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Age Of Empires, Now Online

A couple of weeks ago Drand contacted me and told me that since I live in San Francisco I would be attending the press event for Microsoft Game Studios and Robot Entertainment's Age of Empires Online. It was less a request and more a statement of fact, so I dusted off my note-taking book and made appropriate arrangements on my calendar to attend the event. On the day of, I navigated through scary back alleys in the Financial District - and for some reason about 90% of all San Francisco video game press events take place in scary back alleys in the Financial District - until I got to the charming little art gallery where the event was being held. Once inside and checked in, I made the most amazing discovery: they were serving bagels with cream cheese AND salmon! I'm not being snarky; salmon cream cheese bagels = HELL yes! The event was off to a very good start.

After noshing and hobnobbing, we were ushered into the presentation room to be given the spiel. The Age of Empires series is a standard real-time strategy, but with Greeks and Egyptians rather than Zerg and Night Elves. Unlike Blizzard's route with Warcraft, transitioning the series from RTS to your typical over-the-shoulder MMO affair, Age of Empires Online remains an RTS in its new form. It's just persistently and massively online.

Your "character" is your capital city of the civilization of your choice, and it exists persistently in the game world. It acts as your hub for quests as well as your development center where you expand your tech tree, and it cannot "die". You can fail individual missions, but your capital city will not be attacked and eradicated from the map, forcing you to start over. This, I feel, makes it very new-user friendly. You acquire quests in the usual way: find the person with a gold exclamation point, clicky-clicky, read the flavor text, and accept the quest. Once you've accepted some quests, you click on your port which brings up a world map. On the map, the locations of quests you've accepted will appear and you just click on the one you wish to work on. Once you do, the game loads up the map of the mission and off you go.

Here's where things start to get a little bit different. Remember how I said you expand your tech tree in the capital city? You have to complete quests to unlock options on the tech tree and earn money to buy those options once unlocked. For example, the very first mission as the Greeks has you take a small contingent of pike men to clear out some barbarians that are attacking a village. Pike men are all you have. You can't build buildings, you can't upgrade your units, you've just got pike men. But once you complete the mission, you unlock the ability to produce villagers which are your standard resource-gathering peon units. So once you return to the capital, the Villager unit in your tech tree is now available and the next mission has you producing villagers to gather resources. And so on and so forth. Some tech tree options seem to just open up units and structures for when you engage in missions while others seem to bestow persistent effects, like boosted health and defenses, that require no additional activation. It's a rather interesting reworking of the normal tech tree building process.

Another way in which things are different is that about 90% of the missions are cooperative. You're going to spend more time working with your friends to accomplish a common goal rather than trying to beat each other out or destroy their base. These types of missions are still present and there is a substantial PvP offering for the more competitive players, but the focus of gameplay is largely in favor of cooperative PvE.

Now to address a question I know many of you are asking: it's an MMO, so what's the monthly fee? There is none. The devs are taking a pretty radical route on the economic side of things here that needs a little explanation. The game is, at its core, free to play. Buy the game and play all you like with no subscription. When new civilizations are released, such as the Trojans or Spaniards (hypothetically speaking; the only confirmed civs at this time are the Greeks and Egyptians), they immediately become available to you with a free update as full civilizations to use. Not demos, not trials, but full civs.

So how do they plan to make money, I hear you asking. Premium content. Wait, wait, wait, come back! I know, I know: "premium content" sounds like just another way of saying "the full game". They know that too, so the presenters spent a fair amount of time elaborating on this concept and repeated one thing ad nauseum: for the base game that you buy, there are hundreds of quests and hundreds of hours of content PER CIV that are available. In other words, it's a full game.

In an astonishing move of honesty, "premium content" actually means "premium content", and those who don't choose to buy it still have a full non-gimped retail product. What all will be included as premium content has yet to be fully determined, but it will include: extra missions, "star techs" that are the absolute highest options available on the tech tree (meaning you won't be able to get them until late in the game anyways), expanded PvP options, and something they are calling "vanity packs" which are buildings and structures and such that you can add to your capital city that serve the purpose of looking pretty. You buy the premium content per civ so you're only paying for what you want instead of being forced to buy everything at once.

Ok, now that I've done the sales pitch you folks probably wanna hear how the game plays. Pretty well, actually. The game uses stylized cartoony graphics that are fun without being juvenile and allows for a wide visual variety in the game's units. On a proper system the framerate is as smooth as a freshly-shorn twink, and a lot is still presented on screen that makes it busy without being a cluttered mess. The missions do a good job of easing you in to the mechanics, though I do imagine that experienced RTS players will be bored with the first few as these "tutorials" will be old hat. Fortunately those missions do have hidden treasures to find to make it worth their while. The studios are also trying to make the game scalable so that it works on as wide a range of systems as possible.

I do have a touch of bad news though. You notice that I used the phrase "on a proper system?" The game ran amazingly on the demo Alienware machines, but my little old laptop (HP, Windows XP, 1.8 GHz Intel Core2 Duo, 2GB RAM) didn't fare so well. With the game windowed and on pretty low graphical settings it was still choppy and hard to play with precision. Finalized system requirements have yet to be released, and the game is still in beta, so I may have had no business testing the game on my machine in the first place. Just keep in mind that if your computer is relatively recent or is reasonably up-to-date you should be fine, but for folks like me who have older systems the game is likely gonna be a less than optimal experience.

The game is an incentive to upgrade to a machine made within the past three years, however. It's beautiful, plays well, and seems like the perfect product for people who enjoy RTSs but would rather take things at a slower, cooperative pace than clicking like a maniac to fend off a zerg rush or mass huntress. If you're interested, click on over to their site and sign up for the beta and see if you can get in. If you make it, sound off and let us know how your experience went. In the meantime, we'll be keeping an eye on the game as it develops and I look forward to it being released sometime this year.

[homepage Age of Empires Online]

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