Impressions of Age of Empires Online Beta.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Age of Empires Online has lifted the NDA meaning that I can now do an analysis on it. I've been in the beta for the last 2 months and have been chomping at the bit to write this up. There are several mechanics here that I find fascinating for the RTS genre, however with that said I think some of the design does clash with the AOE formula.
After Ensemble Studios was closed following the release of Halo Wars, former employees got together and formed Robot Entertainment and got a chance to rework the AOE formula into a free to play game. As it stands the framework and base systems are finished, and now the game has been handed to Gas Powered Games of Supreme Commander fame to continue with support and adding new content.
In AOEO there are two main systems here: the RTS side and the Capital city. I'm going to start with the RTS side as that is the most familiar to fans. Even though the art style is more cartoon like compared to previous games, this is not "baby's first AOE". The challenge of micro managing villagers with multiple types of resources is still here. With that said however, people looking for AOE 4 may be disappointed as there are no new innovations to the formula.
In terms of game-play take the different sides of Age of Mythology and throw in the concept of guardians and treasures of AOE 3 and that is a rough description of the overall RTS game play in AOEO. Two details that have been removed are hero units and the myth units from AOM.
The UI is so-so and could use some improvements such as being able to rally to control groups, an easier way to garrison units and a few more. Unit stances are surprisingly absent from the game which makes it a pain in the ass to keep units from running off. With the game still in beta there is a chance that the UI will be updated again before launch.
Moving on let's talk about the capital city as this is the biggest change from previous AOE titles. First some back story, the capital city is an extension from the home city system in AOE 3. In AOE 3 when you start playing online you choose which nationality you want to play as, and that unlocks all the basic units and techs for that side. As you win matches online you'll gain experience points and once you earn enough your home city will level up.
This in turn gives you points that you can allocate to different shipments that can be sent during your match. The shipments range from additional units and resources to unique tech and units that can only be acquired through shipments. What I loved about this mechanic was that it gave a sense of personalization to the RTS genre, similar to a Collectible Card Game where each person's strategy is dictated by what cards they have.
In a sense the capital city takes two steps forward and one step back in its design. In AOEO the capital city is an analogue to a character in a MMO. You'll receive quests from people in your city, that take the form of a RTS mission. Completing the quest gives you experience and once you earn enough your city will level up. At each level up you'll get three tech points that can be distributed at your main building.
You have three tech trees available: economy, military and utility. Each item on the trees has a point cost and an age requirement; you can't start putting points into age 3 researches until you unlock that age. Whatever you unlock here will be available during the RTS matches, either available on age up or have to be research during play.
The capital city offers a lot more customization and personalization compared to the home city. You can build decorative buildings to dress up your city along with buildings that produce materials used for various things. One of the biggest changes to AOE's formula comes in the form of items. Items can be bought, produced or rewarded for completing quests and have a huge affect on the game.
Everything that you can produce on the RTS side can be equipped with items from the capital city, such as better construction materials for your buildings or new arrow heads for your archers. Like in a RPG, items are graded in terms of rarity, green being the least rare and purple being uber rare. The lower quality items don't offer too much but very rare items can give substantial bonuses to your units.
Looking at some of the high level items on sale I saw items that boosted unit stats by more than 15% along with those that increase resource gathering rates. Items are level restricted so you can't give a new city the best stuff, but keep this in the back of your mind as I will be coming back to this in a few paragraphs.
Advisors act as age up upgrades, and are grouped by what age they can be assigned for. When you age up whatever advisor you have assigned to that age will take effect. Some advisors give bonuses and others unlock unique units. Just like items they are tiered in terms of rarity and level requirement.
The final point of customization comes from defining specializations in your city. You can define two fields for your city to focus on, such as archery or construction. This allows you to use materials to craft items relating to it, with recipes found from quest rewards. I really like the idea of being able to customize your side and it gives the game a lot of flavor. However there are two glaring problems with AOEO that could be deal breakers.
First is that to be frank, the game is boring as hell starting out. Because all the units and researches are tied to the leveling system, it means that the player is going to spend a lot of time not doing much on the RTS side. Expect to find your only strategy is building nothing but spear-men for several levels. You can't even use siege equipment until level 10 meaning that early on your only option for taking out defensive structures is to just send wave after wave of infantry until it goes down.
Whenever we talk about strategy games we have to paraphrase Sid Meier's view that they are a set of interesting decisions. In AOEO the majority of said decisions are locked behind several hours’ worth of leveling up. This is not like a MMO where your character earns more skills as they level up but they don't completely change their utility. Imagine if a Mage once they hit level 50 unlocks the ability to wear battle armor and can now fight like a warrior.
Once you hit the level cap which is set at 40 this problem goes away, however I don't know if many RTS fans will be able to deal with all these limitations to get that far. Limiting the design can work if you have unique mission set up. Starcraft 2's campaign is all about having unique missions with access to specific unit types and it worked out well. AOEO's missions do branch out as the player goes up in levels however due to the slower nature of its design you will be doing the same base building in a lot of missions. Because of the repetition of the same build order required I can only do a few missions at a time before I get bored.
The AI during missions also seems tweaked a bit too far against the player. There are times that the AI is able to build a massive army out of nowhere or replenish their army several times faster than me. When I get to their base they usually have three or more copies of each unit producing structure. What I don't understand is how they have enough resources to pump units from all their buildings. Another logic flaw with the AI is that attacking its villagers sets the AI to "destroy mode" as it starts sending every unit it produces straight to your base.
There are several challenge missions that require the player to gather X amount of resources or produce so many units in a set time. I liked these missions for the change of pace however some of them I don't see a way to beat them without having benefits from advisors or items already in place.
Now the second problem involves how AOEO is set to make money. When you start up AOEO for the first time, all the developed Civs are available and free to play. Playing a Civ in free mode gives you access to the following:
Single player quests and PVP.
Can equip green tier items.
Can unlock the majority of the researches available.
Upgrade their city with various buildings.
Now at any point you can spend money to buy the Civ (or as it's called in game a premium civ). This in turn gives you access to everything the free version has and the following extras:
Assign advisors to your civ.
Equip any tier items (Level restrictions still apply).
Can unlock all researches available including "star techs" which are techs that are always on during a RTS battle.
Build structures that can craft materials to be used in your city
There should be a red flag being raised after that. The bonuses combined from items, advisors and tech will give a paying customer a huge advantage compared to a free one. This could be a tough pill to swallow especially with other F2P games on the market.
Looking at League of Legends for a second, I can be competitively viable without spending one penny next to someone who spent fifty dollars or more in the game. Everything that actually affects the game can be unlocked through regular play. I have only spent five dollars in game and that was to buy a character skin on sale, plus since I have over fifty hours played I figured I should give some money to Riot.
Back to AOEO currently there are only two sides available to play: the Greeks and the Egyptians but there are more sides coming. The developers have announced that new sides will start at level twenty and won't have to do the beginning missions. Along with that, players can also buy content packs that have new quests, or challenges to do.
Overall I find AOEO intriguing coming from enjoying the home city concept. However I don't know if RTS fans (especially AOE fans) are going to enjoy the hoops they're going to have to jump through to unlock basic content.
Last comment I need to make is to remind everyone that this analysis is based on the beta; there is no guarantee that my problems will be in the finished product.