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End of an era: Age of Empires Online

Funny thing about empires. One moment they’re on the top of the world proclaiming their greatness to all who will listen and the next they’re worse off than the people they inevitably overthrew on their rise to prominence. The trajectory of the Age of Empires franchise is beginning to resemble that of so many once great empires.

Age of Empires Online is all about compromises. The new aesthetic feels more akin to that of Cityville than a war game, failing to grasp the hardline historical approach that made the series interesting in the first place. Much of its structure has similarly forgone the tried-and-true approach to real-time strategy and as a result, can no longer be neatly compartmentalized into a given genre. Free-to-play is the buzzword here and the payment systems are surprisingly well-implemented. It never feels as though the upgrades are forced upon the player, feeling less like micro-transactions and more akin to moderately well-sized DLC packs.

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Having released as an incomplete product, the current version of Age of Empires Online allows players to build out a persistent city state within either Greece or Egypt from the onset, with more factions coming at some later date. These cities act as central hubs of sorts. It’s an odd way of breathing new life into a series, suiting the game about as well as its childlike aesthetic does the epic, war-bound setting. Rather than improving on the strengths of previous franchise entries, it feels as though they’ve been abandoned for something much less complex, and as a result, less interesting.

That’s not to say the full impact of Age of Empires has been lost in its free-to-play premier. There’s still the same structural design to the strategy segments, which are handed out as quests within the confines of your city. It’s all very simple-minded and empty. There’s never that feeling of concern that you’ll be wiped out by the opposing player or that a round’s going to be a real challenge. None of it’s very challenging at all, in fact, and many of the real-time strategy bits have been compacted into disposable two-minute chunks of straight-forward mission objectives.

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What’s most surprising about Age of Empires Online isn’t its failure to replicate the things that made the originals tick, but how easy-going the payment plans are. Playing through without giving up virtual cheese isn’t going to hold you up at any point in the game. Sometimes you just want to play a game without being reminded of payment and marketing schemes. Age of Empires Online is generally good about keeping that stuff out of your way. It’s a relief that players are sorted into multiplayer matches with others who have the same content, so there’s never that clear-cut advantage in the multi.

There’s still a shameful eagerness about adapting to the advancements found in PC games like World of Warcraft. Longtime fans will find this willingness to throw out defining attributes of the series in favor of a little something for everyone to be disheartening. Age of Empires had never been about appealing to the most casual of the masses, despite striking up a kind of balancing act as either the thinking man’s Command & Conquer or the more actionable man’s Civilization.

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In one level, you’re tasked with collecting a series of caravans and returning them to your base. As you watch the caravan bounce back and forth on its hind legs, bug eyes outstretched, there’s a carrot on a stick which bobs back and forth, keeping the mount moving. It’s pushed onward no matter what obstacles lay in its path. That carrot on the stick resembles the same strategy Gas Powered Games’ tries to apply to series fans. Throughout the city structure, we’re given constant rewards for all our interactions, whether it be blueprints for the city, empire points to move up the in-game tech trees, or good loot to be attached to your units, there’s a constant feeling of progression following every action in the game, something that’s hard to accept within the context of any real-time strategy game.

What might be worth considering is that Gas Powered Games don’t really care whether it’s a good genre game. The differences between the other games will be cause for more agitation than they are celebration. It’s unfortunate seeing one of the greatest franchises in a genre reduced to the level of social networking games.

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But hey, Age of Empires had a pretty good run while it lasted.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @Calvin_Kemph.

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