium users. Spartan points can be used to purchase powerful items for your armies.
Your city will always be safe from enemy attacks. There is no “world pvp”, where players would attack each other in an unorganized way. Instead, the game allows pvp only in controlled environments. Throughout the beta, pvp combat got a lot of attention, and as a result, it is very well balanced.
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The City of Sparta
The city becomes available at level 6, after completing a quest. Players can visit Sparta and complete pvp quests. Premium users will receive Spartan points and Empire points from completing pvp quests. Free users can still participate, although they will only gain Empire points from unranked matches.
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You will receive the blue prints for the arena between level 5 and 7 (I got it at level 6). Once the arena is built in your capital, you can invite other players to participate in ranked matches. Remember, free users can not invite others, but can respond positively to an invite.
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The game is a very good source of entertainment. The fact that it offers a free version is also important, as some players might only be interested in casual play, and asking them to pay for only a few hours a week is a little too much.
However, Microsoft seemed to not have been very interested in the way this game is rendered, or they decided it was better off to have children as the target audience, as the graphics, as well as the sounds, although simplistic, are very appealing to children (older than 10). Another reason behind their simplicity might be Microsoft’s desire to have the game run on as many computers as possible. The fact is, almost any graphical card with 3D acceleration can run this game.
- Age of Empires Handbook, http://ageofempiresonline.com/empirehandbook/
- Screenshots provided by the writer.