There is so much going on in Age of Empires Online that it's hard to know where to begin. Basically, there are two sides to this coin. On one side you have your hub city. This is your capital and the seat of your power. It can gain levels, has its own skill trees, and can be outfitted with new items and equipment. From your capital you work to improve your armies for when you go into combat. Then there's the flip side of the coin, the multiplayer and the missions, and this is where the classic Age of Empires gameplay really shines through. Some missions may require you to start from scratch and build up a giant army before taking on a fortified enemy. Others are a bit more exotic, such as the Egyptians' unique camel racing mission.
Our demo began in our sprawling Greek capital city. We already had all the facilities in place to start tweaking our army to our liking. First up were the items, such as swords and shields, which can be equipped to your unit types and will confer the bonus to all units of that type. We had a pretty sweet shield, so we handed it off to our superman troops, which let all of them enjoy its bonus. Items can be found by completing missions, or during missions in the form of treasure chests hidden away across the map. Every new piece of equipment will also alter your unit's appearance, so you can tell when you're outgunned just by looking at your opponent.
Crafting items also plays a large role in Age of Empires Online. Everything from weapons and armor to spells and abilities can be forged at your capital's various crafting halls. But before you can start putting your smithing skills to work, you're going to need resources. Wood, gold, metal, and everything else you will need can be collected either during missions or by assigning buildings in your capital to produce these resources for you. The assigned building will continue to work on producing the resource in real time even after you sign out of the game, up to a point. The next time you sign back in you may have some extra materials available, but if you wait too long, the building will eventually stop production.
Your units can be customized based on what you've chosen to specialize in. From your capital's guild hall you can select two fields--such as archery, religion, infantry, or craftsman--to focus on, which will award you various bonuses depending on your selection. An archery specialization, for instance, will award you with superior archer units and access to better bows, while a craftsman specialization will provide bonuses to the rate of building construction and better equipment for your workers. You can take this a step further by diving into the numerous skill trees available to your civilization. Some will be static no matter which civilization you're playing as, while others will be specialized just for that civilization. For the mighty Greeks, we had access to numerous infantry bonuses.
Once your army is decked out to your liking, it's time to hit the battlefield. When you're performing a mission for someone, the game plays just like classic Age of Empires: you build some workers, pick some berries, and train some soldiers. It may have received a new, highly stylized coat of paint, but it's still faithful to the core gameplay mechanics that made this series great. Our mission was a simple one: build an army and wipe out the opposition's town center. For an extra bonus we could hunt down all of the enemy's elite units and take them out as well, and we were always on the lookout for hidden treasure chests. Most missions can also be tackled cooperatively, or you can turn to your friends for some player-versus-player action.
Overall, Age of Empires Online is shaping up to be a charming real-time strategy game with a complex customization metagame built on top. And since it's being released as a free-to-play download game, there's no reason not to check it out. Look for Age of Empires Online later this year.