It’s a bold move to take a franchise as known and loved as Age of Empires and give it away as an online free-to-play game, but that’s exactly what Microsoft is doing. Announced during GDC Europe 2010, Age of Empires: Online is being developed by Robot Entertainment, a team that rose from the ashes of the Ensemble Studios closure, and a group that hopes to break all the rules.
The title focuses on bringing the feel of the long-running historical real-time strategy series to fans, and at the same time establish new audiences, toning down the mature look of its predecessors for a slightly more cartoony aesthetic. It delivers the same Age of Empires gameplay fans have come to expect, but adds an additional layer of customisability and persistency, continuing to collect resources and trade with other players around the world while you’re away from your computer.
A Worker Report shows what your virtual minions have been doing while you’ve been elsewhere, offering up their wood, grain, stone, copper, resin, and scrolls of lore for approval on your return. You will be able to teleport and visit the cities of your friends, purchasing items and accepting quests unavailable in your own neck of the woods and returning a cut of the sales to the owner of the store. Cooperative play will be supported in 95 percent of the game’s quests.
Beginning at level one with nothing, you will build a kingdom, unlocking more elaborate structures and, as you complete levels, traversing through the ages. Combat missions will pull from a mixture of classic AOE gameplay, such as amassing forces from scratch and using premade teams to infiltrate and capture zones in random encounters. Each level gained rewards three points which can be spent on new abilities in the game’s tech tree, while Star Tech perks add passive bonuses, such as increasing your starting amounts of stone. There are a finite number of slots available, meaning that you will need to experiment and choose the ones that best suit your play style.
The development team is also including a new system called Advisers. Like Star Techs, they provide extra firepower or production boosts, but can be changed before each game on a whim rather than needing to respec. Each gained age unlocks an extra adviser slot, retaining the ones that came before it for a multitiered approach to the way you take care of business.
One of the biggest new features in Age of Empires: Online is the addition of equipment. Each building and unit type has slots which can be filled with items found, bought, and rewarded. These change the look and performance of your structures and the men on the battlefield. The example we saw, the epic quality Blessed Rune Shield, usable by any soldier with a free hand, granted our troops a 2 percent hit point increase, a 4 percent armour stat increase against infantry, and a 5 percent chance to resist traps and snares. Once equipped, every unit of that type will receive the item and change its appearance to reflect its presence.
A public beta for Age of Empires: Online has just gone live, and the title hopes to capture old fans and bring in some fresh blood with the same big, deep AOE experience and new online persistent play. The title will be free to download and play, with an as-yet-unrevealed premium content model also available. Expect to see it on the PC in early 2011.